Although Bulgarian cinema hardly catches the eye in North America, it has been known to enliven audiences at several ranking European film festivals. At the 1983 Venice festival, Vesselin Branev’s Hotel Central) Hotel Tsentral, 1983) was hailed by knowledgeable critics as a discovery. Branev was making his debut as a feature film director, a fifty-one-year-old debutant who already had a distinguished career behind him as a screenwriter and and director of telefeatures.
Bulgarian animation is world class. No one attending the 1985 Varna World Animated Film Festival was surprised to see Donyo Donev’s feature-length We Called Them Montagues and Capulets (Narekohme gi Monteki i Kapuleti, 1985) win the first prize in its category. Donev is a recognized master of the philosophical parable, honed in the traditions of Bulgarian folklore. Indeed, Bulgarian animation ranks high among the singularly progressive national cinematographies in Eastern Europe in this field.
At the recent tribute to Eastern European Cinema at the 1987 Pesaro festival (which offered a valuable cross-reference on what is going on in socialist production studios today), Rumyana Petkova’s Coming Down to Earth (Prizemyavé, 1985) was recognized as a forthright feminist statement made by a collective of women filmmaking talent. That film alone exemplifies that the concerns of women in socialist countries on fundamental issues are no different than those of their counterparts in the West.
Bulgaria is often referred to as “the Prussia of the Balkans.” It is a land of culture and traditions. As a country on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, it tends to absorb and reflect rather than promote or flaunt its own unique national character. One has to spend some time in Sofia, visit the rural communities, and partake of various festive celebrations to grasp the depth of its cinematic expression.
There have been two major periods of astonishing growth and maturity in Bulgarian cinema. The first occurred in the late fifties and lasted until the early sixties. It was a cinema of poetics, elements that have characterized the best in this national cinematography from practically the beginning. The second took place in the early seventies and continued to the series of epic productions celebrating the thirteen-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian nation in 1981. The cost alone of producing a series of super-spectacles induced a subsequent cutback within the film industry that was to affect it both aesthetically and commercially. This study will focus only on the second major period of Bulgarian cinema.
When I paid my first visit to Bulgaria—to the Varna Festival of Bulgarian Feature Films—in September 1969, the screenings were mostly in a modest outdoor arena for the general public, some Black Sea tourists, and a handful of selected foreign critics. But the opportunity to meet the country’s leading film directors over the span of a week in easy-going surroundings made the invitation worthwhile.
The first Bulgarian film revival (1956-65) had followed pretty much the general course of the “thaw” during the post-Stalin years and the Krushchev era. One general director of Bulgarian film succeeded another in rapid succession during these questioning times: Alexander Dunchev (1965-67), Georgi Karamanev (1967-68), Filip Filipov (1968-69), and now, at the time of my visit, Hristo Santov (1969-71). The leading director in the country, Rangel Vulchanov, had practically given up feature filmmaking to work on documentaries. Binka Zhelyazkova’s The Attached Balloon (Privarzaniyat balon, 1967) had been withdrawn from distribution shortly after its release and was thereafter relegated to the shelf until the present day. Three other feature films from this period were also on the shelf: Hristo Piskov’s and Irina Aktasheva’s Monday Morning) Ponedelnik sutrin, 1966), Lyubomir Sharlandjiev’s The Prosecutor (Prokurorat, 1968), and Eduard Zahariev’s The Sky over the Veleka (Nebeto na Veleka, 1968).
Still, there was much to get interested in. The first impressions need not only be related to the art of the cinema. Bulgaria is, after all, an archaeological trove: the tombs of the Proto-Thracians were being unearthed in the immediate vicinity of Varna, and diggings have been going on for over a decade at the nearby ancient Bulgarian capitals of Pliska and Preslav. Even more impressive are the restored examples of early Christian architecture at the peninsular city of Nesebur on the Black Sea coast. Many famous cloisters are but a short drive away, each significant for the preservation of Old Slavonic icons and manuscripts dating back to the ninth century.
Needless to say, in view of these outside but related interests, I was fascinated by one of the films in the Varna festival: Todor Dinov’s and Hristo Hristov’s Iconostasis (Ikonostasat, 1969). For even though its narrative line was heavily theatrical—based on Dimiter Talev’s The Iron Candlestick (published in 1952) and set during the period of the Bulgarian Renaissance (the late nineteenth century under the Turkish Occupation)—its affinity to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966, released 1969/71) was unmistakable. Indeed, the spiritual agonies suffered by the woodcarver, Rafe, in Iconostasis paralleled those of the great Russian icon painter in Andrei Rublev in thematic expression if not narrative content. And since Tarkovsky’s film prompted a walkout at the Cannes festival by the Soviet delegation in May 1969, the appearance of this film only a few months later in a Bulgarian showcase stirred speculation among foreign critics. Iconostasis marked the beginning of a new era in contemporary Bulgarian cinema.
THE ARTIST SEEKS A WAY
In a cinema of poetics an artist can find his intended audience via the image rather than the word. This had happened in Bulgarian cinema. Back in 1956, two projects were approved by the State Committee for Cinematography: Rangel Vulchanov’s On a Small Island (Na malkiya ostrov, 1958) and Binka Zhelyazkova and Hristo Ganev’s Partisans (Partizani, never released), also known as Life Flows Quietly By (Zhivotat si teche tiho). Both films were completed approximately at the same time, but the Zhelyazkova/Ganev project immediately triggered heated discussion.
The theme of Partisan-heroes-turned-political-careerists was not new to socialist cinema at this time, but the more metaphorical and decisively poetic On a Small Island was considered more appropriate for release—even though the latter also blatantly circumvented the tenets of socialist realism. Although Partisans has yet to be seen to be properly appraised, the parallel projects can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. This is not to say that Rangel Vulchanov and his screenplay writer, Valeri Petrov, would escape running afoul of the authorities themselves. After two more poetic statements—First Lesson (Parvi urok, 1960) and Sun and Shadow (Slantseto i syankata, 1962)—the collaboration between the country’s leading poet and Bulgarian cinema’s most gifted director was brought to a forced close.
But the seeds of a poetic cinema had been sown. The tradition was to continue in other films: Konrad Wolf’s Stars (Zdezdl/Sterne, 1959), an East German-Bulgarian coproduction; Binka Zhelyazkova’s We Were Young (A byahme mladi, 1961), scripted again by Hristo Ganev; Vulo Radev’s Peach Thief (Kradetsat na praskovi, 1964), costarring Nevena Kokanova and Rade Marković (respectively one of Bulgaria’s and one of Yugoslavia’s most popular actors); and Borislav Sharaliev’s Knight without Honor (Ritsar bez bronya, 1966), a children’s film scripted by Valeri Petrov. And it was to surface again in Binka Zhelyazkova’s The Attached Balloon (1967), scripted by one of Bulgaria’s outstanding writers, Yordan Radichkov.
Thus, with the appearance of Iconostasis in 1969, a tradition of a national poetic cinema was confirmed again despite stylistic flaws by a pair of debut directors, Todor Dinov from the field of animation and Hristo Hristov from the theater. An allegory on the times, the story itself sketched in broad terms the dilemma facing the committed film artist whose projects have to be approved by bureaucrats committed to the staid formula of socialist realism in the scenario. A visual breath-of-life is particularly felt at the moment when the discouraged icon-painter, during the last days of the Ottoman occupation when a revival in Bulgarian arts and literature is badly needed, enters the Bachkovo Monastery near Plovdiv to receive inspiration from the frescoes painted on the refectory walls back in 1606.
A NEW START
Pavel Pissarev entered the picture as the new General Director of the Bulgarian State Cinematography in 1971. His appearance on the scene coincided with a short feature made by a talented graduate of the Moscow Film School (VGIK): Georgi Djulgerov’s The Test (lzpit) the second part of the omnibus film Colorful World (Sharen svyat, 1971). Both Djulgerov’s film and Milan Nikolov’s Naked Conscience (Gola suvest) were based on tales by Nikolai Haitov, a rural writer who took his stories from the legends of the Rhodope Mountains and the realities of simple peasant life. It is the moral tone in The Test that makes it a standout.
Unlike the socially engaged films that went before it, The Test does not preach. The film is about an individual wrestling with his own fate and following the dictates of his own conscience; it is not immersed in the polemics of a hero struggling for the greater good of the working class. Further, the story could have taken place anywhere at any time. Indeed, Djulgerov had made this very film twice over—first as a graduate film (The Cooper, 1969) at VGIK set in Armenia, and now as a debut director for Bulgariafilm looking for sources of inspiration in his own national traditions.
Although The Test skirted sociopolitical issues, two other films made at the end of the sixties, Grisha Ostrovski and Todor Stoyanov’s Sidetrack (Otklonenie, 1967) and Metodi Andonov’s The White Room (Byalata staya, 1968), offered “between-the-lines” statements on the ill effects of Stalinism and the Personality Cult. Their aim was a reckoning with the past in metaphoric or parabolic terms; by dealing with the issues at hand in this manner, the viewer had to decipher the message for himself. Also, Georgi Stoyanov’s Birds and Greyhounds (Ptitsi i hratki, 1969) was noteworthy for attempting to offer a different perspective on teenaged resistance to fascism in a provincial village at the outbreak of the Second World War, but overall this amounted to a minor effort.
The beginning of the seventies heralded a breakthrough for native thematic material in Bulgarian cinema. Just as writers-scriptwriters Angel Wagenstein and Valeri Petrov set standards at the birth of a postwar national cinema, a new breed of storytellers drew inspiration directly from the lives of the people and the handed-down legends of times past. Among these were Nikolai Haitov, Yordan Radichkov, and Georgi Mishev.
Pavel Pissarev, as the new General Director answering to Cultural Minister Lyudmila Shivkova, inaugurated the new start in 1971 by dividing the state film industry into three independent production units, Haemus, Mladost, and Sredets—with a fourth one, Suvremenik, added in 1978. The filmmakers had now to answer principally to themselves and their artistic directors at the Boyana Studios (located a short driving distance from Sofia at the foot of Mount Vitosha). He also supported the founding of the Sofia Film Academy (VITIS) in 1973.
A commercial success confirmed the foresight of these structural changes almost immediately. Metodi Andonov’s The Coat Horn (Koziyat roz, 1972), based on a Haitov story, was seen by more Bulgarians than any other national film production before or since. A tale of revenge set during the long reign of the Turkish occupation, the film attracted a vast audience primarily because it was a good simple story well told, with reference to a long-gone past still familiar to every viewer from childhood experiences at the family hearth. The Goat Horn did not find as enthusiastic response abroad as at home, but it did encourage a national cinema to look to its own audience for indices of production values.
In the same year, another film was made that proved to be even more integral to a maturing socialist cinema: Hristo Hristov’s The Last Summer (Posledno lyato, 1972; released 1974), based on a story by Yordan Radichkov. On the surface, The Last Summer records the plight of a villager who refuses to abandon his traditional family home to settle elsewhere just as a newly constructed dam causes everything around him that he holds dear to disappear under the waters of a new man-made lake. The film is more than just a human drama; it is also a social analysis of village-to-town migration with all the ramifications that a newly formed industrial society must reckon. Further, the primitive free spirit of the film’s hero gives way gradually to visionary surrealistic fantasies and stream-of-consciousness poetic passages alien to the usual socially engaged theme of this type. The film was shelved for two years before release—and when it was finally released in a cut version in 1974, critical themes of this nature were becoming more common.
More signs of a revival could be noted in the children’s film genre and films for youth. Dimiter Petrov’s Porcupines Are Born Without Bristles (Taralezhite se razhdat bez bodli, 1971) featured three novellas scripted by the Mormarev brothers, who over the years were to play a major role—together with directors Dimiter Petrov and Ivanka Grubcheva—in honing the specialized children’s film to a fine art. Lyudmil Kirkov’s A Boy Becomes a Man (Momcheto si otiva, 1972) also marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between a socially engaged director and a storyteller whose theme of integrity in an alien society made both his books and his screenplays popular entertainment among the masses. It was not long before Bulgarian cinema was internationally recognized for its unique and peculiar “Balkan” merits.
THE PAVEL PISSAREV YEARS
For approximately a decade between 1971 and 1980, during which time Pavel Pissarev served as General Director of Bulgariafilm, an era of prosperity descended upon the Boyana Studios that has not been seen before or since. Quite likely, the magic of the moment was ultimately due to the forthcoming thirteen-hundredth anniversary celebrations in 1981, for which the state shelled out millions in leva for cultural events and programming.
To honor the official anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian state (20 October 1981), several traveling art exhibits and touring performance groups were scheduled in Western Europe, North and South America, and elsewhere around the world. Indeed, the Thracian Gold Exhibit was underway for more than a decade without returning home at all, while the same was true of the religious treasures—manuscripts, icons, religious vessels—preserved in the Rila Monastery. Theater, choral and orchestral performances, and a “Festival of Bulgarian Films” became common events abroad.
To breathe new life into a faltering national cinema, Pissarev worked closely with the newly elected First Secretary of Bulgarian Filmmakers, Hristo Hristov, whose own Iconostasis (1969) and Hammer or Anvil (Nakovalnya ili chuk, 1972)—an epic on the Leipzig Trial of 1933 and Georgi Dimitrov, coproduced by the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic—had thrust him into the foreground of the nation’s directorial ranks. Hristov responded by both directing and creating the set design for the surrealist fantasy, The Last Summer (1972/74), a controversial film based on Yordan Radichkov’s sociocritical novella (published in 1965). A milestone in contemporary Bulgarian cinema, it is arguably his best film.
The international film festivals responded almost immediately to the new line of artistic creativity emanating from the Boyana Studios. Lyudmil Staikov’s Affection (Obich, 1972) won a Gold Prize at the 1973 Moscow Film Festival. Binka Zhelyazkova’s The Last Word (Poslednata, 1973) was invited to participate in Cannes as an official entry. Festival invitations poured in for Eduard Zahariev’s The Hare Census (Prebroyavane na divite zaytsi, 1973) and Villa Zone (Vilna zona, 1975), satires made in collaboration with Georgi Mishev; and his Manly Times (Muzhki vremena, 1977), based on a Nikolai Haitov story, won the Grand Prix at the 1978 New Delhi festival. That same year, Georgi Djulgerov won a Silver Bear for best direction at Berlin for Advantage (Avantazh, 1977).
Another welcome sign was the return of Rangel Vulchanov to form. After collaborating with Valeri Petrov again on With Love and Tenderness (S lyubov i nezhnost, 1978), parodying the purveyors of artistic taste and trendsetting, he pulled a script out of the drawer that had been lying there for fifteen years to make the nostalgic, bittersweet The Unknown Soldier’s Patent Leather Shoes (Lachenite obouvki na neznainiya voin, 1979); it was chosen to open the London Film Festival.
Further, standards were set at children’s film festivals throughout the seventies. Ivanka Grubcheva’s Exams at Any Odd Time (Izpiti po nikoe vreme, 1974) and With Nobody (Pri nikogo, 1975), in particular, and also Rashko Ouzunov’s Talisman (1978), were popular favorites. Bulgarian animation was hailed among the world’s wittiest when the philosophical fables of Donyo Donev were singled out for an honorary retrospective at the 1979 Oberhausen Short Film Festival.
Young talent graduated from VITIS, the Sofia Film and Theater Academy, to make remarkable debut features during the late seventies: Kiran Kolarov’s Status: Orderly (Slouzhebno polozheniye: ordinarets, 1978), Yevgeni Mihailov’s Home for Lonely Souls (Dom za nezhni doushi, 1981), Ognyan Gelinov’s The Flying Machine (Letaloto, 1981), Ivan Pavlov’s Mass Miracle (Massovo choudo, 1981), and Rumyana Petkova’s Reflections (Otrazhenia, 1982). For the first time, promising directors of theater and cinema did not have to journey abroad for their studies, for in Sofia their own teachers—Vulchanov, Djulgerov, Hristov—numbered among the best in socialist cinema.
Under Pissarev a filmmaker took full responsibility for his handling of approved thematic content. Rangel Vulchanov’s The Inspector and the Forest (Sledovatelyat i dorata, 1975) made use of actual criminal records to expose a prostitution ring operating in the capital. Lyudmil Kirkov’s Matriarchate (Matriarhat, 1977) expressed open doubts about abandoned villages peopled solely by women taking care of collective farms while their men preferred working in urban factories for long stretches. Ivan Andonov’s The Cherry Orchard (Chereshova gradina, 1979) went even further by pitting an honest forester in a losing moral fight against a crooked director of a farm cooperative. Hristo Hristov’s The Truck (Kamionat, 1980) and A Woman at Thirty-Three (Edna zhena na trideset, 1982) went so far in citing social ills that both films have received only limited release up to the present.
Pissarev’s legacy, however, was the striking series of historical epics produced for the thirteen-hundredth anniversary year of 1981, some of them not fully completed until four years later. By Western standards, these super-spectacles would have cost a small fortune. Entire armies were conscripted to play extras in mass-orchestrated battle scenes; fortresses were built and costumes prepared to match originals; and all was photographed on Eastman-Kodak to assure archival longevity.
Taken together, these spectacles offer a picture-book review of Bulgarian history: Zahari Zhandov’s Master of Boyana (Boyanskiyat maistor, 1981), Lyudmil Stalkov’s Khan Asparukh (1981), Georgi Djulgerov’s Measure for Measure (Mera spored mera, 1981), Georgi Stoyanov’s Constantine the Philosopher (Konstantin filosof, 1983), and Borislav Sharaliev’s Boris the First (Boris purvi, 1984). Save for the first named, each was conceived for release in two or three parts, and they all endeavor to render historical conflicts in distinctly modern terms. Even though the foreign critic may yell enough is enough upon seeing one of the epics, one cannot but be impressed by the desire of an entire people to relive on the screen the glories of the past—particularly as the Bulgarians had suffered under the Turkish yoke for five hundred years.
MEASURING A PAST HERITAGE
One of the four selected monuments set aside for UNESCO-sponsored preservation in Bulgaria is the Boyana Church near Sofia. No one knows who painted the frescoes in this royal chapel in 1259, but they are exemplary of the Turnovo School. They also anticipated Cimabue and Giotto a full generation later. One can therefore assume that Boyana is a key, indeed an essential bridge, between the rigid formula of the Byzantine icon and the humanism of the Italian Renaissance.
This historical footnote does not make a film. Zahari Zhandov’s Master of Boyana (1981) leaves much to be desired as an integral work of cinematic art. However, that the film could be made at all in a socialist country wary of its own rich religious traditions speaks for itself—as well as for those officials in high government positions who allowed a project of this sort (together with others relating to the same religious heritage) to get off the ground in the first place. By way of comparison, the Soviet Union will be facing the same dilemma in 1988, when the millenium of Russia’s conversion to Christianity will fall under similar artistic and cultural scrutiny.
Zhandov was undoubtedly the right Bulgarian film director to make Master of Boyana. He was one of the newsreel veterans who filmed the liberation of Sofia in September 1944, who later won several international prizes for documentaries about the land and its people in the immediate postwar years, and who directed the country’s first major, artistically successful feature film: Alarm (Trevoga, 1951). Thirty years to the day after Alarm’s premiere—on 9 March 1981—Master of Boyana was presented in the headquarters of the Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers in Sofia. Although the screenplay had been written long ago (together with Yevgeni Konstantinov), the project had been approved only recently. The film was the first to celebrate the thirteen-hundredth anniversary.
In an interview, Zhandov himself admitted to two outside influences in the conception of Master of Boyana. His wife, an archaeologist and art historian, brought to the project a broad knowledge of the treasures still being unearthed, artifacts relating to the First Bulgarian Kingdom (681-1018) and the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1186-1395). These helped to fortify certain fictional elements about the life and personality of the Boyana painter. The second influence was his friendship with the Georgian-Armenian director, Sergei Paradzhanov, whose own personal commitment to national religious traditions led to an open confrontation with Soviet authorities and imprisonment for his artistic beliefs. Georgian traditions, according to Zhandov, bear a direct relationship to Bulgarian.
Thus, in a sense, Master of Boyana prepared the way for the succeeding films dealing with the cultural and religious heritage of the country—particularly Georgi Stoyanov’s Constantine the Philosopher (1983) and Borislav Sharaliev’s Boris the First (1984). The very fact that both of these films were released long after the anniversary of the nation’s founding attests to a measure of difficulty encountered in approving and distributing these films. Further, the untimely death of Bulgaria’s cultural minister, Lyudmila Shivkova, in the very midst of the 1981 celebrations, added to the uncertainties plaguing Bulgarian cinema in general throughout the present decade.
Constantine the Philosopher deals with the conversion of the Slavs to Christianity. It is the story of the Greek missionaries Cyril (Constantine) and Methodius, who as monks journeyed first to Moravia and then to Bulgaria (the actual conversion in 864-65 taking place under their disciples). Cyril-Constantine (827-69) made his impact on history as a philosopher in the Byzantine court, succeeding the patriarch Photius as the head of the university’s philosophy department in Constantinople while still in his twenties. Stoyanov’s coverage of these years in Constantinople faced few outside hindrances of any kind. While shooting the second part, however, which dealt with the actual missionary activities, he found his project stalled due to the untimely death of the cultural minister. For a time, in fact, the entire project ended up on the shelf.
Although reports conflict as to what exactly took place after the completion of the first part, a final decision was made to release the entire epic only as a television event for the national population. Subsequent requests from abroad to view the film as a theatrical production have met with little response. Many observers feel that the issue will be reviewed again in 1988, when Russia celebrates its own anniversary year. Indeed, the very question of the millenium celebrations of the conversion of Slavic peoples to Christianity is a controversial one among exponents of orthodox Marxist ideology. It has posed a problem to Poland and Czechoslovakia in the past, and now the Soviet Union is next in line. Bulgaria plays a key role in these ongoing discussions simply because the missionary spirit and subsequent Slavonic Orthodox liturgy emanated from Bulgaria. For this reason historians and political commentators have made it a point to visit the Rila Cloister in Bulgaria (near Sofia) and the Church of St. Clement in Ohrid in the Macedonian Republic of Yugoslavia (near Skopje) during the present decade to examine the roots of the dilemma.
As for Borislav Sharaliev’s Boris the First, the question of Khan Boris’s conversion to Christianity (in either 864 or 865) was narrowed down in the screenplay to a power struggle between the retiring khan and his wayward son, Vladimir, the latter preferring the principles of traditional Bulgarian paganism over suspect alliances with Orthodox Byzantium. Sharaliev, together with screenwriter Angel Wagenstein, treated the theme primarily in the context of a moral conflict. That in itself would have been sufficient to raise the film above the average, save that the director concentrated all his energies on the epic dimensions of costumes, action, and battle scenes. Further, one key personality is conspicuously absent from the story, and that is Simeon, Vladimir’s brother, who left his monastic training in Constantinople to return to the ancient Bulgarian capital of Pliska to ascend the throne. Later, Simeon was to launch, at his own capital at Preslav, the Golden Age of the First Bulgarian Kingdom within the cultural tradition of a new Slavonic Christianity modeled on that of Byzantium.
These three films—Master of Boyana, Constantine the Philosopher, and Boris the First deserve, with all their faults, a special place in the history of Bulgarian cinema. Thematically, it is inconceivable that any of them would have been produced in this country up to a decade before, and it is only due to the occasion of the anniversary year that they have been attempted at all.
YARDSTICKS TO HISTORY
On the 20th of October, 1981 (the original day of the year an arbitrary one), Bulgaria celebrated its thirteen-hundredth anniversary as a state. The usual festivities, complete with fireworks, marked the occasion, but the key cultural event was the national release of a film: Lyudmil Staikov’s three-part epic, Khan Asparukh. The premiere of Part One was held on October 19th, followed by Parts Two and Three spaced a week apart. This was the most expensive film in Bulgarian film history, one that was to receive a second release three years later in shortened form for the foreign market: 681 A.D.—The Glory of Khan (1984).
Part One, Phanagoria, deals with the migration of a Turkic people from the steppes of Middle Asia, a land referred to in the film as “Great Bulgaria.” The emphasis here is on the life, customs, and traditions of a people. Part Two, Migration, is the story of the trek westward through the seasons and over a lengthy stretch of time until the tribe under the young khan reached the River Danube. There, they encountered stubborn resistance among the Slavs who had previously settled in this area. Part Three, Land Forever, highlights the unity of the Bulgars and Slavs to defeat a better equipped Byzantine army under Emperor Constantine IV Pogonatus. Naturally, for all these events, a cast of thousands arrayed in splendid costumes and armed with ancient weapons was required to lend an air of authenticity to the epic. Khan Asparukh was fittingly shot in Eastmancolor.
Despite the attention to production detail, however, the film has serious historical deficiencies. For one thing (as Bulgaria’s neighboring countries, particularly Romania, noted), the very fact that the migrating Bulgars encountered only Slavs on their route to the Danube delta places much in question. Another deficiency is the fictionalized romanticism permeating the story from start to finish; indeed, the screenplay and the dialogue leave much to be desired.
What stands out are the action scenes and the landscapes photographed over the seasons. It was apparently for these reasons that a Warner Brothers’ representative became interested in purchasing a shortened version of the film for exhibition abroad.
By contrast, the other historical epic to mark the anniversary, Georgi Djulgerov’s Measure for Measure, rates as outstanding cinema in every respect. This is a film on the “Macedonian Question”—that is, the disputed area belonging today to Yugoslavia (the Macedonian Republic), but which was traditionally a part of ancient Bulgaria until the time of Ottoman occupation. That the film could be made at all is a bit of a production mystery, but Djulgerov does avoid open political statements and goes straight to the heart of a dramatic story that stands on its own merits.
Like Khan Asparukh, this is a three-part epic. Part One treats Macedonia still under the Turks (1878-1903), a time when the fate of the people in this area of the Balkans was still being determined by the Great Powers at the bargaining table. Part Two centers almost entirely on the llinden Day Uprising, on the Feast of St. Elijah (August 2), followed by the founding of the short-lived Krushovo Republic—all in the year 1903. Part Three then covers the final years of the revolution, 1906-12, when the Krushovo Republic was brutally crushed. Even the title, Measure for Measure, hints of an historical reassessment of the facts by way of a review of diaries and other chronicles by eyewitnesses.
The setting is a section of Macedonia in what is currently part of Greece, not at all Bulgaria or Yugoslavia. It is true, nonetheless, that Macedonians as a people are today found in these three bordering countries, a situation that has led to constant incidents in the past and present. Thus, the “Macedonian Question”—somewhat similar to the dilemma of Kurds inhabiting today’s Iraq, Turkey, and the Soviet Union—is triggered whenever politically convenient either for pressing an issue or pressing an alarm button in the public forum.
The strength of Djulgerov’s Measure for Measure is its blend of fiction and documentary. Far from being a dramatic epic or tied to a message of dubious sociopolitical worth, the film is rooted in the life experiences of real people in circumstances that require a personal decision to fight for human rights. As for the story line itself, the film depicts a “Viva Zapata” situation, one in which an illiterate peasant finds himself in the middle of something he does not quite understand, and does not wish to be a part of—until the revolution begins, and he finds a gun thrust into his hand. The outstanding performance by the film’s screenwriter, Russi Chanev, in the lead role, as well as Radoslav Spassov’s striking photography, adds to Djulgerov’s directorial talent and augurs well for this filmmaking team.
However, following this production, Georgi Djulgerov dropped completely from sight as a feature film director. Measure for Measure thus became an unexplained caesura in his promising career, despite the director’s trips abroad (one even to Moscow to show the film to former VGIK colleagues at the film school) to win support for both the project and the stylistic innovations it brought to Bulgarian cinema. In the end, however, it was these innovations that proved the undoing of both Djulgerov and Measure for Measure: indeed, the film had broken the mold for the formula-structured socialist (and Bulgarian) historical film.
One has only to make a comparison between Measure for Measure and Khan Asparukh to note the essential differences in the formula. Staikov offers little or no interpretation of history, while Djulgerov seeks to give reasons for the course that contemporary history took in the case of a new Bulgaria formed out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Staikov’s title figure is one-dimensional, a historical (almost legendary) icon emerging out of the mists of the past, while Djulgerov’s hero is a stubborn, flesh-and-blood individual who grows into manhood while performing the tasks set before him. Staikov orchestrates his battle scenes, while Djulgerov shows the Ilinden Day Uprising as a confusing chain of events without much rhyme or reason.
Subsequent Bulgarian historical epics, particularly Borislav Sharaliev’s Boris the First (1984) and Vladislav Ikonomov’s Day of the Rulers (Denyat na vladetelite, 1985), returned to the typical formula for the socialist historical film.
THE METAMORPHOSIS OF
THE PARTISAN FILM
Outside of the historical film, nothing is more sacred than the Partisan film in socialist countries. When Binka Zhelyazkova and Hristo Ganev attempted to show how corruption had tarnished the ideals of former Partisan heroes in Life Flows Quietly By (also known simply as Partisans) in 1958, shortly after the demise of the Personality Cult, the film was considered too explicit and was promptly shelved. Shortly thereafter, the writer-director pair made We Were Young (A byahme mladi, 1961), striking for its poetic realism but this time extolling the deeds of young resistance fighters in Sofia who were pursued by fascist authorities during the war years.
The same situation faced Rangel Vulchanov in the post-Stalinist years. His On a Small Island (1958), a personal statement rooted in the events following the 1923 uprising, is reported to have barely passed the censorship office, whereupon his next film (made together with poet-screen-writer Valeri Petrov) stayed well within the bounds of discretion in depicting, once again, the fate of young revolutionaries in Sofia during the war: First Lesson (1960).
It was not until Georgi Stoyanov’s Birds and Greyhounds (1969) that lyrical statements on Partisan or resistance activities could be produced for a new, younger generation of viewers, for whom the years of resistance were now far removed. Scripted by Vassil Akyov and partially based on his own personal experiences as a teenager, this is the story of sixteen-year-olds in a small provincial village maturing into manhood on the eve of the Second World War. Compared with Zako Heskia’s The Eighth (Osmiyat, 1969), the Grand Prix winner at the Varna festival, Stoyanov’s approach to heroism in war was entirely different. By contrast, Heskia’s “Eastern” was a pure adventure story, about parachute jumpers fighting to the death against overwhelming odds to defeat fascism on the home front before the Red Army arrived to liberate Bulgaria. Another “Eastern,” Vulo Radev’s Black Angels (Chernite angeli, 1970), also recorded in color (for the first time) the super-heroic deeds of a half-dozen teenagers training in the mountains for Partisan activity.
Within a few years (upon the appointment of Pavel Pissarev as film minister in 1971), the picture had entirely changed. Vassil Akyov collaborated with Georgi Djulgerov on And the Day Came (I doyde denyat, 1973), a Partisan film based on Aykov’s autobiographical experiences that offers a fresh psychological approach to teenagers sacrificing their youth, and their lives, for a cause. The film’s realism underscores the general thematic approach that events along these lines really might have happened during the resistance fighting as described in the midst of the Second World War. By the same token, a veteran “Eastern” director, Zako Heskia, presented an historical chronicle of a battle in March 1945 between a reorganized Bulgarian army and the retreating German army: Dawn over the Drava (Zarevo nad Drava, 1974). The same is true of Heskia’s The Last Battle (Boy posleden, 1977), based on memoirs and dealing in semi-documentary form with the growth of the resistance in 1943 against the fascist government.
The key film in the metamorphosis of the Partisan resistance theme, however, occurred with the release of Georgi Stoyanov’s Panteley (1978). This was Stoyanov’s second collaboration with scriptwriter Vassil Aykov, and the absurdity of the situation alone makes it a standout. Picture an innocent, apolitical individual stumbling into the midst of a resistance movement, only to be mistaken by both sides, the fascists and the Partisans, as a suspect agent. It is the critical year 1944, not a time in which you would expect to find a Beckettian individual wandering the streets of Sofia in a bowler hat trying to find a way out of the mess he is suddenly immersed in without knowing how or why.
By the end of the seventies, the old-fashioned Partisan theme was relegated primarily to the television screen, with the more important films cut down for release in the theaters. One of these was Margarit Nikolic’s On the Tracks of the Missing (Po diryata na bezsledno izcheznalite, 1979). A TV serial, it was exceptional for offering an historical account of threats, murders, and assassinations occurring in the Bulgarian Assembly during the White Terror of 1923-25 under Tsar Boris and his Prime Minister, Alexander Tsankov. The same general period of time had been covered earlier for the movie screen by Lyudmil Staikov in Amendment to the Defense-of-State Act (Dopalnenie kam zakona za zashtito na darzhavata, 1976), but by the end of the decade Staikov was content to summarize that crucial, troubled period in Bulgarian history in the lyrical, poetic, metaphorical Illusion (Ilyuzia, 1980). The 1923 uprising is now viewed symbolically through the eyes and experiences of an artist and an actress.
Occasionally a remake of the old theme with the same play on sacrifice and heroics appears on the scene. One of these was commissioned for the thirteen-hundredth anniversary celebrations: Borislav Sharaliev’s The Thrust (Oudarut, 1982), chronicling the events in Sofia in August-September 1944, when the Soviet troops joined with Bulgarian Partisans for a triumphant entry into the city. While it seemed like ancient history to some observers, the film was produced for the masses in a slightly different context and with more technical finesse for a new generation of young moviegoers for whom the war is some distant dream.
TOWN AND VILLAGE
One of the real concerns of a progressive socialist society is the abandonment of peasant life in villages for resettlement in newly constructed industrial centers. The theme of building a new city was treated in one of the key films of the immediate postwar era: Nikola Korabov and Ducho Mundrov’s People of Dimitrovgrad (Dimitrovgradisi, 1956). To show that same film today in conjunction with recent films (documentaries and features) within the context of a reassessment of the “town-and-country” issue would offer a clear index of just how far Bulgarian cinema has come over the past three decades.
For our purposes, in reviewing only the recent past, the key migration film is Hristo Hristov’s The Last Summer (1974), a critical statement on the abandonment of villages (in this case due to the construction of a dam) that could not be released to the public until nearly two years after its completion. Even more significant than the power of imagery in this milestone production in Bulgarian cinema was the book (with the same title) on which it was based. Yordan Radichkov’s novel explicitly mourns the passing of village life and its time-honored peasant traditions.
At approximately the same time as the release of The Last Summer, Hristov combined the stories of another recognized writer, Nikolai Haitov, into a feature film with fundamentally the same theme as that of the temporarily shelved one: A Tree without Roots (Darvo bez koren, 1974). The two stories, “A Tree without Roots” and “Toward the Peak,” describe in poignant terms the difficulties encountered by an old-timer who leaves a mountain village to visit his son’s family in Sofia. There, he finds himself lost in a completely alien society—not so much because of the experience of a different pace of life, but because his son has changed his moral code. In effect, the son is now a member of the new cold and heartless middle class, a parvenu who wishes in fact to forget his roots.
Undoubtedly, the almost simultaneous release of the two films marked a change in production policy at the Boyana Studios. On one level, a review of the dignity of work itself was in progress at the end of the sixties. Lyudmil Kirkov’s Swedish Kings (Schvedskite krale, 1968)—also known as Steel Kings—deals with a steelworker leaving his job for a brief excursion to the Black Sea coast to cavort on the beach with tourists and, as he states, “to live like a Swedish king” for a while. The situation was resolved by an underlying moral message.
Nikolai Nikiforov, the screenwriter for Swedish Kings, subsequently collaborated with Ivan Terziev on Men without Work (Mazhe bez rabote, 1972). Once again, the position on the dignity of work is rendered in satirical, humanistic terms. The setting is the construction of a road that is seemingly going nowhere; each of the laborers takes a contrasting position on life and his expectations as a member of the country’s work force. It was not long before Terziev’s sequel appeared on the scene: Strong Water (Silna voda, 1975), another tale of workers on a construction site—this time, however, they are drilling for water that does not exist in order to avoid work and to humor a local public official who has blindly ordered the project for political reasons.
Another gifted screenwriter found his best mode of expression in the “town-and-country” theme: Georgi Mishev. He collaborated with Lyudmil Kirkov on a two-film story about a youngster named Ran from the provinces who leaves his village to find his way in Lyudmil Kirkov’s A Boy Becomes a Man (1972)—only to find his ideals as a schoolteacher tarnished in another provincial town: Don’t Go Away (Ne si otivay, 1976). Between those two films, the team of Kirkov and Mishev collaborated on a pair of highly critical, yet humanly compassionate, films on the theme of migration and abandoned villages. The first, Peasant on a Bicycle (Selyaninat s koleloto, 1974), depicts a peasant who cannot get used to town life, and so he is off at regular intervals on his bicycle to visit his abandoned village—only to have a fatal relationship with a young girl assigned to work in the area. The same story, this time in a collective vein, is at the heart of Matriarchate (Matriarhat, 1977); it is social satire about a collective farm and nearby village inhabited entirely by women—whose men, ironically enough, are holding jobs in industrial towns described in Kirkov-Mishev’s Peasant on a Bicycle.
AN INTERNATIONAL BREAKTHROUGH
Although the enormous box-office success of Metodi Andonov’s The Goat Horn (1972) indicated that a new style of Bulgarian cinema had burst upon the scene after this promising national cinematography had been in the doldrums for more than a decade, it was not until recognition was accorded at international film festivals that a true international breakthrough could be accorded. Further, the opportunity for foreign critics to assess the revival-in-progress at Bulgarian Film Weeks added to the general interest and excitement.
The festivals in Moscow and Cannes provided the first festival platforms of note. Lyudmil Staikov’s Affection (1972) won one of the main prizes at Moscow in 1973. A year later, Binka Zhelyazkova’s The Last Word (1972) awoke some interest at Cannes, although this autobiographical tribute to the resistance was a pale echo of her earlier film We Were Young (1961).
At the same time, however, Eduard Zahariev collaborated with scriptwriter Georgi Mishev on The Hare Census (1973), one of the most popular films in Bulgarian history and a satire that has charmed European critics and filmmakers. Little else happens in the film other than a state inspector arriving on the scene in a provincial village to conduct a survey on the number of hares in this rural area. As silly as everything sounds, similar surveys are welcomed by the local populace as an excuse for taking off work, having a picnic, and then sending the erstwhile inspector home in his car with the quaint bribery of a backseat filled with cabbages.
Zahariev and Mishev lost no time in turning out a second satire with even more absurd twists to score as a truly unique statement on Bulgaria’s newly established middle class: Villa Zone (1975). This time they aimed their guns at the string of privately built “villas” encircling the capital of Sofia, and their satire is delightfully merciless. Much of the credit, however, goes not only to Zahariev and Mishev, but also to actor Itzhak Fintsi, whose deadpan facial expressions in both The Hare Census and Villa Zone made him a national figure. The entire film is little more than a garden party that runs amok, all of the characters outdoing each other in their petit bourgeois mentality and fumbling efforts at neighborly one-upmanship.
While these two social comedies were making their mark internationally, film festivals were booking Bulgarian films almost as a matter of course. Assen Shopov’s Eternal Times (Vechni vremena, 1975), about villages abandoned in the mountain regions, was one of the standouts at Locarno. Vulo Radev’s Doomed Souls (Osadeni dushi, 1975), based on Dimiter Dimov’s novel with autobiographical aspects set during the Spanish Civil War, seemed to be programmed for entry at San Sebastian. And the two successive entries at Berlin, Rangel Vulchanov’s The Inspector and the Forest (1975) and Hristo Hristov’s Cyclops (Tsiklopat, 1976), drew more than favorable comment as unusual entries from a socialist country. Indeed, both Vulchanov and Hristov had now established themselves as two of the leading directors in East Europe.
Both The Inspector and the Forest and Cyclops were highly unusual films so far as their themes were concerned. Vulchanov opened the case records of a criminal seducing young girls who came from the country to the capital to seek employment or a new life. In order to lend more psychological intensity to The Inspector and the Forest, he chose two leading actors unknown to Bulgarian screens, relying almost entirely on realism and authenticity to carry the story. In fact, Sonya Boshkova as the young innocent was a nonprofessional altogether.
As for Cyclops, this science-fiction tale is set within the closed quarters of a submarine boat on a mysterious cruise into the unknown. The story bears an uncanny resemblance to a Soviet film set on a space mission, Solaris (1972), which was made by one of cinema’s great directors, Andrei Tarkovsky. The similarities are particularly visible with regard to the fantasies and flashbacks experienced by the protagonist, the commander of the U-boat.
As festival programmers abroad sought a distinctly national production, Eduard Zahariev’s Manly Times (1977) filled the bill to such a degree that, in time, the film became an official calling-card around the globe. Scripted by masterful storyteller Nikolai Haitov, the tale has its roots in folklore and ancient legends. An outlaw is hired by a rich man to kidnap a peasant girl whose heart he cannot win as a suitor; once this is done, the girl falls in love with the outlaw himself—and thus the situation is more complicated than before. As in the case of The Goat Horn, Haitov draws on legends as ancient as the Thracians and the Rhodope Mountains they once inhabited.
THE POLITICAL FILMS
By the end of the seventies, conditions had so improved in Bulgaria that a series of political films were approved for production and release. Many of them were projects stemming from the mid-sixties, when the first Bulgarian film revival was brought to an abrupt close. Others fit the atmosphere of the changing times. The movement extended over a period of approximately five years, from 1977 to 1981.
The first film to make its mark was Binka Zhelyazkova’s The Swimming Pool (Basseynat, 1977), an entry at the Moscow film festival. Perhaps too wordy for a foreign audience, this film monologue was noteworthy for reviewing the period of the Personality Cult in a frankly open and morally consequential manner.
That same year saw Georgi Djulgerov’s Advantage (1977). Winner of the Best Director Prize at the 1978 Berlin film festival, the film appeared on the scene at the very moment when Stalinism and the Personality Cult were being reviewed critically for the first time in the Soviet Union (Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror), Poland (Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble), and Hungary (Pál Gábor’s Angi Vera). Djulgerov’s compassionate, humanistic approach to the fate of a con man living by his wits during the period of the Personality Cult is unique in Bulgarian cinema, while his personal stylistic manner in handling the theme set him aside as one of the original talents working in East Europe. Another encouraging sign of an open policy at the Boyana Studios occurred when director Rangel Vulchanov was united with screenwriter Valeri Petrov to film a project that had been originally planned for the early sixties: With Love and Tenderness (1978), a sketch of an eccentric sculptor living in relative seclusion on the Black Sea coast who finds himself surrounded by philistines at a reunion of friends and acquaintances. Vulchanov followed this a year later with one of his most original and memorable films: The Unknown Soldier’s Patent Leather Shoes (1979), developed from a script Vulchanov had written fifteen years earlier, but one that he never had the chance—until now—to adapt to the screen. This lyrical poem in an autobiographical vein to a peasant culture of the distant past features nonprofessionals in most of the roles, a factor that lends more honesty and integrity to the theme.
Several sociocritical films aimed at corruption and indifference in contemporary Bulgarian society were produced at this time, many of which were comparable to the best socially engaged films currently being produced in Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Among these were a series of films directed by a former actor and director of animation films, Ivan Andonov. His Fairy Dance (Samodivsko horo, 1976), made in collaboration with satirist Georgi Mishev, poked fun at the world of art lovers and would-be trendsetters. Then, at the Locarno festival, he attracted attention with the hard-hitting The Roof (Pokriv, 1978), a tragicomedy about a man trying to build a house by whatever illegal means available, while at the same time maintaining a love affair with a gypsy girl. And his The Cherry Orchard (1979), scripted by Nikolai Haitov, exposes the crooked dealings at a collective farm at the cost of a human life, that of an honest forester struggling to save an orchard from wanton destruction.
Guilt and corruption in the professional fields and among the well-to-do became a staple in Bulgarian cinema during the late seventies. Georgi Djulgerov’s Swap (Trampa, 1978), despite its complex narrative line, explores the motives of an eminent writer and reporter in returning to a provincial town where he once compromised his principles (shown in flashbacks) during stormy meetings at the farm cooperative at the time of the Personality Cult. Ludmil Kirkov’s Short Sun (Kratko sluntse, 1979), one of the best films of social conscience made during this period, describes how a university student, working a summer job as a well-digger in the “villa zone” surrounding the capital, meets a tragic end. This happens when the job threatens the villa owner with an uncomfortable delay due to the discovery of human bones—apparently the spot on which the well is being dug is where martyrs of the White Terror in the nineteen twenties were taken for execution and secret burial. And Ivan Nichev’s Boomerang (Bumerang, 1979) makes no bones about corruption in the inner circles of the writers’ profession, but even stronger is the director’s attack on the wily tricks practiced by the younger generation. A graduate of the school of journalism tries using his connections to avoid an assignment to the provinces by offering to collaborate on the memoirs of an elderly writer who was once associated with the resistance.
Undoubtedly, Hristo Hristov, head of the Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers, committed himself more than any other director to the making of films of social responsibility and political conscience. He centered his attention primarily on individuals facing a mid-life crisis amid other psychological pressures. Barrier (Barierata, 1979), starring the talented Russian actor Innokenti Smoktunovsky, explores the fantasies of a composer suddenly finding himself confronted by a blithe spirit who believes she has the ability to fly. The Truck (1980) heightens the impending crises among several individuals from different social classes by placing them against a bare wintery background as the corpse of a young worker is brought back to a mountain village for burial. And A Woman at Thirty-Three (1982) takes pity on a middle-aged woman—a secretary, divorced, with a child, continuing her studies on the side—whose prospects for fulfillment and happiness in a socialist society are little better, and perhaps worse, than they would be in a capitalist one.
Inevitably, the freedom to criticize would require self-searching on the part of the filmmakers themselves. Binka Zhelyazkova handled the situation commendably well in The Big Night Bath (Golyamoto noshtno kupane, 1980) within the context of a parable on artists and intellectuals playing a deadly ritual of Thracian-hanging games while on a vacation at a Black Sea resort. Another was the adaptation of Blaga Dimitrova’s much-discussed critical novel, Avalanche (Lavina, 1982), a metaphor of social responsibility played out against the background of mountain climbing and an impending natural disaster.
As fascinating as these films were for the viewer who appreciates intellectual games, two other films made by veteran directors stated the case for social conscience in clearer and unequivocal terms. Lyudmil Kirkov, who had collaborated with moralist scriptwriter Stanislav Stratiev on Short Sun (1979), which was followed by a social satire on entertainment policies in resort hotels, A Nameless Band (Orkestur bez ime, 1982), made one of the best films of the decade: Balance (Ravnovessie, 1983). The focus here is on a film production unit on location on the Black Sea coast. The attention, however, centered on three minor figures in the unit whose fates are contrasted with the romantic excesses of the production itself. Balance deservedly won a Silver Prize at the Moscow festival.
The other film, Vesselin Branev’s Hotel Central (1983), won broad critical praise at the Venice festival in 1983, the last occasion on which a Bulgarian entry at an international festival was welcomed with such critical unanimity. Branev, a screenwriter whose career was primarily in television, adapted two short stories by Konstantin Konstantinov on events related to the 1934 coup d’état, the result of which was the dissolution of parliament and the imposition of totalitarian rule. An innocent young girl from the provinces is mistakenly arrested and brought to a hotel to serve as a chambermaid—to be used and abused as the town prostitute for all in power. She manages, however, to maintain her morals while exposing the corruption of those about her.
Both of these films featured outstanding performances by the female protagonists—Plamena Getova in Kirkov’s Balance and Irène Krivoshieva in Hotel Central—a factor, in turn, that attested to the all-around depth in Bulgarian cinema after four decades of seeking its own way on the world production scene.
THE BOTTOM FALLS OUT
Why the bottom should have suddenly fallen out of Bulgarian cinema at a time when it had definitely reached maturity is solely a matter of speculation. Western observers have settled for the following reasons:
First, the unexpected death of the cultural minister Lyudmila Shivkova, in 1981, in the midst of the thirteen-hundredth anniversary celebrations, left too many things undone or still in the planning stage, among these, a number of promising film projects.
Second, the decision to appoint a new film minister, Nikolai Nenov, in 1980 to replace the able Pavel Pissarev (who was then given charge of theaters and stage performances), turned out to be an unproductive one. Until Nenov’s own departure in 1986, filmmakers tended to be less willing to risk making sociocritical and sociopolitical films. As a result, fewer Bulgarian films were programmed at key international film festivals.
Third, Hristo Hristov stepped down as the head of the Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers in 1983, shortly after his production of A Woman at Thirty-Three (1982) was placed temporarily on the shelf. His elected replacement, Georgi Stoyanov, was also to have trouble receiving an authorized release of his Constantine the Philosopher (1983) until the completion of the film’s second part.
Fourth, the high cost of producing the series of epic spectacles during and after the 1981 anniversary year depleted the country’s film production coffers, particularly in regard to subsequent cultural events and film policies in general.
Fifth, some filmmakers—particularly Georgi Djulgerov—gave up film production altogether to work in the theater. In view of the fact that he was one of a handful of Bulgarian directors whose names commanded respect abroad, his abrupt departure from the scene heralded another creative drought in the Boyana Studios. Now that a filmmaking colleague, Lyudmil Staikov, has been appointed the new film minister (as of 1986), the general feeling is that Djulgerov and others will feel more at ease in making films of their liking.
Whatever the reasons, Bulgarian cinema has experienced its second decline after a period of feverish creativity. The creative well dried up completely by 1984. Thereafter, even the better films seemed “old hat” in comparison to those produced during the previous decade. Hristo Hristov’s Question Time (Subessednik po zhelanie, 1984) and Reference (Herakteristika, 1985), the former about a man tidying up his life before he dies of leukemia, and the latter about corruption among taxi drivers, are commendable films but are without scope or vision. Eduard Zahariev’s later films as well—Almost a Love Story (Pochti lyubovna istoria, 1980), Elegy (Elegiya, 1982), and My Darling, My Darling (Skupi moi, skupa moya, 1985)—are exercises in romantic sentimentality and strikingly the opposite of his former satirical masterpieces. Even the doyen of Bulgarian filmmakers, Rangel Vulchanov, appears to be biding his time with such minor excursions in poetic nostalgia as Last Wishes (Posledni zhelania, 1983) and Where Are You Coing? (Za kude putouvate?, 1986).
By contrast, the films that have received an abundance of official support throughout the present decade, particularly at the Varna Festival of Bulgarian Feature Films, are thematically deficient (despite some praiseworthy stylistic qualities) in comparison with what had been produced in this country in the past. Among these are Borislav Sharaliev’s All Is Love (Vsichko e lyubov, 1979), on juvenile delinquency, and The Thrust (Oudarut, 1982), on the liberation of Sofia. Another is Spanish director Juan Antonio Bardem’s film biography of Georgi Dimitrov (1982 was the anniversary of his birthday) with an international cast, The Warning (Predouprezhdeniyeto, 1982). So too, Nikolai Volv’s promising but script-heavy stories of the little man making good against odds: King for a Day (Gospodin za edin den, 1983), about a country bumpkin turning the tables on his village tormentors, and All for Love (Da obichash na inat, 1986), concerning a truckdriver who beats corruption on the job to measure up to the expectations and ideals of his teenaged son.
Hope for the future, many agree, lies primarily in the efforts of the younger generation of filmmakers to make a modest personal film or a stylistically challenging one. The founding of the Sofia Film and Theater Academy (VITIS) in 1973—whose teachers include Rangel Vulchanov, Hristo Hristov, and Georgi Djulgerov—meant that promising students no longer had to enroll at film academies in Moscow, Prague, Lodz, Babelsberg, and Budapest to get their training. And this “new generation” made themselves known before the decade was out.
Indeed, the debut by VITIS graduate Kiran Kolarov, Status: Orderly (1978), immediately made festival history. Produced as a telefeature, it portrayed a decaying Bulgarian nobility at the turn of the century. Kolarov’s second feature, The Airman (Vuzdushniyat chovek, 1980), set in the period of the Personality Cult shortly after the Second World War, was considered too political and thus received only limited release. His latest film, Case No. 205/1913 (Delo No. 205/1913, 1984), sketches the life, and suicide, of Bulgaria’s immortal poet, Peyo Yavorov (1878-1914), during the heady period of a national literary revival. All these films are of more-than-passing interest, yet they were looked upon by authorities as oddities rather than realities.
Another VITIS director who made his mark shortly after graduation was Yevgeni Mihailov, who collaborated with his camerawoman-wife, Elly Mihailova (another VITIS graduate), on Home for Lonely Souls (1981), which was about a theater actress (Plamena Getova) in the provinces who has to come to grips with herself while wrestling with a role on the stage. Their latest is a thriller set in the troubled thirties: Death Can Wait a While (Smurtta mozhe da pochaka, 1985).
Still another newcomer to keep an eye on is Rumyana Petkova, who worked with a crew of women collaborators on Reflections (1982), a film about the problems facing a university student. The same feminist approach characterized her Coming Down to Earth (1985), the story of a professional working woman and mother juggling her career and family obligations with unsatisfactory results on all sides.
Other films by newcomers include Ognyan Gelinov’s The Flying Machine (1981), an amusing satire set during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13; Ivan Pavlov’s Mass Miracle (1981), a film-within-a-film story about the misfortunes of a candidate trying to get into VITIS itself; and Docho Bodjakov’s Memory (Pamet, 1985), about a mother at the close of the Second World War seeking revenge for her son who was betrayed in the resistance movement.
A word should be said about screenwriter Konstantin Pavlov, who contributed the scripts not only for Ivan Pavlov’s Mass Miracle and Docho Bodjakov’s Memory, but also for Lyudmil Staikov’s Illusion (1980) and Ivan Andonov’s White Magic (Byala magiya, 1982). All of these are poetic statements on Bulgarian life and culture, its traditions and folk heritage. White Magic in particular captures, in colors and decor, the atmosphere of the nineteen twenties.
THE OTHER BULGARIAN CINEMA
Little has been said in this analytical survey of contemporary Bulgarian cinema about its production strength in children’s films and animated cartoons. Such was not the scope of this survey. All the same, it should be noted that when screenwriter Valeri Petrov was not collaborating with Rangel Vulchanov on one of the milestones in Bulgarian cinema, he was contributing delightful scripts for children’s films: Borislav Sharaliev’s Knight without Armor (Ritsar bez bronya, 1966) and Zako Heskia’s Yo-Ho-Ho (1981). Further, Dimiter Petrov (The Captain/Kapitanat, 1963), Ivanka Grubcheva (Exams at Any Odd Time/lzpiti po nikoe vreme, 1974), Rashko Ouzunov (Talisman, 1978), and Marianna Evstatieva (Up in the Cherry Tree/Gore na chereshata, 1984), as well as the scriptwriting pair of the Mormarev brothers (Petrov’s Porcupines Are Born without Bristles, 1971, and Ivanka Grubcheva’s The Porcupines’ War/Voynata na taralezhite, 1979), set high standards in a genre that is by no means easy to master.
The same is true of animation. At least two animation directors will find a place of honor in film lexicons: Todor Dinov, the “Father of Bulgarian Animation,” and Donyo Donev, whose We Called Them Montagues and Capulets (1985) marked the country’s first venture into the realm of the feature cartoon. There is little doubt that both of these film artists have had an impact on the development and maturing of Bulgarian cinema as a whole, just as they will continue to do in the future.
In fact, film historians may argue that the Bulgarian animated film had matured into an art form while the Bulgarian feature film was still in its infancy. The reason is simple: Bulgaria, as did many countries in the Balkans, benefited from a long tradition of caricaturists. Thus, when a State Cinematography was founded shortly after the war, the first artists to be given a green light to create a native form of expression in the field of film animation were the caricaturists.
The first true Bulgarian cartoon was made in 1949, a collaborative effort involving many artists. At the same time, Todor Dinov, the most talented of the country’s caricaturists, was studying film animation at the Moscow Film Academy. Upon his return home, he created overnight a national figure for the movie screens: Brave Marko (Junak Marko, 1953). Far from just being a cross between models of Disney and related Soviet animation, Marko was a pure product of the Bulgarian soul—a national hero imbued with the moral and philosophical dimensions of the legendary Balkan folk hero. Dinov’s next test as a filmmaker was to wed satire to animation. He set to work tirelessly on producing a series of black-and-white line drawings related to a popular satirical magazine known to the majority of the population; the result was Kino Prickles (Kinostarchel, 1956-57).
From there, it was only a matter of time before he would become one of the central figures in socialist animation, an innovative artist whose best cartoons reached far beyond the visual limits of the medium to rank as sophisticated philosophical moral tales understood by all. These numbered Little Annie (Malkoto Antsche, 1958), Prometheus (1959), The Story of the Pine-Tree Branch (Prikaska sa borowoto klontsche, 1960), Duet (1961), A Fable (Prikaska, 1961), The Lightning Rod (Gramoot-wodat, 1962), Jealousy (Rewnost, 1963), The Apple (Jabolkata, 1963), and The Daisy (Margaritka, 1965), some in collaboration with other artists. They are as fresh and stimulating today as when they were conceived and “breathed into life” on the drawing board.
As the recognized “Father of Bulgarian Animation”—whose best cartoons were noted for their graceful line, warm human characters, and an Aesopian twist in the narrative—Todor Dinov was to inspire and assist others on their way to improving the overall lot of Bulgarian cinema abroad. One of his collaborators was the animator Donyo Donev (codirector of The Story of the Pine-Tree Branch). Another was the theater director Hristo Hristov, with whom he collaborated on a key feature-film project in contemporary Bulgarian cinema: Iconostasis (1969).
The “Bulgarian School of Animation” was the talk of the short film and animation festivals of Europe by the sixties. In contrast to the “Zagreb School of Animation” in neighboring Yugoslavia—a studio that was to become world famous for its intellectual cartoons—the Bulgarians specialized in folk tales and the philosophical parable. Several artists working at the Sofia Animation Studio deserve mention: Donyo Donev, Stoyan Doukov, Hristo Topuzanov, Ivan Vesselinov, Ivan Andonov, Henri Koulev, Proiko Prokov, Gencho Simeonov, Radka Buchvarova, Zdenka Doicheva, Asparukh Panov, and Georgi Chavdarov. One of these, Ivan Andonov, progressed from acting to animation—and from there to making feature films. Another was to become as famous in his own right as Todor Dinov himself: Donyo Donev.
Indeed, Donev made the folkloric parable into a finely honed expression of philosophical truth focusing on the foibles of mankind. His cartoons of the seventies, in particular, literally charmed and amazed audiences at international film festivals. On the one side, his Three Fools series presented a trio of popular characters on both movie and television screens unsurpassed since the antics of Brave Marko: The Three Fools (Trimata glupazi, 1970), The Clever Village (Umnoo selo, 1972), Three Foolish Hunters (Trimata glupazi lowzi, 1972), and The Three Fools and the Cow (Trimata glupazi i krawata, 1974). Matched with these were three satirical gems on the suspect nobler aspirations of man: De Facto (1973), The Musical Tree (Musikalnoto darwo, 1976), and Causa Perduta (1977)—all of which belong in the annals of the best of world animation for their moral acerbity and intellectual wit.
Besides the genre of the children’s film and the school of the animation cartoon, the Bulgarian feature film borrowed a great deal over the decades from the documentary. More often than not, this field functioned as a springboard to stronger thematic material in the Boyana feature film studios—and when the times were hard for a committed Bulgarian director, a return to documentary filmmaking supplied at least a safety valve for the troubled or sidetracked artist.
One can argue that the postwar Bulgarian cinema would never have gotten off the ground so quickly in the first place without the tireless input of newsreel cameramen and documentary filmmakers. Zahari Zhandov—whose Alarm (1951) is reckoned as the breakthrough feature film after the war—came to the feature film after winning recognition at international festivals in Brussels and Marienbad for A Day in Sofia (1946), followed by a major award at Venice for Men amid the Clouds (1947).
Rangel Vulchanov returned to the documentary field on occasions when work was not to his liking in the feature film studios, as did scriptwriters Hristo Ganev and Angel Wagenstein. Other filmmakers appear to have cut their directorial teeth on the documentary before venturing into the fiction film—Eduard Zahariev, in particular.
One director was to make a name in the documentary field alone: Hristo Kovachev. His prizewinning films include Builders (1974), Agronomists (1977), and Shepherds (1979). More recently, Georgi Djulgerov appears to be making a comeback on the Bulgarian production scene via two very fine documentaries with fiction elements: Neshka Robeva and Her Girls (1984) and its sequel The Girls and Their Neshka Robeva (1986), about the training and discipline involved in excelling in gymnastics. The materials of these two documentary films could easily be converted into a fascinating feature film. It remains uncertain whether these recent creative impulses in Bulgarian documentary production will help to re-energize feature film production and to restore the momentum which existed in the late seventies and early eighties.