Bulgaria: The years when the cinema screen was red
As its election campaign theme song in 2005, the Bulgarian Socialist Party used a sped-up, danceable remix of the 1969 television series Na Vseki Kilometur.
I was given a personal preview by Sergei Stanishev, then the leader of the BSP, at the socialists’ Positano Street headquarters during an interview shortly before the elections; he grinned at the ingenuity of the remix, as the theme thumped from a portable player on his desk. That evening, when I played the track at home on my PC, my Bulgarian family howled with outrage as the still-familiar tune began; to say that they remember the communist era with loathing is putting it mildly.
The socialists got the largest share of votes in those elections, going on to form an awkward squad of a tripartite coalition, and Stefan Danailov, whose stardom had been established by his role as Major Deyanov in the Na Vseki Kilometur series, all those years earlier, became minister of culture in the Stanishev cabinet.
While made for television, Na Vseki Kilometur is in many ways symbolic of all that the Bulgarian Communist Party sought to use the film industry for, in the decades that the Party had its asphyxiating grip on the country.
When, in preparing this article, I asked a friend, in her late 30s, for her memories of cinema in Bulgaria under communism, she huffed: “I didn’t go, ever. I had no appetite for propaganda”.
Did my blue-souled friend miss anything? The answer is, maybe.
The film business in Bulgaria had its beginnings in 1910, with director Vassil Gendov’s Bulgarians are Gallant – anticipating a trend a century to come, it was remade five years later.
Gendov followed up two years later with Lyubovta e ludost (Love is Madness) and in 1922, his Pod Starato Nebe (Under an old sky), the country’s first full-length feature, premiered at the Modern Theatre, Bulgaria’s first cinema, the eponymous successor to which in the 21st century was, some years back now, doing duty again as a theatre, and which now, like so much in the world of contemporary Bulgarian culture, is dark, and facing an uncertain future.
Silent gave way to sound, notably in 1933 with Gendov’s Buntat na Robite (The Slaves’ Revolt) and Petar Stoichev’s Pesenta na Balkana (Song of the Balkans).
In short, cinema was following a track not dissimilar to other European countries; a small-scale industry periodically turning out human stories, sometimes with song, for local audiences.
All this was to change.
Communists in Bulgaria hardly invented the concept of film as propaganda. The nature of the regimes of Hitler and Stalin had forged the process into shape; in the democracies during the Second World War, Mrs Miniver, Henry V and others did duty too.
But the context of the first years of communist rule in Bulgaria, lest it be forgot, was a brutal one, of Peoples’ Courts, prison camps and persecution. The communists needed cinema as a tool to hammer into people just how marvellous things were.
The film industry was nationalised. The Union of Bulgarian Film Makers, a lineal descendant of an association of cinema hall owners that had been founded in the first decade of the 20th century, was in 1948 reconstituted by cabinet order as Cinema House, though it got its name back in 1954, after the death of Stalin.
As recalled in a brief history written in 2006 by Bozhidar Manov of the National Academy of Theatre and Film Art, the communist state exerted ideological control over film production through censorship, and imposed new themes and filmmakers. At the same time, however, the regime poured money into developing Bulgaria’s film industry.
Filmmakers were sent for training at specialist schools in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Poland, while in 1973, Bulgaria set up its own film school.
The result was an average output of 25 feature films a year, made-for-television productions and documentaries. Already, the year 1948 had seen the communists order the establishment of a department of cartoon and puppet (no political irony intended) films.
Audiences were marshalled, through organising cinema expeditions by groups of school pupils, conscripts and factory workers. The diet was not just home-grown, but also augmented with Mosfilm productions from the Soviet Union – the Mosfilm logo, a statue of a man and a woman, both naked to the waist, raising together a hammer and a sickle – became a familiar image, to be satirised much later when communism fell.
The state reached further. There were 3000 cinemas in Bulgaria, some in the smallest villages, to ensure that the medium and the message were pervasive. Travellers in today’s Bulgaria should keep an eye out when passing some of the derelict buildings that are an inevitable feature of most small towns and villages – it is usually not that difficult to spot which was the movie hall.
However, for all the funding, and perhaps inevitably given the nature of the system, not all went as planned. Film stock was imported from the Soviet Union and East Germany, and tended to be of poor quality compared to its Western equivalents; this is why some of the older Bulgarian colour films, if not carefully restored, tend to depict people inhabiting a world of anaemic pastels or sometimes wholly bathed in carrot-orange light. Technical values, notably sound engineering, also were not always wholly mastered.
Let no one rush to the conclusion that all films made during the communist era were bad, or for that matter, that all film makers conformed to the expectations dictated to them by the regime.
Over the years, some films that made it abroad won awards at foreign film festivals.
On the internet, people continue to swop recollections of their favourite films, and – so it seems – by no means in a spirit of nostalgia for the times.
Certain titles come up time and again. Tyutyun, in 1962, was nominated for a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival the following year. Two years later came Kradetzat na Praskovi (The Peach Thief), in 1970 Kit (Whale) – of which more later, Kozijat Rog (The Goat Horn), 1973’s Prebroyavane na Divite Zayitsi (Census of the Wild Rabbits); others that appear to endure in public memory, for varying reasons, include 1975’s Svatbite na Yoan Asen (The Weddings of King Yoan Assen), 1980’s Dami Kanyat (Ladies Choice) and the epic 1981 Asparouh. This list is, for reasons of space, by no means comprehensive.
To pause for the last-mentioned first. Produced to coincide with the lavish, Lyudmila Zhivkova-linked, celebrations of 1300th anniversary of Bulgaria, Asparouh symbolises much about Bulgaria’s communist-era film business. Battle scenes requiring thousands of soldiers were filmed, in a pre-CGI, no-expense-spared, age by using thousands of soldiers – young Bulgarian conscripts, costumed as their ancestors. At the same time, buffs of movie goofs will appreciate the scene where a wristwatch is visible on a leading character, notwithstanding it being the 7th century CE. (Still, even the capitalist West managed such things, many times; think James Bond’s underwater goggles mysteriously changing colour in Thunderball; or the modern car tyre tracks in Ben Hur. Space does not permit…)
Some of the films met propaganda requirements to the hilt. Just one example is 1988’s Vreme na nasilie (Time of Violence), which was, in effect, an anti-Muslim, anti-Turkish tract, based on a novel about forcible conversion of Bulgarian Christians under Ottoman rule, produced just as the Zhivkov regime conducted the 1984/89 “revival process” against Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks, during which serious human rights abuses were committed as the communist regime sought to force the community to adopt Bulgarian, non-Muslim names.
Other films were less well-received at Party House, given the films’ satirical nature. Notable among these are Kit, and the Census of the Wild Rabbits. Kit tells the story of a catch of sprat that, in the telling and up through the official channels, becomes a catch of big fish, then of dolphins and finally a whale tale. Government officials are shown puffed with pride about the whole thing; there is talk of establishing a Ministry of Whales.
Communist censors fired their harpoons. Kit languished unreleased for two years, substantial cuts and changes were ordered, and finally its initial release was only in two cinemas in Plovdiv, though without the event being advertised. But word-of-mouth ensured that tickets sold out rapidly. In a country where outright lying about productivity was commonplace, and where a principal character bore an uncanny resemblance to a certain Todor Zhivkov, audiences had a whale of a time even with the bowdlerized version.
Census of the Wild Rabbits is not dissimilar in depicting buffoonery by minor party officials (it is among the Bulgarian films of the time that I have seen, thanks to re-broadcasts on Bulgarian National Television’s satellite channel). Georgi Mishev’s script, directed by Eduard Zahariev, depicts an official sent to a village on an absurd mission to count the local wild rabbits, for no reason that is ever clear to anyone. The town’s men are pressed into the futile task (the rabbits elude every net and fence set for them) and resort, among other things, to befuddling the official with rakiya and finally with bribery.
As the end of the communist era approached, there came Vchera (Yesterday) in 1988, a frequently tragic and occasionally absurdly funny account of events at a school for children of the Party elite. Complete with a soundtrack augmented by songs (probably unwittingly contributed) by The Beatles, Vchera too was a clear expose of the repressive and hollow nature of the system. The film also, by the way, gave popular culture in Bulgaria the song Kletva (Oath), a moving sung pledge about loyalty and reunion that still gets people of a certain generation swaying and singing along at parties.
Ministry of Truth
The fact that some films, at various stages, got through notwithstanding the film industry’s mandate to celebrate the glories of Bulgaria’s past heroes and then-current socialist system should not be over-interpreted.
A certain tolerance, or perhaps even in some cases a failure by party apparatchiks to understand what was right in front of them, cannot ultimately mean that a repressive system was anything but repressive.
Control in communist Bulgaria of all matters related to culture and communication took various forms. In literature, there was a system of quotas of paper for printing books (the quota for anything related to religion, for example the printing of bibles, was significantly low). In journalism, party officials were on hand to “advise” editors about the desirability or otherwise of publishing certain articles. So too, there was a state committee that dealt with films (though again, in the latter case, not much different from democracies – except in the criteria for bans or restrictions).
No doubt too, some would argue that a few films with hints of disharmony were allowed through for the sake of appearances. Every monarchy has had its Fool, its court jester. Generally, it had an executioner at the same time.
Those few Western films that made it through frequently were butchered where censors believed that they transgressed on ideological grounds. The first major festival in Sofia including a large number of Western films took place in 1987.
And yet, it is also true that in the later years, even those who sinned against the system were usually allowed to go out and sin again, even if some of their films were banned or projects suppressed mid-way.
A name that stands out in the saga of the 70s is that of Binka Zhelyazkova, awarded in 2007 a lifetime award for her contribution to Bulgarian cinema – an award handed over by none other than then-culture minister Danailov. However, Zhelyazkova – who worked with her husband, Hristo Ganev – had not always been the favoured daughter of communism’s film family.
A director and screenwriter, she was dubbed “the bad girl of Bulgarian cinema” and some of her work was banned, making it to the screen only as the communist era was tailing off.
Required to produce masterpieces of socialist realism, her oeuvre instead showed overt influences from French New Wave and the Italians.
Four of her feature films were consigned to the deep freeze. An example is Privarzaniyat Balon (Tied-up Balloon), made in 1967 but shown in 1988 (a fact that could give a new meaning to the term “sleeper” among films). By the time that the full canon of her work was available to Bulgarian audiences, already other work of arguably more striking boldness – notably, London-trained Nikola Volev’s Margarit and Margarita (1989), a searing indictment of abuse of power, complete with a depiction of systematic sexual harassment, by Party officials – was being made. Margarit and Margarita also spent some time in the waiting room, but as history took a hand in bringing an end to the Zhivkov regime, not as long as others that had waited for many years to be disinterred from dusty film cans.
In the end, her career was in a strange way linked to the times. After 1989, Zhelyazkova made no more films.
Bulgarian films had competition from foreign films, of course.
People now in their 30s and 40s remember their expeditions to Druzhba cinema in Sofia because it was the only place where foreign films were regularly screened – foreign films from the West, not from Mosfilm and other officially-approved producers.
Druzhba, today’s Odeon cinema, showed Fellini, Bertolucci and others. The experience was not a conventional one. The copies frequently were of poor quality; general belief was that at least some of the films had been acquired informally. On this latter point, the fact that several boasted subtitles in Czech was a bit of a giveaway. Further, with each film having no more than a few showings, no one bothered to subtitle or dub them into Bulgarian. Those who did not understand Italian or French followed the dialogue courtesy of an interpreter who sat in the auditorium armed with a microphone, translating every word by all the characters on the screen.
In 2005, Teddy Moskov took the interpreter, Nelly Chervenusheva, on a trip to Italy, to the places she had seen only on screen – foreign travel had been denied her by the communists – and introducing her to some of the directors, Ettore Scolla and Mario Monicelli.
The resultant documentary, entitled The Interpreter of Black and White Films, shows Chervenusheva breaking down with emotion as she experiences a world that had been barred to her, that she had seen only as fleeting images, from the tiny confinement of her interpreter’s booth. And if there could be an epitaph to Bulgaria’s communist era of film, perhaps that should be it.