Hoping for a Bulgarian Film Revival

By Ron Holloway (Berlin) and Dina Iordanova (University of St. Andrews)

© Ron Holloway and Dina Iordanova, 2006

Ronald Holloway (Berlin, 31 July 2006): Among my modest achievements as an Eastern European film critic was a history of The Bulgarian Cinema. Some have said that it’s pretty close to being the only authentic history on Bulgarian cinematography, although I myself would not go that far, simply because I do not speak the language and am familiar with only a portion of the country’s literary and cultural heritage. Still, I did manage to interview most of Bulgaria’s top film and stage directors, held steadfast to a close relationship with Pavel Pissarev and Ivan Stoyanovich in the Bulgarian culture ministry, and campaigned vigorously among my circle of literary friends for Yordan Radichkov to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Most importantly, I introduced the concept of Bulgaria’s “poetic cinema,” which took hold and is still the most widely used description of this national cinematic tradition. But all of this goes back twenty years ago, and one tends to feel that my book on Bulgarian cinema has long since outlived its use. Recently, though, a young Bulgarian critic told me that she had journeyed to London on a personal mission to read chapters of the book in a research library. A humbling gesture, to say the least.

Fifteen years on, a phone call from Ginette Vincendeau at the British Film Institute lead to a partial update of The Bulgarian Cinema in The Encyclopedia of European Cinema and eventually in The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema. My outlook on contemporary Bulgarian cinema in that companion book was bleak. I concluded in a wrap-up paragraph that “following the downfall of Todor Zhivkov and subsequent democratic elections in 1990, state funding of national film productions has been cut to the bone. From an average of twenty or so feature films annually in Bulgaria a decade ago, and approximately the same number of television films, only half a dozen domestic film and television productions were scheduled in Boyana for the 1993-94 season. Without coproduction input from the West, contemporary Bulgarian cinematography is for all practical purposes non-existent” (44). Rock bottom was then hit in 1999, when not a single pure Bulgarian feature film was produced. Looking back today on those barren years, the situation was not as depressing as it seemed then. For a fortunate festival event, the Sofia Festival of European Coproductions had already sparked the revival of a moribund national cinematography.

I still closely follow developments in Bulgarian cinema: I am a customary guest of the Sofia International Film Festival and I regularly write reviews on new Bulgarian films for the German and US press. In 1994, I worked with help from contributing Bulgarian critics on a special edition of my magazine, KINO German Film, dedicated to Bulgarian cinema and devoted to the memory of Yordan Radichkov. While it is no secret that Bulgarian cinema suffered a serious decline in the aftermath of 1989, I keep looking for signs of revival and hope it will soon come back to its former glory.

Dina Iordanova (St. Andrews, Scotland; 8 October 2006): On several recent occasions, talking to younger US-based colleagues, I insisted they should not fool themselves that they can sustain an academic career by specializing in Bulgarian cinema. First of all, it is difficult to do research about it: many of the films are never made commercially available and most are never subtitled. There is no single point of contact where one can go to ask for copies. It is necessary to rely on personal acquaintances most of the time and many of them are not particularly eager to respond promptly to correspondence from abroad. Secondly, Bulgarian culture is not exactly in the focus of Western interest. Even as an established academic, I have had to put up with situations where collections including texts on Bulgarian cinema are cancelled or endlessly postponed. If the situation in post-communist times is so bad, I wonder to what extent the careers of people from the previous generation, like Ron Holloway who has a PhD from the University of Chicago, have been affected by their enduring commitment to neglected subject matters like Bulgarian cinema. In spite of the difficulties, looking back at my record, I am glad to see that I have managed to publish a number of shorter and longer pieces on Bulgarian film over the years. It is my intention to continue working with Bulgarian material whenever there is a chance.

It is probably because of past frustrations that I was particularly pleased when Vladimir Padunov invited me to put together this edited collection on Bulgarian cinema. Because, as the articles included in this issue reveal, there is good research that deserves to be put out in the public domain. I am particularly grateful to those who submitted texts for this issue of KinoKultura. It was a rewarding experience to see it come together.

Most of all, I feel honored to join Ron Holloway for this introductory piece. Ron is the doyen of scholarship on Bulgarian cinema. I have always admired his loyalty to this under-researched and routinely ignored cinematic tradition. Together we will try to give an overview of some of the processes that took place in Bulgarian cinema since 1989. It has been a difficult period for the cinema and culture of Bulgaria in general; we hope that a much desired cinematic revival is just around the corner.

Industry

Even though film production started early and active filmmaking dates back to the 1930s, a genuine film industry in Bulgaria developed only under state socialism in the aftermath of World War II. By the mid-1980s, the industry employed about 2,000 highly qualified workers engaged around the Boyana film studio and a number of production units for feature, documentary, and animation films. Bulgarian films played at international festivals and were distributed by Bulgarsko Kinorazprostranenie, a state-owned company, mostly to other countries in the Eastern bloc. The national annual output was showcased at the annual festival in Varna.

Nearly 600 feature films were produced during the years of communism (1945-1989), and production peaked at around twenty-five features annually in the 1980s (in addition, about 20 television films, as well as 400 shorts and animated film were released every year). Since 1989, the output of feature films has dropped to four or five a year and the total number of Bulgarian films for the period 1990-2005 is slightly over sixty. On recent occasions when critics were asked to name the best Bulgarian films of all times, most short listed titles were from the 1960s and 1970s; not a single film made after 1985 ever makes it to the top dozen. Ironically, it seems that Bulgarian cinema’s best moments remain confined to the past, when filmmakers had to be politically conformist but still enjoyed the chance to reach out to audiences.

The downfall of Bulgarian cinema was caused by the withdrawal of state funding for filmmaking by a succession of short-lived post-communist governments and by the plundering of resources by a growing web of mafiosoes. In the aftermath of 1989, the film industry was characterized by significantly reduced government funding, empty studios eager to attract foreign film crews, the disappearance of domestic films from the big screen, and armies of idle film professionals. Cineastes had to develop new survival skills for fundraising and guerrilla distribution. The disbanding of distribution organisations and the eventual take-over by Hollywood subsidiaries was followed by the gradual closing of cinemas across the country, which culminated in the sale of Sofia’s cinemas in 2001 to owners who, parallel with the opening of several new multiplexes in the capital, soon re-sold all older theaters for conversion into offices and other commercial spaces. The situation inside the film industry was once described by a knowledgeable critic as “catastrophic”: he remarked that even state subsidies approved by the government for national film projects did not seem to reach the respective producers and directors intended; that galloping inflation also affected the budgetary support. The National Film Center, first under Dimitar Dereliev and eventually under Alexander Grozev, tried to resuscitate Bulgarian cinema and endeavored to play a key role in its revival. Unfortunately, however, the proclaimed enthusiasm for a New Bulgarian Cinema remains unconfirmed for the time being. The legislation passed in 2003 has still to bear results; it remains to be seen whether the recent sale of Boyana Studios to the American company NuImage (2005-2006) will stabilize production routines as some expect, or will be the final blow to the loss of assets of Bulgaria’s film industry, as others fear.

Hit by financial difficulties in the 1990s, an inventive policy of “services-rendering” was the lifeline of Boyana Studios for nearly a decade. What remained of the Bulgarian film industry largely relied on minority co-productions (where the country participates as a secondary co-producing partner) and runaway productions (big budget productions exclusively using Western creative input that only hire local facilities, technicians, and locations) to keep the studio going. Whereas in the 1980s the studio employed over 2,000 personnel, in the 1990s only 240 film professionals were needed. Under the management of film director Evgeni Mikhailov (Canary Season [Sezonat na kanarchetata, 1993]), services were rendered during the 1990s to a dozen major productions, which included Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993), Marco Bellochio’s The Prince of Homburg (1997), and Michael Cacoyannis’s screen adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1999).

Award-winning animator Zlatin Radev (Canfilm, 1990; Shock, 1993) arranged a contract with a Canadian network for the production of an animation series, which helped to train a new generation of animators. But production in the studios for animated and short films came to a near halt. Gone, too, was the biannual animation festival in Varna on the Black Sea, and acclaimed masters of Bulgarian animation either emigrated abroad or were busy teaching at the local Academy of Arts. Documentary filmmakers, once the pride of Leipzig and Oberhausen, were confined to working mostly on video productions for public and private TV stations.

The overall atmosphere was one of gloom, with occasional hopes of revival. The former head of Bulgarian cinema, Pavel Pissarev, the man who has been credited with the flourishing of Bulgarian cinema when he managed it through the 1970s (1971-1979), broke his silence in 2004 and spoke from retirement, first by publishing his memoirs in the specialist journal Kino, and eventually, in 2005 and 2006, coming out with large articles in the leading daily newspaper Trud. Similarly, in March 2006, veteran cameraman and director Radoslav Spassov bitterly commented that the American take-over of whatever was left of Bulgaria’s film industry was almost complete. Writing in this issue of KinoKultura, Bojidar Manov, the head of the Cinema Studies Department at the National Academy for Theater and Film Arts in Sofia and former vice-president of FIPRESCI, compares Bulgarian cinema to a person who has suffered a stroke—we are overjoyed by every step, by every sign of recovery that the person makes while avoiding acknowledging that, no matter what, the person is simply a shadow of his former self. Nonetheless, Bulgarian films are still being made and seen, as the articles by Christina Stojanova on enterprising director Ivan Nichev and by Velina Petrova on the important series Monday 8½, both published in this issue of KinoKultura, reveal.

Balkan Collaborations

By the mid-1990s, Bulgarian filmmakers realized that they needed to become part of the dynamically changing world of European cinema and to embrace an identity framework that would legitimize them beyond their immediate national belonging. Positioned at the cultural periphery of Europe, they felt they needed to assert an inherently European nature. It was not easy, however, to overcome their marginality and since they often remained confined to the Balkans, they embraced active cooperations with their Balkan neighbors: co-productions with countries like Greece, Turkey, or the republics of former Yugoslavia became a prevalent feature throughout the 1990s and early into the new century. And as soon as “being Balkan” was recognized as an advantageous framework for creative collaborations, the lack of interest in neighboring states that had prevailed earlier came to an end. Rather than deploring their disadvantageous position at the periphery of Europe, filmmakers celebrated it by turning to other Balkan cinemas and embracing the newly reawakened attention to pan-Balkan themes and interest in cross-Balkan projects. A variety of funding initiatives was introduced in the late 1990s (the most important was the Balkan Film Fund), and a range of co-productions were launched, including showcases at film festivals in Sarajevo, Thessaloniki, and Istanbul. In addition, various other development and post-production collaborations were initiated. Some of the films discussed in this issue of Kinokultura—Adela Peeva’s acclaimed documentary Whose is this Song? (reviewed by Gergana Doncheva) and Ivan Nichev’s feature After the End of the World (discussed in Christina Stojanova’s article)—are representative of this trend of reawakened interest in the Balkan dimension. Some of the greatest Balkan box-office hits, like Yavuz Turgul’s Turkish film Bandit (Eskiya, 1996) or Sotiris Goritsas’s Greek film Balkanizateur (1998), were co-produced with Bulgaria.

One of the recent dimensions of Balkan cooperation is the so-called Nisi Masa, which takes its name from something scribbled on a wall in Fellini’s (1963). Nisi Masa is an ever-evolving network of young filmmakers that was founded in Paris in 2001 by a group of European cineastes funded by the EU’s “Youth & Media Programme.” Its aims are to discover new talent, foster European awareness through cinema, develop cross-cultural film projects, and provide an exchange forum for young European filmmakers. In 2005 Nisi Masa successfully organized a seminar on Human Rights and cinema in Turkey. In 2006 Ronald Holloway was invited by Elena Masholova of Nisi Masa-Sofia to help moderate a week-long seminar entitled “Balkan Cinemas, Balkan Identities,” which took place in the southern university city of Blagoevgrad, located near the Greek and Macedonian borders. Most of the thirty young participants came from across the Balkans—Thrace, Transylvania, Slavonia, Vojvodina, Kosovo, Montenegro. They formed an international jury for a Nisi Masa Prize at the Sofia film festival, which went to Isa Qosja’s Kukumi (Kosovo, 2005), a poetic, surrealistic tale about a trio of inmates released from an insane asylum at the close of the war in Kosovo in 1999. The film was influenced stylistically by the Iranian cinema of Makhmalbaf, but tackled head-on present-day Balkan concerns.

Sofia International Film Festival

Eclipsing several other small festivals, the Sofia International Film Festival—started in 1996—has since become a fully-fledged festival, enjoying the reputation of being one of the best in the region. It features over 100 films (including a Balkan survey section), panel discussions and roundtable forums, tributes, special screenings, retrospectives, showcases student films, and publishes a professional quality catalog. The rich program attracts audiences to the National Palace of Culture, the adjacent Lumiere Cinema, and four other city venues. In the early years, the festival doubled in size annually, and is by now a well established event on the March cultural calendar of the region.

Initially, SIFF was more of a “rock fest,” an improvised happening featuring films about music among other things, but mostly providing a platform for domestic and touring bands, including the festival’s own band with “Kit-a” (“The Whale”) Kitanov as the lead figure. The event soon gained huge popularity with local audiences. Eventually, an international Festival Band was formed, featuring various participants at a number of venues, but evolving around the “three Stefans”: Kitanov, Laudyn (director of the Warsaw film festival), and Uhrik (from the Independent Section of Karlovy Vary). The Festival Band delivers rousing performances not only in Sofia but at other venues as well, and is now established as a fixture of the international festival circuit.

The success of SIFF is mostly due to the energetic personality of its enterprising director, Stefan Kitanov, who introduces visitors to the local fiery brand of rakia brandy (recently covered in Screen International). Once established as a well-known figure at the festival circuit, Kitanov further promoted himself by playing with the similarities between his name and Takeshi Kitano’s and engaged in other stunts that have worked well to secure increased visibility for his venture. SIFF keeps expanding in size and importance, and is now closely linked to other key film events in Central and Eastern Europe, like the “CentEast” festival in Warsaw, the Belgrade FEST, the Titanic festival in Budapest, the Transylvania film festival in Cluj, as well as other festivals across the region and in Russia.

In 2002 SIFF joined the growing European Coordination of Film Festivals (ECFF) and hosted its first FIPRESCI Jury. In 2003 it launched a competition for first and second feature films and an annual showcase for new Bulgarian films. Since 2004 some of the festival films have been re-run in Bourgas on the Black Sea, an initiative put in place with the assistance of Bourgas-born director George Dyulgerov. Kitanov also established pitching sessions (aka Sofia Meetings), designed to give young directors the opportunity to seek funding for new projects.

Since 2005 the festival has been attracting international programmers from bigger festivals, who come to select entries for their own programmes. At closed screenings, the programmers are shown forthcoming Bulgarian titles as well. This strategy has produced some good results (especially because new Bulgarian feature films are not represented at international film markets): a number of these films have been invited to various events and have enjoyed success on the international festival circuit in 2005 and 2006, with awards at Karlovy Vary, Sarajevo, Montreal, and elsewhere.

Generations

In recent years Bulgarian cinema has lost many of its most significant figures, such as writers Yordan Radichkov, Blaga Dimitrova, Nikolay Haitov, and Radoi Ralin; directors Lyudmil Kirkov, Valo Radev, Zakhari Zhandov, Nedelcho Chernev, and Borislav Punchev; cameramen Dimo Kolarov, Milen Nikolov, and Georgi Karayordanov; actors Nevena Kokanova, Katya Paskaleva, and Mariana Dimitrova; film critics Todor Andreikov, Yako Molkhov, and Ivan Stoyanovic. The unfortunate deaths of beloved actor Georgi Georgiev-Getz (1926-1996) and of directors Edi Zakhariev (1938-1996) and Nikolay Yotov (1957-2001) brought the filmmaking community into mourning. Stefan (“Tedy”) Moskov’s 2002 film Rhapsody in White (Rapsodiya v byalo) included a nostalgic episode for the great Bulgarian actors of the past: it featured cameos from a range of much-loved stars—like Konstantin Kotsev, Georgi Kaloyanchev, Nikola Anastasov, Stoyanka Mutafova, Dimitar Manchev, Zlatina Todeva, and Katya Dinova—all gathered again together as in the best days of Bulgaria’s “poetic cinema.”

In the 1990s, many of the directors of the older generation had difficulties securing financing for their projects. Some stopped making films after 1989—like veteran Binka Zhelyazkova, for example. Others managed to make films only occasionally—like Ivan Andonov (who released a film in 1992 and then started to work for television) or Rangel Vulchanov (whose last film was released in 1993 and who, after a thirteen year gap, started work on his new film in the summer of 2006). Former cameraman Radoslav Spassov, who turned to directing in the 1990s, enjoyed international acclaim for his film Stolen Eyes (Otkradnati ochi, 2005), chronicling the tragic story of a young Turkish woman who refuses to change her name and identity during the so-called “revival process” in 1980s Bulgaria (it is reviewed in this issue by Yana Hashamova). Spassov had come into prominence with his earlier work as a cinematographer, often on projects by director Georgi Dyulgerov, whose work we will discuss separately.

The directors of the middle generation (born in the 1940s and 1950s) also performed unevenly. Some managed to put out a number of films, like enterprising Ivan Nichev, who has managed to keep himself afloat during the turbulent years that put the careers of many others on hold. Following the same general route of the traveling actors of his earlier film Stars in Her Hair, Tears in Her Eyes (Zvezdi v kosite, salzi v ochite, 1977), his new Bulgarian-German coproduction Journey to Jerusalem (Patuvane do Yerusalim, 2003) chronicled the 1940 flight of two German Jewish orphans through Bulgaria to Palestine. Nichev’s films tackle humanitarian themes (such as the salvation of Jews in Bulgaria during WWII, the lost Balkan multicultural idyll, or inter-ethnic anxieties in today’s Berlin). Having established good contacts in Germany and Austria since the early 1990s, Nichev is probably the only Bulgarian director who has been able to release a film every second year or so and to have them in proper distribution, both domestically and internationally. Acting as a producer for most of his projects, Nichev has secured funding from foreign television stations, while simultaneously putting in place distribution deals. The director’s entrepreneurial spirit, down-to-earth common sense, and conciliatory skills have proven important for his artistic survival.

Other directors of the middle generation, like Kiran Kolarov, Petar Popzlatev, Docho Bodzhakov, Evgeni Mikhailov, Rumyana Petkova, Ivanka Grabcheva, and Mariana Evstatieva-Biolcheva, have managed to make moderately successful films but have not been as prolific. This middle generation of filmmakers and actors, the height of whose careers coincided with the dramatic social changes, is now commonly referred to as a “lost generation.” Many of them had come to the profession just before the perestroika period and were badly affected by the decline in funding and general industry changes; the films they made in the 1990s were not distributed properly. Some of these directors had made their debuts just before 1989—Lyudmil Todorov (Dogs on the Run [Byagashti kucheta, 1989]), Ivan Tscherkelov (Pieces of Love [Parcheta lyubov, 1989]), Krassimir Kroumov (Exitus [Ekzitus, 1989]), and Docho Bodzhakov (Evil Memory [Zla pamet, 1988]). Because they did not have the chance to make further feature films at a normal pace, these directors continued to be regarded as entry level “young” talent for much longer than usual. The work of Krassimir Kroumov, who is a particularly interesting case because he is not only a filmmaker but also a serious film theorist, is discussed in Violetta Petrova’s essay in this KinoKultura issue. His film Under the Same Sky (Pod edno nebe, 2003), the story of a 15-year-old girl who decides to leave her mountain village to look for her father in Turkey, featured some stunning photography in the dead of winter.

In the context of limited opportunities for professional realization, seeking employment aboard is a solution that many opt for. Nowadays many professionals—directors of photography, editors, actors—go for foreign “spells” of various duration and keep moving back and forth between Bulgaria and the West. It is difficult to supply precise figures for the outmigration of creative personnel. However, according to a Financial Times estimate from July 2006, about 10% of Bulgaria’s population was working abroad.

New Directors

Only a few really new directors came on the scene in the 1990s and 2000s. Among them were the versatile actor-director-singer Marius Kurkinski with Diary of a Madman (Dnevnikat na edin lud, 1995), the directorial tandem Ilian Simeonov and Khristian Nochev (Border [Granitza, 1994]), Nidal Algafari (La Donna e Mobile, 1993), and Andrei Slabakov (Wagner [Vagner, 1998]). There were important debuts by female directors, like Iglika Trifonova (Letter to America [Pismo do Amerika, 2001], discussed here by Violetta Petrova), Zornitsa-Sophia (Mila from Mars [Mila ot Mars, 2004]), and Silvia Pesheva (Crazy Day [Shantav Den, 2004]). Other directors who were best-known for work in documentaries now ventured into features, like Kostadin Bonev (Warming Up Yesterday’s Lunch [Podgryavane na vcherashniya obyad, 2002]). New actors—like Petar (“Chocho”) Popyordanov, Ivaylo Hristov, Krastyo Lafazanov, Nikolai Urunmov, Sami Finzi, and Alexander Morfov—are engaged in cinema and theater, and sometimes play in international films. The best-established new female actresses, such as Paraskeva Djukelova, Elena Petrova, Ioanna Bukovska, the Chaplinesque Maya Novoselska, and, most recently, Vesela Kazakova, have enjoyed a range of acting opportunities and have been cast in leading roles.

Ivaylo Hristov and Lyudmil Todorov’s Emigrants (Emigranti, 2002), was a socially critical, sad comedy about the frustrations of three inept young men who know they would be better off if they leave the country but hardly know what to do about it as they feel lost even at home. Tedi Moskov’s Rhapsody in White starred Bulgaria’s favorite new comedienne—mischievously naughty Maya Novoselska—in a performance reminiscent of Giulietta Masina in roles for Fellini. Svetla Tsotsorkova, who studied filmmaking in London and Sofia, is another directorial talent to watch. Life with Sophia (Zhivot sas Sophia, 2004), her graduation film under mentor Georgi Dyulgerov, stars two of Bulgaria’s best known actors, Svetlana Yancheva and Ivaylo Hristov. It is a 20-minute short about a village wife who waits in vain for the return of her husband from emigration. Her kindhearted neighbor, forced to observe her decline into mental illness, awkwardly attempts to help her face some unpleasant truths. Another young female director, Nadejda Koseva, debuted with a well-received short included in the omnibus European production Lost and Found (2005). Koseva’s short, The Ritual, addresses Builgaria’s outmigration by featuring a wedding celebration in a village where everything seems to be going as usual except that the bride and groom are absent—they have emigrated and are shown getting married in a simultaneous private ceremony at Niagara Falls, Canada.

Zornitsa-Sophia’s Mila from Mars, another debut feature dedicated to director Lyudmil Staikov, introduced not only a talented young director but also rising star, Vesela Kazakova. Kazakova’s presence on the screen—her striking facial features, big dark eyes, raw-boned body, and choppy movements—is exactly right for a story about a mixed-up adolescent who runs away from a cynical drug-dealer to hide among residents of a remote border village. Mila is a foundling who considers as her date of birth the day she was left at the orphanage. Now a vigorous and restless teenager rushing to break out in the world, she accepts the offer of a job from a gangster who turns her into something of a house-slave (a plot reminiscent of Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s acclaimed Polish film Pigs [Psy, 1992]). One day, while they are on a business trip (most likely a smuggling operation) in the Rhodopi mountains, an area near Greece and Turkey, Mila runs away from her brutal landlord and soon ends up in a desolate village inhabited by a handful of old peasants—who turn out to be working for the gangster, growing cannabis in a nearby field. A lonely shepherd who was formerly a teacher but has now withdrawn from society lives in an improvised tower nearby. Mila, of course, is pregnant, and along comes a child to revive everybody’s hopes and trust in life. Without much of a script to speak of, and apparently heavily relying on improvisation, the film is carried mostly by Vessela Kazakova and a charming swarm of old actors who chat about the world going to hell while smoking pot.

Stanimir Trifonov’s Burning Out (Izpepelyavane, 2004), a predictable, shallow melodrama, competently shot by internationally renowned cameraman Emil Hristov, looked into the concentration camp period of the country’s post-war history. It featured the machinations of a lowly State Security officer who sets out to destroy the happy marriage of a Bulgarian woman to a noble Italian husband.

Ivan Cherkelov and Vassil Zhivkov’s Christmas Tree Upside Down (Obarnata elha, 2006) received a Special Jury Prize at the Karlovy Vary festival in 2006. Its complex narrative links six different subplots involving a majestic Christmas tree cut down in the mountains to be displayed for the festivities in Sofia’s city center. As the holiday approaches, all of the protagonists need to face serious existential questions and have to come to terms with solitude, disillusionment, and cynicism.

Another new film, Milena Andonova’s Monkeys in Winter (Maymuni prez zimata, 2006) was awarded Best Film in the East of the West category at Karlovy Vary. It is a complexly constructed tale about the fate of three pregnant women living in three different political contexts—the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s—aiming to portray truthfully the country’s social and political conditions during those times and the lives of women. The film is reviewed for this issue of KinoKultura by Yana Hashamova.

Yet another promising feature project is Iglika Trifonova’s Investigation. Trifonova’s first film, Letter to America, which was mostly set in a depopulated village, was one of the few Bulgarian films that enjoyed international attention in recent years. Investigation, her second feature, is a Cain-and-Abel crime drama based on material that the director gathered while working on an earlier documentary in 1993 (Murder Stories). It tells the story of a female police inspector who faces difficult moral choices while investigating the murder of a man by his own brother.

Georgi Dyulgerov

We tought it was important to focus on at least one specific artist in this introduction. Our choice fell on veteran director George Dyulgerov. Born in 1943, Dyulgerov studied film directing under Igor' Talankin at Moscow’s State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) and has been active in Bulgarian cinema since the early 1970s. One of the most distinguished national cineastes, he belongs to the generation of filmmakers that created their most important work in the late 1970s and in early 1980s. Among his films are some of the most popular Bulgarian titles of all times, like Advantage (Avanhazh, 1977) and Measure for Measure (Mera spored mera, 1981), which rank among the ten best Bulgarian films ever made.

Awarded the Silver Bear at the 1978 Berlinale, Advantage tells the moving story of a 1950s convict who uses his exceptional charismatic qualities to advance in socialist society while simultaneously fighting his inner demons. The film was widely acclaimed at other international festivals as well. Dyulgerov’s next film, Measure for Measure, a three-part epic exploring the intricate question of Macedonia’s liberation struggle against the Ottomans, was released on the occasion of the 1,300th anniversary of the Bulgarian state. The film offered a daring and candid historical interpretation of the revolt against Turkish rule at the turn of the 20th century. “What interests me most of all is the testimony of the human spirit in different ages,” said Dyulgerov in a personal interview with Ron Holloway in 1982, soon after the release of Measure for Measure. “I consider the issue of man and history to be the most important element in my work. Not history as a string of mundane events, but rather as the spirit of the times. In this sense the present could also be history.”

Other films by the director include The Swap (Trampa, 1978), a coming-of-age drama; the documentary Of Neshka Robeva and Her Girls (Za Neshka Robeva i neynite momicheta, 1985), a highly personal study of the celebrated Bulgarian School of Rhythmic Gymnastics; and the fantasy AkaTaMuS (1988). Dyulgerov’s last state-produced film, The Camp (Lagerat, 1990), focused on the ideological perversions of the 1950s. It was released in 1990, just on the verge of the turbulent changes that were in store. Since that time, the director has mostly worked in documentary and television.

In the 1990s, Dyulgerov managed to complete only one feature film, the Gypsy-themed drama The Black Swallow (Chernata lyastovitsa, 1997), funded under the short-lived French scheme for providing assistance to East European cinema—Fonds Eco—and by Eurimages.
The Black Swallow was an honest film about the fate of a Gypsy girl and raised the important question of the chances for multicultural conviviality in the Balkans. With an ethnographically authentic portrait of Romani life, The Black Swallow served as an effective metaphor for the rich yet painful experience of ethnically diverse Balkan society in the period of post-communism.

The fact that Dyulgerov is a member of the European Film Academy and a Professor at the Sofia Film and Theater Academy did not improve his opportunities to get more directing chances. His 2004 film, You’re So Pretty, My Dear (Hubava si mila moya), reenacted a docu-drama about four jailed prostitutes, blended fiction with reality, and was produced independently for a next-to-nothing budget.

It was not until eight years after Black Swallow that Dyulgerov managed to complete another feature. Lady Zee (Leydi Zi, 2005) told the story of Zlatina, a tough girl from an orphanage with amazing sharp-shooting talent, who goes through a series of hard-hitting challenges in 1990s post-communist Bulgaria, ranging from being marginalized to enforced prostitution. Nonetheless, she never turns into a victim, retaining an astonishingly strong disposition throughout. “Most of the protagonists in the story come out of institutions for children and have been abandoned by their parents,” said Dyulgerov in a director’s statement. “Approximately 35,000 children are brought up in 300 such institutions.” The source for most of the plot line in Lady Zee was the story of a 20-year old woman. Her role, in turn, was entrusted to 16-year-old Aneliya Garbova who herself had spent most of her young life in a state-run home. As depicted in the film, Zlatina’s emancipation from the orphanage is assisted by her skill as a markswoman. This leads her to odd jobs in a shooting gallery, thanks to another contest marksman (Ivan Barnev, the only professional actor in the film), followed by a largely self-inflicted enslavement as a prostitute in neighboring Greece—until, helped by a true friend from the orphanage (Pavel Paskalev), she is rescued from the brothel and can finally begin her real life. Anelia Garbova gives a convincing performance as the tough Lady Zee—indeed, quite remarkable for a nonprofessional of her young age.

Lady Zee drew applause in Sarajevo, where it won the festival’s main Heart of Sarajevo award. It has played at festivals around the world, bringing the director back into the international limelight. He is now developing his next project, based on the work of Bulgarian classic Yordan Radichkov.

Over the past several years Georgi Dyulgerov dedicated time to a project that is not very typical for directors of his stature, but is particularly dear to us: he worked extensively on entering detailed information and synopses for a wide range of Bulgarian films on the Internet Movie Database. As a result of his efforts, the data on Bulgarian cinema on this site are by far superior to the information on the cinemas of many other countries.

Documentary

Not only Bojidar Manov (see his text in this issue), but also other critics have claimed that the most successful Bulgarian films from the post-1989 period have been made in the documentary realm. We can only survey a few of these films here.

Stefan Komandarev’s Alphabet of Hope (Azbuka na nadezhdata, 2004) is a moving documentary on village life in a remote mountain area. It is a touching account of children traveling several hours back and forth each day to reach the last remaining school that services more than a dozen villages dispersed across a mountainous region. By an odd coincidence, previously out of reach as a “no man’s land” buffer border zone with Greece and Turkey, this region in the Rhodopi mountains enjoys international popularity today for the No Man’s Land wine (red and rosé) that is made from grapes grown in the local rocky vineyards. Komandarev also directed the acclaimed Bread over the Fence (Hlyab nad ogradata, 2002).

A number of documentaries tackled intricate inter-ethnic relations. Adela Peeva’s documentary The Unwanted (Izlishnite, 1999) features interviews with women inhabiting the depopulated border regions where the “revival process,” which aimed at imposing a forced change of name for ethnic Turks and Pomaks, took place. The women bitterly reassess the controversial role they played in the renaming campaign and acknowledge that they suffer from the adverse effects of their own complacency. It is an intelligent film that subtly reveals the repercussions for those who were behind the “revival process” and how, long after the victims have found solutions, the perpetrators still suffer the consequences of their own actions. Other uneasy aspects of the controversial “revival process” were also addressed in a made-for-TV film by Tanya Vaksberg and in Roumiana Petkova’s documentary A World In-Between (Mezhdinen svyat, 1995).

Documentary films about the Romani population focused mostly on the discrimination and poverty affecting this ethnic group in the post-communist period. Of the numerous Romani-themed films we can only mention a few, like Eldora Traykova’s Of People and Bears (Za horata i mechkite, 1995) and Life in a Ghetto (Zhivot v geto, 2000), Dimitar Petkov’s Gypsies of the World, Unite! (Tsigani ot vsichki strani, saedinyavayte se!, 1994), and Ivaylo Simidchiev’s Mud (Kal, 1997). Other documentaries tackled aspects of the Jewish salvation, like Boyan Papazov’s Simon, Avraam and Yosif (1994) and Milena Milotinova’s The Saved Ones (Spasenite, 1999).

We also need to mention the work of internationally renowned visual anthropologist Assen Balikci, who retired to Bulgaria after a high profile career in Montreal (he is best known for classical ethnographic work with the Innuit in the North of Canada). Dividing his time between Bulgaria and the Himalayas, Balikci organized a series of visual anthropology workshops and other projects, leading to the creation of a body of works featuring the multicultural realities of isolated communities. He also made an important ethnographic film, A Month in the Life of Eftim B (2001), which chronicled the difficult life of pensioners surviving on the breadline.

The most acclaimed Bulgarian documentary film of the past decade was Adela Peeva’s Whose is this Song? A documentarian with solid pre-1989 credentials, Peeva established herself as one of the leading figures of Bulgairan documentary filmmaking, following in the footsteps of other heavy-weights of the genre, such as veterans Nevena Tosheva, Hristo Kovachev, and Svetoslav Ovcharov.

Andrei Paunov’s Georgi and the Butterflies, reviewed here by Gergana Doncheva, received an award at the 2004 Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. It sketches the hilarious undertakings of a desperate idealist—the genial, amiable, and zany head of a Home for Psychologically Challenged Men—who, in order to keep his patients occupied, constantly comes up with newer and newer entrepreneurial schemes. The yard of the home is transformed into a snail farm, an ostrich breeding ground, and a manufactory where caterpillars weave silk cocoons. As bizarre as it is engaging, the film creates the impression that the world would be an inferior place if Georgi was not around to keep his extraordinary designs going.

Equally fascinating is Vassil Karkelanov’s Nestinars—Fires of Devotion (2005) a chronicle of a fire-walking ritual that originated in pagan days but was later adopted by some Christian sects. In the ritual, women and men go into a trance-like state and dance with bare feet on coals of fire to the beat of drums; the “nestinars” are believed to possess superior clairvoyant powers. By matching archival footage from past documentaries with footage of present-day mystic phenomena related to the “nestinars,” Karkelanov raises fascinating questions about possible parallels between Christian and pagan spirituality. Along the same lines, Krassimir Krumov’s The Meaning of Life depicts a 12-year-old boy’s quest for the meaning of life: he first takes the question to his mother (a biology teacher), then to the local minister, and eventually to a psychiatric consultant and to an astronomer—just to get a different answer from each one of them.

Bulgarian issues have been of interest to international documentarians as well. Recently a British-based graduate student sought our assistance in the development stage of her project dedicated to young Bulgarian men preparing for careers in sumo wrestling in Japan. Whereas some of the topics of these films come across as contrived and extravagant, other documentaries made by foreign filmmakers deserve serious attention. Two of the reviews in this current issue of KinoKultura cover such documentaries—Gareth Jones’ important text on Jacky and Lisa Comforty’s acclaimed Holocaust documentary The Optimists and Velina Petrova’s investigation of the German-made Copy Me: I Want to Travel, which explores the fate of Bulgarian women who have chosen careers in computing. New York-based Elka Nikolova is completing a film on celebrated Bulgarian director Binka Zhelyazkova; she hopes to be the first Bulgarian filmmaker whose work might be picked up for distribution in the West by Women Make Movies, who also distribute Copy Me.

To conclude, we would like to try answering the question of whether it is possible to speak of a revival in Bulgarian cinema. There are some positive signs. For the time being, however, we can be optimistic only in moderation. Domestic audiences responded warmly to the airing of a series of Bulgarian Film Classics on national television (Monday 8½, discussed by Velina Petrova in this issue). But at the same time, box office receipts for new Bulgarian feature films are dismal: Mila from Mars, the most widely seen film, sold approximately 20,000 tickets. The existential depth of the cinematic investigations discussed in Violetta Petrova’s text is noteworthy. But at the same time, these are auteur films that barely have an impact on national discourse. Some directors have been successful in developing a body of work in the aftermath of post-communism. But this is a singular example that cannot be matched easily in the Bulgarian context. In our view, Bojidar Manov’s metaphor of Bulgarian cinema as a person recuperating after a stroke still holds true. All we can do is look forward to a full recovery.


Resources
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Bulgarian Feature Films 1993-2003. Sofia: National Film Center, 2003.
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Gencheva, Galina. Bulgarski igralni filmi. Vol. 2: 1948-1970. Sofia: BNF-Dr. Petar Beron, 1988.
Grbić, Bogdan, Gabriel Loidot & Rossen Milev, eds. Die siebte Kunst auf dem Pulverfass: Balkan Film. Graz: Blimp, 1995.
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Grozev, Alexander. “The Peach Thief,” “Goat’s Horn,” “The Patent Leather Shoes of the Uniknown Soldier,” and “Measure for Measure.” In Cinema of the Balkans. Ed. Dina Iordanova. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.
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Iordanova, Dina, ed. Cinema of the Balkans. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.
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Web Resources

BG media A US-based on-line vendor carrying many Bulgarian titles in VHS and DVD, some subtitled.
Bulgarian cinema Short pieces and interviews on Bulgarian cinema by Iskra Dimitrova, both in English and Bulgarian.
Cinema.bg Largely the same info as the Titra site.
Titra Excellent resource packed with information on Bulgarian cinema, in Bulgarian only.
Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers Informative industry-orientated web-site.

© Ron Holloway and Dina Iordanova, 2006

Updated: 22 Nov 06