You could say Ilko Davidov learned English from Lemmy. As a teenager in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 70s, he scoured the black market for albums by Motorhead, Kiss, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath. “The antiauthoritarianism of the lyrics appealed to me,” he says. “I wondered how they understood how we felt, when they lived in a free society and their government let them do that.”
He was 14 the first time he got arrested, at an outdoor dance where he’d show up for the two or three rock songs the DJ would play in a set. “You’d get picked up for the way you looked—I had this denim jacket with chains and buttons and patches from all these bands,” he says. “I spent the night at the police station. The police would say, ‘We have these lyrics translated. All these bands are neofascists.’ They’d keep your ID and say, ‘Come back for it after you get a haircut.'”
Davidov’s passion for the forbidden rock music of his youth has followed—or led—him into every stage of his life: from teenage underground music-video director to political refugee to film student to documentary filmmaker. His latest project, a collaborative effort with M’s singer and guitarist Josh Chicoine, is the first annual Chicago Movies and Music Festival, which opens Thursday, March 5.
Davidov was born in Sofia in 1966. His mother trained labor organizers and his father was an economics professor who he says lost out on appointments for supporting free markets. “They kept a lot of the problems they experienced from me to keep me safe,” Davidov says.
His parents were classical music fans, taking him on frequent trips to the opera, though his father occasionally picked up pop records on business trips abroad. But Davidov’s introduction to rock was a Jimi Hendrix record in his older sister’s collection. “I didn’t quite like it, but I played it again and again,” he says. “It was a very strange feeling.” He began working his way into Sofia’s subculture of rock collectors. “Even the process of finding one song was a big deal,” he says. “It was like an archaeological expedition to find a tape of a tape that someone recorded from Voice of America.”
Davidov and his teenage friends haunted the local black market, convened in a park every night around seven, where records sold for half a month’s salary. He could only afford one new LP a year, but the dealers also offered a more affordable option. “They would tape it for you for a fee,” he says. “I would give the guy my blank tape, and pay, and the next day I’d get the tape.”
He took out a classified ad, listing his address, in the British rock magazine Kerrang! and started getting letters, tapes, and records from pen pals in the UK and the States. He says the authorities opened his mail and threatened to exile his family to the mountain region of Strandzha, near the Turkish border, if he didn’t break ties with suspect friends. “They told my father I celebrated Hitler’s birthday,” Davidov says. “I don’t even know what they were so scared of, but they certainly made me scared.” He was arrested several more times, once staying in jail for a week after getting picked up in a sweep on Easter night, when it’s traditional, he says, to go out and celebrate.
By the early 80s VHS tapes of concerts and music videos were making their way onto the black market as well. At 17 Davidov borrowed a camera from an older friend who worked at a TV station and shot a couple music videos for a new wave band called Class. The videos were passed around and played at clubs, and by the time he finished high school he had a sideline. While he was a student at the Institute of Economics at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Sociology commissioned him to make a documentary about “informal youth groups,” but the footage of rockers and hippies he submitted was shelved.
Davidov really wanted to go to film school, but he figured that in Bulgaria his criminal record would disqualify him and started looking to the West. He’d visited relatives in Austria when as a kid, but travel was restricted, particularly outside the Eastern Bloc. At 20 he scored a fake Swiss visa that got him into West Berlin, where he went to a U.S. military checkpoint and asked for political asylum. An officer there told him his family could be punished if he was granted asylum.
“They said ‘your parents will lose their jobs, they’ll be tried for treason, their property will be confiscated,'” he says. “I couldn’t do that to my parents. I bought a Ramones record and went back to Sofia.”
Three years later, in 1989, a pair of exchange students from Chicago who were studying in Sofia helped him secure a tourist visa to the U.S. While they were still in Bulgaria, he flew to New York, where he stayed at a Salvation Army in Manhattan for three months, passing out flyers for bars to pay the $30 a night. In 1990 his American friends got back from Bulgaria and he joined them in Chicago, where he surfed couches for a few months. Back home, Bulgaria was holding its first free elections since 1931. Davidov, no longer afraid for his family, applied for refugee status and got temporary residency while his case was pending.
He worked in a restaurant storeroom, washed dishes, did construction, and drove a cab, put a $150 security deposit on a Wicker Park apartment, and, in 1992 or ’93 (he’s not sure), enrolled as a part-time film student at Columbia College. In 1995, the same year he graduated, he was finally granted refugee status and permanent residency.
After graduation Davidov started a production company, BulletProof Film, with a couple of Columbia classmates. He produced a slate of documentaries about music, activism, and oppression, including Sacred Sounds, about Morocco’s Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, I Remember It Exactly and Children in Exile, about the Soviet gulag, About Face, on Jews who escaped the Nazis and fought with the Allies in World War II, and Patriot Acts, the post-9/11 policy of special registration.
Michael Hernandez de Luna’s Axis of Evil exhibit of postage-stamp art at Columbia, whose companion book inspired a documentary BulletProof produced in 2004, prompted a Secret Service investigation for a contribution by Al Brandtner that showed a gun pointed at President Bush’s temple over the words patriot act. “We had animated that stamp in the documentary,” Davidov says. “We thought maybe they would call us too. But the press was all over it so they backed off.”
Davidov’s first feature documentary as a director, Unauthorized and Proud of It, examined the unsolved murder of San Diego comics publisher Todd Loren, who published a string of unauthorized comic-book biographies of rock stars and celebrities before he was found stabbed to death in his bed in 1992. Touring with Unauthorized on the festival circuit in 2005 planted a seed in Davidov’s brain. “A lot of those festivals are associated with music or films related to music, and I found that fascinating,” he says. “I thought Chicago would be a great place for it, and there’s nothing like that here.”
Josh Chicoine was Davidov’s neighbor. They’d met in 2001, when they both joined the condo association for the Acme Artists’ Community, now the Bloomingdale Arts Building. “We both liked drinking booze into the early morning, so it didn’t take long for us to home in on each other,” Chicoine says.
Davidov started going to see Chicoine play with the M’s, and the M’s ended up contributing music to the soundtrack of Unauthorized. “My connections to the music industry and his to the movie business work perfectly for this thing,” Chicoine says. “We both have meaningful experience to make a film festival focused on music. It started as a lark, but it’s turned into something really surprising and something to easily build on for the future.”
At first Davidov and Chicoine planned to attach a music festival to an established film festival— sort of a reversal of Austin’s South by Southwest model. But bolstered by a meeting with Carlos Tortolero, a programmer at the Chicago Cultural Center, they firmed up plans to program an all-new festival of film and live music, with the Cultural Center as a main venue.
Their projected $200,000 budget has taken a big hit in recent months, though. Davidov says the $10,000 that Cultural Affairs first offered to front was whittled down to $1,500, and many participants were forced to pay for their own travel when an airline sponsorship didn’t come through. They’re putting on the festival for about $20,000 cash, raised from Cultural Affairs, the Wicker Park/Bucktown chamber of commerce, the French embassy, the German consulate, the Quebec Delegation, and other sources, and $10,000 in in-kind donations.
Davidov and Chicoine scrapped plans to pay themselves salaries, ruled out some bigger-ticket items they’d hoped to include—like DJ Spooky appearing with his film Rebirth of a Nation, Mika Kaurismaki’s Sonic Mirror, about fusion drummer Billy Cobham, and Kasper Collin’s My Name Is Albert Ayler, about the avant-garde saxophonist—and eliminated film projection in favor of cheaper digital projection. Some filmmakers they’d booked backed out to save their premieres for SXSW. “Next year we’re going to move the date to after South by Southwest, hopefully in early April,” Davidov says.
Still, from a pool of 300 submissions, they’ve lined up 30 screenings, including the Chicago premiere of Ashes of American Flags, a Wilco documentary by Christoph Green and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, with Canty and Green attending March 9 at the Music Box, and a couple U.S. premieres from Polish documentary pioneer Lech Kowalski, who’s coming in for the festival as well. Musical acts include Andre Williams, the Lonesome Organist, the Dex Romweber Duo, jazz players David Boykin and Nicole Mitchell, Abraham Levitan from Baby Teeth, and Swiss electronic composer Mimetic.
Between finishing this year’s CIMM Fest and planning for next year, Davidov hopes to get back to work on his next film, “East Block Rock,” about music’s role in the fall of communism in eastern Europe. He’s scrounging together what he can of his own tapes from the 80s, collecting archival footage of seminal bands like Prague’s Plastic People of the Universe and Romania’s Phoenix, and raising funds to shoot a series of interviews with scene veterans throughout the region. “I want to tell the story that I witnessed,” he says. “But it’s larger than that. It spans from the 60s to 90s and it spans the whole Eastern Bloc. We heard the music differently. It politicized us. Many of these people that were part of the resistance are part of the government now. I want to follow that evolution, from being an outcast to having that kind of power.”v.
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And Bulgarian native Ilko Davidov, cofounder of this week’s Chicago International Movies and Music Festival, grew up not taking either one for granted.