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A journey through Bulgarian cinema

Tracking the last 10 centuries via the art of film from slavery to communism and democracy.

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This post may be slightly different to the normal content on the sub, but since most of the discussion is about larger film communities and countries i decided to introduce you to a place hidden away from your world. The sad and wonderful history of my county isn’t that well known in America or most western-european countries and through cinema you and me may take a brief glimpse into Bulgarian and the last 80 years of its history.

The Communist era (1946-1989)

After being forced to join the Axis powers in WW2 and losing the 5th war in a the 20th century in 1944 a coup d’état was made by the Bulgarian communist party overthrowing the government and changing the country forever. Despite the fact that the first bulgarian movie was called “Bulgaran is Gallant”, a 1915 silent comedy, and the fact that Bulgaria had 40 years of cinematic history the new regime followed the rules and regulations of the USSR and changed the style of cinema significantly.

The movies of that time were typical for a socialist country and the most popular productions were either a historical drama/epic, a family comedy reflecting society and its values or adaptations of approved by committee novels. If you’ve watched any Russian films of the time(no Tarkovsky doesn’t count he’s different), you would have spotted the sprinkling of propaganda and state messages through the films of that period. Most of the movies demonize past enemies, take jabs at the west and have parts cut of of them due to the strict rules imposed by the regime. Despite all of this, this is widely considered the golden age of cinema in Bulgaria, creating some of the greatest pieces of art from paintings and sculptures to books and movies, the myth of the suffering artist was a reality at the time. Due to the strict rules and limitations of what can and can’t be shown on screen some very talented people thought of a plethora of creative ways to surpass the limitations imposed on them by the communist party, creating cinematic masterpieces. Here are three of them that accurately reflect the time in the country.

Considered the greatest bulgarian movie of all time, “The Goat Horn” is a cinematic masterpiece to most bulgarians. The movie is legendary, and if you go to film school here it’s basically your “Citizen Kane” your “Godfather” the one film you must understand to understand cinema. And honestly they aren’t wrong. Plus it’s Oscar submission story is a very strange one and if you would like i may tell it in the comments since the post is already very information heavy.The story depicted in the movie is from the darkest period in the 13 centuries that the country’s history spans.

Ottoman Bulgaria (1396–1878) as it’s known in the West or The Ottoman Slavery as its known in the Balkans was a 5 century Ottoman rule over the bulgarian people, ending in one of the bloodiest uprisings in modern European history with 30,000 man and over 75,000 innocent women and children being slaughtered by the Ottoman forces.

Here is a brief synopsis:

The film sends us to the 17th century when Bulgaria was a part of the Ottoman Empire. Four hoodlums break into the house of the shepherd Karaivan, raping and killing his wife in full view of their little girl, Maria. Karaivan decides to take the law into his own hands and becomes enslaved by his violent wish for revenge.

Here we see an example of historic dramas that were popular at the time, the country knew who their enemies where and who will be portrayed as the bad guys. The movie accurately depicts the times of slavery and oppression, but has a clear message and a goal set in mind, a trend that will become lost as we progress further the list.

Now Yo-ho-ho is a personal favorite of mine, a very human and unique story that got a remake in 2006 called “The Fall” by Tarsem Singh. I couldn’t find a version with subtitles by since it has a remake you can watch that. Unlike the previous movie this one doesn’t need a lot of explanation, it’s a very human story with a socialist backdrop that doesn’t interfere with the movie at all.

Here is a brief synopsis:

An injured actor, threaten to never walk again is visited in the hospital by a young boy with a broken arm. The pair of them strike a conversation in which the actor tell the story of pirates,treasure and adventure to the kid every time the kid visits him, but on one condition the young boy must find him the special “pirate pills” which will help the brave sailor to go to sleep forever.

Synopsis :

The 1960s was the time of Beatles and Rolling Stones, the time of sexual revolution. These events have their echo in Bulgarian English-learning school. The school order provokes a protest of the students due to the narrow-minded teachers.

A year after this movie is released marks the end of The People`s Republic of Bulgaria and the beginning of democracy in the country. The movie is probably the most loved one in the country due to the fact that most adults were exactly the type of people depicted in it. I personally love it since i used to go to the school that the story is about and it was filmed there. The film marks a shift in society and a fantastic slice of history and culture, based on freedom in a country oppressed by the regime. The movie is a trend setter for the next 15 years during which, a lot of taboo topics were being explored on film.

Bonus Movie

  • “King for a Day”/ ” Господин за един ден ” (1983) IMDB | Movie with subs

Want to know what the world was before the regime,” A king for a Day” depicts society in the 1930 in a post-war Bulgaria. Inspired by the great silent comedies of that era, the performance in the movie by Todor Kolev is simply breathtaking in its sad comedy. Kolev considered one of the greatest comedians of all time, made 3 super hit movies at the time “The Double” , “A King for a Day” and “Dangerous Charm” depicting the live of silly down on their luck heroes that never manage to win, joining the ranks of Jerry Lewis,Louis de Funès and Charlie Chaplin – with much less falling of course.

Synopsis:

The main character Purko (Todor Kolev) is a poor peasant with many children, constantly starting extravagant initiatives to get out of poverty during the hard times between the two world wars. The only consolation he finds in the music with his clarinet and his inborn musical talent until one day he meets an elegant couple from a town. They promise him prosperity if he mortgage his house and invest the money in their business.

After the fall of communism, early democracy (1989-2008)

Now this era is the shortest one and the strangest. After the fall of the regime the first couple of years were very rough for the bulgarian people, a economic recession, their underdevelopment compared to western society and the lack of stable political landscape made cinema in this period honestly quite random. A lot of indie influences started growing in the cinema world here going opposite the route previously taken by the country in which movies were make by the party for the people. Now movies were made without supervision or restraint leading to a lot of hit and miss projects. Here are three that show the lack of direction and goal at the time.

“A Letter to America” is probably my favorite bulgarian movie of this period.A very personal and deeply human story that wouldn’t have been made possible during the communist era, depicting the hope and wonder of a bulgarian about the western world whilst finding their place in history and their roots.It shows a forgotten part of the country, people that were living in that moment and after that disappeared forever. The subtitles don’t do justice to the wonderful and unique phrases uttered by some of these characters.

Synopsis:

Ivan’s best friend, Kamen, is dying in an American hospital. Since he’s denied a visa to the USA and can’t stay by his side in his last moments, he decides to set off for Bulgaria countryside, taking the camera Kamen has given him in search of a song to bring his friend to life. After some time, he writes her a very special letter, telling all about the places and characters he meets on his way, witnesses to a time which is bound to be forgotten.

Possibly the most unique movie on this list, its very hard to explain why its good or why its relevant kind of like the main character in the picture. It’s probably the first surrealism or abstract movie to hit the mainstream audience in Bulgaria. Following a very successful TV show Maya Novoselska plays herself(?) but not really herself in this bizarre tale of a modern woman in the country … i think i’m not sure to be honest and i’ve seen the film around 6 times. I am very disappointed i couldn’t find subtitles for this picture because it’s so weirdly unique you have to see it to believe it.

Synopsis:

This is a story about a woman, but not completely a woman, because she is funny and plump, because she is a comedienne and being a female comedienne is very difficult work. During the whole time, the comedienne gets in the way of the woman and the woman in the way of the comedienne. In fact, nothing in the life of this woman is ‘completely’. She is an actress, but not completely. She is playing the role of her life, but not completely. In the end she dies, but not completely.

Since i’m unable to find a good subtitled version i’m going to roughly translate the first minute and a half just to give you a quick taste of the movie.

I’m starting from the white, and empty sheet of paper, snow, bed sheets, TV screen, you know something you have to fill in. White… It wants a sound, it starts galloping, but I don’t like horses that much I prefer centaurs, any way why am I pretending to be so mysterious, when I know in my head it’s the soft bed sheets white, but that white also has a very well-known finale… another kind of white.

That guy over there is from the German authority of diversification of colors and color-blindness prevention who says: “There are 173 types of white, 47 symbolic meanings of white, 219 practical uses of white, and this isn’t a commercial for laundry detergent or a reminder that the Russians covered in white the writing in most Georgian churches, this is simply nuance number 97 of white. This is a glazed and expensive kind of white repulsing every kind of pen ink writing.”

This is simply a white spot in the European Map. Yes it exists. On this kind of map for the western people there is nothing near Greece and to the right of Yugoslavia except this white spot in which due to random circumstance I was born and no matter how much I scream “Im Here! Look at me!” the gaze of the western tourist slips right through me and goes to Chalkidiki and a car round like his belly takes him there. So I dive in my white and I start filling it with stories..

  • “Zift”/”Дзифт” (2008) IMDB

“Zift” marks a shift in Bulgarian cinema and the end of the wild west years. A truly unique idea, “Zift” is probably the best movie made in the last 20 years. Since its a modern release you can find in in Amazon or in your local torrent site.A neo-noir set during the fall of socialism is a very strange concept that sort of works, filled with strange characters and memorable scenes it perfectly captures the frantic and chaotic world of Bulgaria during the new totalitarian world of the 60s.
Synospis:

Moth is freed on parole after spending time in prison on wrongful conviction of murder. Jailed shortly before the Bulgarian communist coup of 1944, he now finds himself in a new and alien world – the totalitarian Sofia of the 60s. His first night of freedom draws the map of a diabolical city full of decaying neighborhoods, gloomy streets and a bizarre parade of characters.

A year before this movie is released Bulgaria joins the European Union and along with that comes the promise of westernizing the country. The people were promised that a new sort of utopia will rise from the ashes of the promised one during communism and Bulgaria will join with the likes of Germany and France as a member of the EU and a rightful western nation. That sadly didn’t happen and isn’t even close to the truth of current Bulgaria.

European Bulgaria and the influence of New Age western cinema

Honestly i hate this current era of movie making here. Were currently playing catch up with the West instead of doing the unique movies of the previous era or the driven and precise movies of socialism. Dont get me wrong its produced a lot of hits in the box office and last year we even had our first Oscar nomination for the short movie “The Blind Vaysha” but it feels like the movies lost their charm and simply fell into the norms dictated by the west. Unlike the film making during communism where rules were meant to be bent and stretched, today modern filmmakers simply make what’s trendy due to the cost of production and the low returns if you strafe away.

  • “The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner”/ “Светът е голям и спасение дебне отвсякъде” (2008) IMDB

Im simpy not going to write the title of the movie here, fuck that it so long. In the Linklater inspired drama that set the tone for all indie finding-myself dramas to come, a nice and lovely little story is told about love and family and roots and all the other good things that come from these types of movies. Roger Ebert reviewed it and gave it 3 stars which is nice i guess review and it won a lot of awards and international praize.
Synopsis:

“World” centers on Alexander, who was born in 1975 in Bulgaria. During the oppressive communist era, he and his parents immigrate to Germany. But when an automobile accident takes the parents’ lives, Alexander’s beloved grandfather, Bai Dan, comes to tend to him.The young man is suffering from amnesia as a result of the accident, and Bai Dan decides to try to restore his memories by taking him on a bicycle journey back to the town in Bulgaria where he was born.

  • “TILT”/”Тилт” (2011) IMDB

“Tilt” is another of the dramas i was talking about, full of reminiscing about the communist era and revisionism the movie has surprising amount of heart. It follow a basic formula and is successful in that, but feels empty and charmless.Again you can find “Tilt” on Amazon or torrent sites.
Synopsis:

TILT is a love story set against the backdrop of the changing political and social environment in Europe in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Can this love survive the challenges of emigration, a violent homeland and immoral social atmosphere thanks to a gang of adventurous friends?

It may seem like i dont care for these movies and i dont but to be honest there isnt really that much to talk about them. They are passable films that lack an unique touch that is worth discussing in depth. Most of them are fine movies that simply feel like a remake of another movie made in the west.

  • “Mission London”/”Mисия Лондон” (2010) IMDB

This move is a comedy made by the guys that run the most popular comedy show in the country. Its unique and shows the worldview of a new breed of Bulgarians, believing that they are westerners first and bulgarians second. A lot of good jokes and a lot of bad ones are in it but since comedy is very subjective you may enjoy this one more than i did.The release of the movie was the biggest PR campaign at the time and it gained a lot of traction, possibly becoming the highest grossing movie of the last 20 years.

A concert to celebrate Bulgaria joining the EU is being planned at the Embassy in London and it is the job of VARADIN, the new ambassador, to ensure the Queen attends. But with corrupt staff, criminal gangs operating out of the kitchen, falling in love with a stripper and a little misunderstanding with a PR firm that provides look-alike royalties – his simple task turns into a chaotic nightmare.

  • Closing Thoughts and What’s Next ? *

Well if you reached this far you may see the tread of change during the time period i described. From a focused and forces idea for what cinema is supposed to represent to an unique and personal experience and finally to a commercialized chasing trends present and possible future.

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ithyphallic6: I’m surprised Detour (1967) didn’t make it into your list. Considering the European trends of the late 50s and the 60s and the state of Bulgarian cinema at the time, this film stood out for me so much that now I can easily call it my favourite Bulgarian film. Another film I’d add to the films you’ve mentioned would be Avantazh (1977), again different to contemporary cinema in the country. Thank you for writing this down, I hope it sparks interest here.

Are there any films that have made an impression on you the last several years?

What do you think?

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"Marty" (1955) is the shortest film to win Best Picture at 90 minutes thumbnail

"Marty" (1955) is the shortest film to win Best Picture at 90 minutes