The next feature film shot in Memphis will bring attention to one of the city’s more overlooked populations — the Bulgarian community — while also demonstrating the Mid-South’s potential as a base for filmmaking with an international flair.
Conceived and directed by Bulgaria-born Tzvetana Denkova — who has been known as „Sissy“ since her family emigrated to the U.S. in 1997, when she was 10 — „The Scent of Linden“ begins shooting here Oct. 6.
Described by Denkova as „an ensemble black comedy,“ the movie will be one of the more unique projects ever undertaken here. Says Denkova: „The film would be the first Bulgarian feature ever produced entirely in the U.S.“
„The Scent of Linden“ is set in Memphis, but most of the dialog will be in Bulgarian, and it will be spoken by a cast that consists primarily of professional actors here on work visas from their home country, where some of them are stars in film and television.
„Yes, there are Bulgarian immigrants who are actors here,“ Denkova said, „but I really wanted those 30-year, conservatory-trained TV comedic stars from Bulgaria.“
Denkova said her Bulgarian-American collaboration — the screenwriter, working from Denkova’s premise, is Los Angeles-based Jordan Trippeer — examines „the question of the American dream and asks, ‘Is it still real?’ It’s about our Bulgarian community but also our point of view of American life.“
With a budget of about a half-million dollars that was sponsored in part by the Film Collaborative, a new Los Angeles non-profit that supports independent cinema, „Linden“ will be shot over 18 days, entirely on location in the Memphis area.
Taking advantage of Tennessee’s financial incentives for filmmakers, the project will employ about 65 people, including nine Bulgarians — eight actors and a script supervisor, to help with translation — who will be in Memphis on „P-3“ temporary work visas. „P-3“ is the designation for „artists or entertainers“ who perform „under a program that is culturally unique,“ according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency.
The visa issue was „the biggest ordeal in the entire development and pre-production of this project, over several years,“ said Denkova, 35, who will be making her debut as a feature film director.
„We’ve all heard the expression ‘It takes a village to raise a child,'“ said Memphis Film Commissioner Linn Sitler. „Well, it took the United States government and the state government and the local government and the Memphis and Shelby County Film and Television Commission to get this done.“
‘My father is the epitome of the American dream’
A beneficiary of the so-called „green card lottery“ established by the Immigration Act of 1990, the Denkovs („Denkova“ being the feminine version of the name) emigrated to the U.S. from Bulgaria during the disruption that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Communist Party monopoly on Bulgarian political power.
A Bartlett couple, Skip and Linda Davis, who had met Tzvetana’s father, Roumen Denkov, while they were on vacation acted as „guarantors“ for the family’s relocation to the U.S. and gave Roumen a place to stay until he could establish himself and bring over his wife, Snejina Denkova, and his son and daughter, Vasco and Tzvetana.
According to Tzvetana, the Denkovs arrived here with „two bags of clothes“ and no English. Nevertheless, coming to Memphis from Eastern Europe „was a bit of serendipity.“ In Bulgaria, Denkova’s father was a trombonist who played in the tourist resorts in the family’s home city of Varna on the Black Sea. „He listened to jazz and blues at a time in society when it was illegal, and then he ends up in a musical city.“
In sum, „My father is the epitome of the American dream,“ Denkova said. In Bulgaria, the family „was on the lowest end of the economic spectrum,“ she said. But in Memphis, Roumen Denkov mastered the art of doing business in the U.S., as well as the English language. He is now president and co-founder of RDX, a trucking firm located at the old Mall of Memphis on — appropriately enough — American Way.
In Memphis, the Bulgarian community is tight-knit and supportive, Denkova said. „America is an enormous place, and it’s very isolating. People here don’t live amongst others. You don’t come out of your apartment and walk down a boulevard filled with people like you do in a European city. So we create a sense of community and friendship like we used to know at home.
„I basically grew up among Bulgarian immigrants of the older generation. If you needed your bathroom tiled or plumbing work done, the first call you make is to a Bulgarian friend.“