LISTEN & the smile of the shoeshine girl
a short film of long consequences
Produced in 2008 and finally released in 2021, the short film LISTEN set me on my path as a film director.
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
This quote by Benjamin Franklin opened the film then, and now. The film was inspired by my observation of communism and capitalism merging together in the first decade of 2000s. I grew up in communist Bulgaria to dissident parents and have lived in Seattle since 1995 when Jeff Bezos was just starting Amazon, selling books from his garage.
Two years before making LISTEN, I quit my corporate day job as a restaurant manager. Remaining on that career trajectory nearly guaranteed me the position of a general manager, a six figure salary, stock in the company and a lifestyle where money would hardly be an issue. A first generation immigrant in the States, such an achievement would trigger a monumental celebration back home.
At the same time, I was engaged to get married. We had met and fallen in love in 2004 when I was a bartender and she, a waitress.
Pre-marriage counseling. Checked.
Church venue. Booked.
Reception venue on the waterfront. Booked.
Honeymoon in Hawaii. Booked.
One day we went into Crate & Barrel to select gifts. I come from a society, now mostly gone, where the offering of goods equalled a reasonably healthy ratio to the needs of the people. “What is gift registering?” I asked.
“It works like this. We select the items and guests to our wedding buy them for us,” explained my fiancé. We looked at a variety of bottle openers, coasters, pots and pans, china sets and the rest is a blur because I felt such dread, my mind must have run out of the store. Just down the street, I had proposed to her in the middle of a full restaurant called Red Robin. Imagine the Bogdan you know now dressed, head to toe, in the suit of a mascot - you guessed it, a plushy and bulky red robin.
Who is this being gazing back at me, on the other side of this writing? Hardly recognizable this being is a part of me, and I daresay, a part of a collective us. I embrace him with more love and compassion than ever before. In 2005 this being purchased an engagement ring on credit for nearly 5K. (Crossing the street, fingering it in his pocket, the size of a small pebble, the ring weighed as much as a chunk of metal.) This being used to inject watermelons with vodka and used to dance on bar tops. A big screen TV took up an entire wall of his small apartment. I hardly recognize the being, cuddled in bed with his fiancé, watching “Sex and The City” and Jay Leno before going to bed. Years later, another reincarnation of this being took revenge - smashing to pieces a television set for his film “Harmonia”! (To this day we don’t have a T.V. in the house.)
But what did really cause the collapse leading to the making of LISTEN? Sometime in 2006, my fiancé and I got in her red Ford. Sorry, if you expect a cinematic car crash that flipped my life 360 degrees, there was none. It was far more subtle than that. Listen: I was in the back seat, she was driving with a friend who was riding shotgun. A stoplight. A slight right turn of her chin, towards me - her beloved. “I can’t wait for you to wear a suite and a tie. To have your own franchise restaurant,” said she, adding, “You will be like Spike.” (Spike was the name of my boss at the time. He always sported a mohawk.)
That fateful ride will forever reappear on the tableau of mystic, alas fleeting insight. My soul must have thrown-up inside of my flesh; or it was simply starting a violent revolution. Since coming to America some foreign substance, a poison, a virus I had no immunity to, had attacked my blood stream. A stranger in a foreign land, I lay cast in a pit, cornered into the hollows of my stomach where the poison was boiling. Some black magic!
The eyes of my fiancé fell dreamily on the road ahead. Who was there to see me? Who? But the one within me…
“I plan to quit my job,” I told her a few months later. “I don’t understand how you can love making movies so much,” confided my beloved. She had never known such love. We grew apart and, one fall afternoon, I noticed she had stopped wearing the engagement ring.
January of 2007. Single, two days after officially leaving my job, I was on the way to The Sundance Film Festival. On a whim and a greyhound bus. With no film to show. (I had graduated film school in 2000 and had not made a film since then). I was at Sundance on the invitation of a friend. There I met cinematographer Matthew Skala. We would collaborate on LISTEN a year later. I took the train back to Seattle. (An inspiring journey, for one of the cars was covered entirely in windows including the roof. And cell service then was spotty so it forced one to read; or to give in to contemplation; or to converse with strangers.)
I read on the train, made friends and worked on a screenplay idea. My mom had given me a book. She has the habit of folding pages worth reading. It was a biography of some Hollywood star who in one chapter gave an account of celestial entities. Said beings spoke through other people, passing down prophecies and vital information. I remember reading a sentence, on a page with a folded top corner. It went something like this, “The progress of a civilization is not measured by advances in technology and materialism, but by advances in spiritual growth.”
What!? Really!? Can you imagine how blinded I was at 29 years of age? To find such an ordinary phrase so powerful and so moving that I remember it as a turning point in my life.
LISTEN is my farewell to my 20s. My farewell to the mall I walked through every day to get to work. Passing by shoe rack after shoe rack, wondering: Who needs so many pairs of shoes! It is my farewell to the Holiday crowds swarming the streets like blinking Christmas lights. My farewell to the American Dream. My farewell to democracy. It is my farewell to engaging in a society that is eating itself from the inside-out.
This year “The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling” by Jame Hillman visited me, this time with no folded pages. It was a captivating one-breath read. My God, the author had perfectly summarized my feeling making the film.
"Loss of the daimon collapses democratic society into a crowd of shoppers wandering the mall of mazes in search of an exit. But there is no exit without the guide of an individual direction."
Few of my friends understood LISTEN at a private screening in 2009. Not a single film festival, including Sundance, accepted it. After officially releasing the film online in 2021, people are commenting that it is a prophecy. A clairvoyant gateway into the world of today.
A woman said it was hard to watch. Where is the light, Bogdan? she asked in a comment. In the smile of the shoeshine girl at the end, I replied. You be the judge. I’m not sure what to call the current world we live in. All I know is that I love making movies!
Enjoy here or on Rumble!