It is impossible to imagine Pu Yi, China last boy emperor, successfully standing for election as the country’s head of state. Yet, that is exactly what happened in post-Communist Bulgaria. Andrey Paounov kind of-sort of tells the remarkable story of Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a.k.a. Simeon II, in The Boy Who was a King (trailer here), which screens this Thursday as part of Disappearing Act V.
Born in 1936, Simeon II reigned from 1943 to 1946. It was a short but eventful period. Deposed by a dubious Communist backed referendum, Simeon II went into exile. A successful businessman who married a member of the Spanish aristocracy, the King (or Tsar) continued to speak out against Communist oppression during the Captive Nation years. When the Soviet system collapsed, he did not immediately return to Bulgaria, but he accepted a Bulgarian passport.
Much to the King’s own surprise, many Bulgarians placed their hopes for a better government in the former monarch. Eventually, he reluctantly assumed the position of Prime Minister when his vaguely Ross Perotish center-left party was overwhelmingly swept into power. Simeon promised to restore public integrity in 800 days. What happened during his administration? Politics.
Paounov gives viewers a thumbnail recap of Simeon’s life, but his approach is more impressionistic than authoritative. More often he turns his camera on eccentric or marginalized Bulgarians, some of whom still harbor monarchist sentiments. Others are deeply disillusioned by the former PM, including one who was inspired to get a rather crude, painful looking crown tattoo in Simeon’s honor. There’s a good argument for the separation of tattoos and state.
At times, Paounov approach is downright weird, as when he follows a coyote donated by Simeon’s sister from the taxidermist through the streets of Sofia to the Natural History Museum. Other times, there is method in his stylistic madness, as when he observes a meeting of the Bulgarian Communist Party held in a crummy state constructed flat. Consisting of six or seven bitter old prunes whose claims about Simeon appear patently false based on everything Paounov has previously shown the audience, it seems unlikely the hammer-and-sickle will rise again in Bulgaria anytime soon.
Frustratingly, Boy never gives viewers enough information to pass judgment on Simeon as an elected statesman. He certainly has a regal bearing though. Indeed, the film’s most intriguing episodes explore the way Simeon’s roles as republican and royal complimented each other. Sometimes fascinating and other times bemusing, The Boy Who was a King is recommended for viewers with a taste for idiosyncratic documentaries when it screens (free of charge) this coming Saturday (4/20) as Disappearing Act V continues at Bohemia National Hall on Manhattan’s Upper Eastside.