Focus on Bulgaria: Local filmmakers break with allegory tradition


    Warsaw (CentEast Daily News) - After more than 10 years of crisis, Bulgaria is returning to the world cinema map. Bulgarian filmmakers have only recently started finding their place in the new social and financial context. Thanks to this, new releases include not only pictures portraying present-day Bulgaria, but also realistic films that are settling accounts with the old system.

    The development of Bulgarian cinematography began with the communist era and the almost immediate nationalisation of the film industry in 1948. Communist authorities' faith in the power of the medium resulted in an expansion of the production industry and substantial funds being earmarked for training artists and crews.

    Similar to other countries in the East Bloc, the binding doctrine was socialist realism, which creative artists soon began to challenge. Whereas in the 1950s the films were mainly a tool for educating the citizens of a communist country, a desire for new artistic forms emerged in the 1960s.

    The search for a language that would pass by the censors led to the development of a special code of allegories which took Bulgarian films to the highest standards. The world became interested in this trend starting from the film On a Small Island by Ranghel Valcanov, recognised as the first work of Bulgarian New Wave in 1957. Valcanov's success paved the way for an international career for such artists as Valo Radev, Hristo Hristov and Todor Dinov.

    The filmmakers' interest in the conditions of people in the system became significant in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Themes related to the "new intelligentsia" were developed and used by T Stoyanov, M Andonov, L Staykov, L Kirkov and others.

    This was also the time when Bulgarian audiences' favourite genre - historical films - flourished, as did the whole entertainment film sector, including highly developed animation.

    Just before communism collapsed, in 1987, Bulgaria produced about 20 features, 25 television films, and more than 100 shorts, all fully or largely financed by state money. This was a high output for Europe, but it was still a smaller scale of production than in previous years.

    The real crisis came right after 1989, when the democratic Republic of Bulgaria was formed. For the film industry the beginning of the new political system had a disastrous outcome, for two reasons. First, young capitalist countries did not have major funding for the development of culture. In Bulgaria this led to the dismantling of the production machine, now comprising deserted studios which were the only facilities prepared for the independent production of films in this part of Europe.

    The greatest drop in production was recorded in 1991-1993, when the number of completed films decreased from more than 20 per year to just over ten. A chance to halt the slow deterioration of equipment and give work to the qualified crews came with Roger Corman, the US king of B-movies, who discovered that Sofia was one of the cheapest and best-equipped production centres in the world.

    Though the producer kept the place where he shot his films a secret for a long time, filmmakers from all over the world started arriving, including Francesco Rosi, Tony Palmer, Goran Markovic, Alain Naum and Vasiliy Livanov.

    Encouraged by lucrative contracts, the National Film Centre of Bulgaria published a special guide presenting the most beautiful film locations and the equipment available at Sofia's studios. However, this was a drop in the ocean of the Bulgarian film industry's needs, and money was still constantly short.

    The first privatisations involved the studios of animators, many of whom, like Zlatin Radev, Velislav Kazakov and Rumen Petkov, left the country. The serious problems of filmmakers resulted not only from a shortage of money, but also from the improper use of the money there was.

    Used to a system in which production was organised by somebody else, directors were incapable of becoming producers, and of defending their rights. Video piracy had exploded in the meantime, contributing to the virtual destruction of the cinema system of film presentation.

    Another problem of Bulgarian films in the 1990s turned out to be the choice of topics. Used to constantly struggle with ideology using complicated symbols and allegories, filmmakers were unable to adjust their projects to the new situation. It was typical of this period for directors to turn to new ideological and political issues, such as conflicts with ethnic groups, especially the Turkish minority. Films representing these tendencies include Burn, Burn Little Flame directed by Rumyana Petkova, and Somewhere in Bulgaria by Maria Trayanova.

    In 1994 the Bulgarian government appointed an administration to centralise domestic film production. The importance of the National Film Centre increased, and in 1993 Bulgaria joined Euromages. It was not until Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2004 that the country's film industry began to really develop again.

    Participation in projects such as MediaPlus gave the Bulgarian government funds which allowed government subsidies to increase by more than 7 million levs at the start of 2007. An important role was also played by the strong commitment of the current culture minister, Stefan Danailov, himself an actor.

    The Culture Ministry's plans for this year includes the production of five full-length features, 10 documentaries, and 120 minutes of animation, funded by the state.

    The most important news for Bulgaria's film industry is the privatisation of the Boyana Film Studios, purchased by Hollywood's Nu Image Film. This American investment is planned to revive the Bulgarian film market, though skeptics say foreign production will have little impact on what is happening in the country itself.

    With more and more funds at their disposal, filmmakers are beginning to make films about contemporary Bulgarian reality, with the help of realism or the surreal black humour typical of Balkan cinema.

    In 2006 the story of the rebellious Lady Zee by Georgi Djulgerov made it to the selection for the European Film Awards. Last year international audiences could also see a Bulgarian nominee for the Oscar, Milena Andonova's Monkeys in Winter.

    Both pictures confirm very clearly that contemporary Bulgarian cinema has broken with the tradition of poetic struggle with ideology, and is more interested in wittily commenting on contemporary issues.

    During this year's CentEast Market in Warsaw, Bulgaria is represented by the winner of the critics' award at Cannes, Andrey Paounov's The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories, and Maya Vitkova's Queen Viktoria.