Bulgarian Cinema Today: Seventeen Years after the Changes

By Bojidar Manov (NATFIZ, Sofia)

© Bojidar Manov, 2006

In its almost 100 years of history, Bulgarian cinema has gone through three significant periods. From the first semi-professional feature and documentary films created early in the century until 1948, it developed as a free enterprise of small private film companies, producing films with plots derived mostly from Bulgaria’s national literature. The creative teams (film directors and cameramen) had no special film education and screen actors were most often theater performers with no experience in film acting.

The second period came after World War II with the establishment of the communist regime in Bulgaria, when the entire film industry (production, distribution, cinema theaters) was nationalized. The state exerted ideological control over film production through its censorship mechanisms and imposed new themes and filmmakers. However, considerable funds were allocated on an annual basis for the development of cinema. This regular funding permitted filmmakers to acquire necessary skills and expertise, and to become professionals within a relatively short period of time. New staff members were educated at film schools in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and—as of 1973—also in Bulgaria. This resulted in an annual output of 25 feature films for the distribution network and as many more films for the national TV, plus lots of documentaries and animated films. Thus, parallel to the purely propaganda themes supporting the government and the established ideology, there appeared also a number of highly artistic films with psychological, existential, or romantic plots that gradually won a good name for Bulgaria’s national cinema not only within the country but also at a number of international film festivals. The 1970s marked the strongest period in the development of Bulgarian cinema during this period, achieving its crowning success with films on the theme of social migration from the villages to the cities, and featuring the everyday life of ordinary people and the problems of the young generation.

The most recent period in Bulgaria’s film industry began after the great political changes of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall. Film production became once again a free enterprise with partial government support. However, in the context of the serious economic crisis that followed, and faced with the cutthroat competition of Hollywood commercial cinema, the Bulgarian film industry entered into a grave crisis with minimum output and a loss of audience interest. Only recently, after seventeen years of painful transition, is the industry making an attempt to find its way back to audiences. The new films, made and distributed in the conditions of a free market economy, reach out in a more communicative way, while simultaneously endeavoring to keep a specific cultural identity in balance with the processes of globalization and in pace with the new realities of a global audio-visual environment.

Twelve Years of Drifting

After the upheaval of 1989, Bulgarian national cinema welcomed the new uncensored mode of existence with relief. At the same time, however, it had to restructure itself to adapt to thoroughly different principles of economic behavior and to get in line with the new reference points of production, distribution, and marketing. The state monopoly on filmmaking, distribution, and exhibition, which survived for 51 years after nationalization in 1948, turned out to be a slow, painful, and depressing factor in the process of readjustment. The film industry quickly found itself on the brink of survival and the number of new films declined sharply. An unwanted side effect was a decline in artistic quality. During this period of crisis (which still persists), feature and animated filmmaking were most affected, while documentary filmmaking turned out to be more resilient—a lot more resistant and adaptable to the changed conditions.

The most important changes took place in 1990-91, when the production of new films in studios—like Boyana (motion pictures), Vreme (documentaries and popular scientific films), Sofia (animation), and Ekran (TV films)—was frozen and when whole creative teams (directors, cameramen, artists, screen writers, composers, and various other skilled technicians) were laid off. Newly emerging private producers started making efforts to set up independent businesses. Often these were people with neither experience nor funds, who had to work in an environment lacking any enforceable legislative framework. Some films that had been started under state monopoly were completed by private films. The first genuinely independent productions were released in 1992; these were Sergei Komitski’s Bullet for Paradise (Kurshum za raya) and Ralitsa Dimitrova’s documentary film The College (Kolezhat). The fundamental change in production conditions affected the economic basis of filmmaking, but—as one could expect—the artistic quality of the new films also suffered significantly.

The system of partial state funding (on competitive principles), distributed out of the scarce budget of the newly set up National Film Center, limited what producers could undertake, a situation that imposed creative compromises on directors. Co-productions involving foreign support—predominantly coming from the French National Film Center or Eurimages—regularly displayed substandard quality. Only two such co-productions—first time directors Ilian Simeonov and Hristian Notchev’s The Border (Granitsa, 1994) and skilled veteran Georgi Dyulgerov’s The Black Swallow (Chernata Lyastovitsa, 1997)—reminded viewers of the genuine artistic achievements of Bulgarian cinema.

It was no wonder that the years immediately following the lifting of long-standing ideological and thematic restrictions saw the release of a number of films that sharply criticized communist ideology and the ills of totalitarianism. All these films— Docho Bodzhakov’s The Well (Kladenetsat, 1991), Krassimir Kroumov’s The Silence (Mulchanieto, 1991), Ivan Andonov’s Vampires, Spooks (Vampiri, talasami, 1992), Evgenii Mikhailov’s Canary Season (Sezonat na kanarchetata, 1993), and Radoslav Spassov A Day of Forgiveness (Sirna nedelya, 1993)—represented diverse genres and styles, ranging from heavily tragic stories to light-hearted satires. They all, however, tried to offer an in-depth analysis of the issues of totalitarianism, of repression, and of the destiny of the individual during the various periods of communist dictatorship. Each film searched for its specific truth, yet all of them abounded, in one way or another, with poster-like proclamations, political platitudes, and, ultimately, with artistic feebleness. Regrettably, important new themes—the profound social and cultural changes, the deep cataclysms of the turnover, the jolts of the economic crisis, the psychological torment of individuals, and the stressful conditions of the transitional period—remained unexplored in feature films. Apparently, Bulgarian cinema could be diagnosed as suffering from “acute dramaturgic insufficiency.”

Skillful professional screenwriters and serious novelists grew estranged from filmmaking because of the failures of the production system and chronic underpayment, or were driven away by the arrogant egotism of directors searching to write scripts themselves. This resulted in a whole wave of films that were insignificant, small, old-fashioned and often extremely pretentious and unwatchable, such as Marius Kurkinski’s Madman's Diary (Dnevnikat na edin lud, 1993), Petar Popzlatev’s Something in the Air (Neshto vav vazduha, 1993), Krassimir Kroumov’s The Forbidden Fruit (Zabraneniyat plod, 1994), Ivan Tscherkelov’s Thundering Stones (Tarkalyashti se kamani, 1995) and Glass Marbles (Stakleni topcheta, 1999), and Andrey Slabakov’s Wagner (1998)—for which all of the directors wrote their own scripts. Only certain titles—such as Lyudmil Tododrov’s Emilia’s Friends (Priyatelite na Emilia, 1996), Ivan Pavlov’s Starting from Scratch (Vsichko ot nula, 1996), Ivan Nichev’s After the End of the World (Sled kraya na sveta, 1998), Stanimir Trifonov’s Battle for Wolves (Hayka za valtsi, 2000), Iglika Triffonova’s Letter to America (Pismo do America, 2000), and Dimitar Petkov’s The Devil’s Tail (Opashkata na dyavola, 2001)—crossed the standard threshold for good cinema and succeeded in communicating something to the audience, thus reminding us that there were still good things about our cinema. These films tried to halt Bulgarian cinema’s accelerating downfall and to regain the trust of audiences. Indeed, audience’s trust has always been the most important concern and the only remedy against disaster.

Luckily, while feature films failed, some documentaries managed to take hold of genuinely important issues of the period and to reflect partially some of the key problems of the time. Bulgarian animated cinema, which had won a reputation as a national school in the past, practically vanished because of elaborate and costly production processes; the best animators either left the country or had to earn their living by rendering services to foreign commercial productions. Thus, the late 1990s ended with a true collapse of Bulgarian cinema, whose output declined to 2 or 3 films per year, and by 1999 was down to an incredible “nil” for new feature films!

Recovery after a Stroke

Following the severe transitional shock and after twelve years of drifting, Bulgarian cinema looks like a person who has survived a stroke—alive, yet having to learn again to walk, to talk, and to express oneself coherently. The discouraging situation of the mid-1990s lasted until 2003. This was a period of time when talking about a national cinema would come across as almost obscene: the mood in the industry was gloomy and depressed, and speaking of achievements or hopes was inappropriate; all talk was of collapse and resignation, and neither exhilarating incantations, nor sporadic upsurges could change the overall dismal atmosphere.

No one in the world of Bulgarian cinema cherished illusions that a revival or nostalgic resurrection of past models was possible. Nonetheless, it was clear that if Bulgaria’s cinema was to survive after the “stroke,” it could only do so by bringing itself to make better films, to convey simple yet authentic messages, to show humanism, a positive attitude, and a respect for the audience. And if, as the saying has it, God helps the talented, the miracle of recovery could happen! It is true that sceptical Bulgarians would rather repeat a different saying—“God is far above, the King is far away.” But then, only the first part of this pessimistic saying was true, as at least “the King” was now in sight (the former Bulgarian king, Simeon II, was at that time a Prime Minister of Bulgaria). It was becoming crystal clear that the state could and should take care of the national cinema rather than preside indifferently over its demise and watch the film industry fight desperately to save itself from drowning.

So far, however, no one but Baron Munchausen has managed to be rescued by dragging himself out of the water by pulling on his own hair. Some urgent decisions concerning Bulgarian cinema were needed to provide a workable economic basis for funding national filmmaking. It was not only about the limited granting of state funds, but also about moderate allotments for the distribution network, for the ancillary video and DVD markets, and for privately owned exhibition facilities.

After extensive discussions and consultations, and as a result of various individual or joint efforts, a decision was finally reached to establish a more permanent filmmaking unit at Bulgarian National Television. Nowadays ten percent of the TV network’s annual budget is allocated to the newly established Center for TV Films, where featurettes, TV serials, and some documentaries have already been shot and where co-production projects of independent producers are being supported. This new approach is in its early days, yet it already creates the feeling that there is some order and system in place, and that some continuity may be in store. The next decisive step was (at long last) the adoption of the Law on the Bulgarian Film Industry in 2003, which helped create a stable economic basis for financing national filmmaking. Apart from general ideas and some reasonable practical provisions, the new Law finally stipulates a particular annual amount from the government budget (six million Bulgarian lev, equivalent to slightly over three million Euro), which is to be allocated specifically for film production. A new regulatory body—the National Cinema Council, consisting of twelve members and including distinguished film directors, critics, producers, distributors—was established in order to optimize and develop all aspects of Bulgarian cinema.

Naturally, these regulatory measures alone could not possibly change the overall trend, nor could they immediately bring about a radically new situation. At the same time, the most active cineastes (scriptwriters, directors, producers) have managed to find their way in the new environment, to overcome the confusion and lack of significant artistic ideas, to find the right channels to certain European funds (Media, Eurimages) or other foreign co-production partners. Thus, slowly and painfully, about two to three years ago we started seeing some early signs of recovery, accompanied by hope-raising revival tremors and other stimulating symptoms suggesting recuperation after a severe stroke.

Some of the few feature films produced at that time were screened at international festivals: Emigrants, Kostadin Bonev’s Warming of Yesterday’s Dinner (Podgryavane na vcherashniya obyad, 2002), Teddy Moskov’s Rhapsody in White (Rapsodiya v byalo, 2002), and Krassimir Kroumov’s Under the Same Sky (Pod edno nebe, 2003). Some even came back with wonderful awards: Zornitza Sophia’s Mila From Mars (Mila ot Mars, 2004) was a kind of “first swallow,” with a number of international awards including the Grand Award from Sarajevo 2004, bestowed by a jury chaired by Mike Leigh. The same success came the very next year to Georgi Dyulgerov’s Lady Zee (Leydi Zi, 2005). Even though not as fortunate on the festival circuit, good films were produced by other directors from the intermediate generation: Svetoslav Ovcharov’s A Leaf in the Wind (List otbrulen, 2002), Stanimir Trifonov’s Burning Out (Izpepelyavane, 2004), and Krassimir Kroumov’s The Meaning of Life (Smisalat na zhivota, 2004). The year 2005 marked the triumph of young Vessela Kazakova, who received the best actress award in Moscow for Radoslav Spasov’s Stolen Eyes (Otkradnati ochi, 2004), shortly after winning a Shooting Star award at Berlinale 2006.

This slow accumulation of new works was building up in a way that allowed for growth in new directions. It appeared that we had finally sunk to the very bottom and that there we had found solid ground that allowed us to push up and, in a quest for a breath of fresh air, to get out of the abyss. By the look of it, this vitally important breath of air became attainable only in 2006, when about a dozen new films were ready to leave the cutting tables, and half of these were good! Skilled director Kiran Kolarov returned to the screen with The Rebellion of L. (Buntat na L.), Krassimir Kroumov continued work on his trilogy about the cataclysms in present-day Bulgarian village life with Night and Day (Nosht and den), Ilian Simeonov surprised viewers with his sophisticated artistry, philosophic shades, and marginal characters in Warden of the Dead. The 41st International Film Festival in Karlovy Vary 2006 turned into a resounding Bulgarian triumph with Ivan Cherkelov and Vassil Zhivkov’s Christmas Tree Upside Down (Obarnata elha) getting the Special Award of the Jury, chaired by Serbian director Goran Paskaljević. Milena Andonova’s debut feature Monkeys in Winter (Maymuni prez zimata) received the best film award in the East of the West category. Great expectations for future festival distinctions are set also on Investigation (2006), the second film of director Iglika Triffonova.

Meanwhile, Bulgarian documentary cinema, which overcame the crisis much more easily and almost never lost momentum, also had some impressive achievements. Adela Peeva’s Whose is this Song? (Chiya e tazi pesen, 2003), a very good film about the complicated ethnic and cultural situation in the Balkans, was among the seven films nominated by the European Film Academy. For two consecutive years, director Stefan Komandarev won the biggest documentary award at the GoEast Festival in Wiesbaden with Bread over the Fence (Hlyab nad ogradata, 2002) and Alphabet of Hope (Azbuka na nadezhdata, 2003). Furthermore, the charming psychological portrait in Andrei Paunov’s Georgi and the Butterflies (Georgi and peperudite, 2004) not only traveled around to twenty festivals and won several prestigious awards, but it also became the first Bulgarian documentary ever to get commercial distribution in Austria and Germany.

One way or another, after twelve years of drifting since 1989, Bulgarian cinema reached the 21st century, hesitating and lacking a clear perspective. Five years later, the situation seems to be taking a turn toward a long expected revitalization. There are raised expectations for the thorough stabilization of the cinematographic process in Bulgaria, including film production, financing, and distribution; integration with the European market; technological modernization, training, and education. The ultimate objective is that Bulgaria’s cinema will eventually become part of the global audio-visual cultural network.

For the time being, however, аll we have is the hope for revival. Bulgarian filmmakers and critics still frequently remember the sorrowful statement that Bernardo Bertolucci made about Italian cinema when he described it as a cinema that “has a great future in the past.” Are we going to let these words be proven true again, or shall we make a rational effort to overcome their painful irony?

© Bojidar Manov, 2006

Updated: 07 Nov 06