22 March, 2023
A study in history and in the works of film criticism of a remarkable cultural phenomenon
A snapshot from the movie “Whose is this song?” by Adela Peeva (source: YouTube)

A study in history and in the works of film criticism of a remarkable cultural phenomenon

Marian Țuțui

This article is part of the book “Studies in Romanian and Balkan Cinema” by the Romanian film critic Marian Țuțui. He works at the Art Institute of the Romanian Academy and is currently preparing a history of Romanian cinema. Țuțui is a well-known name in the film circles of Bulgaria and Macedonia. Among other things, he has a degree in Bulgarian and Romanian from the University of Bucharest.

The first cinematographic projection in Bulgaria took place on 8th of December 1896 (Karjilov 2007) while the first fiction film, Balgaran e galant (The Bulgarian Is Gallant) was made in 1915 by Vassil Gendov, a prolific director who studied acting in Vienna. The first sound film, Buntat na robite (The Slaves’ Revolt, 1933) is also due to Gendov, while the first animation film, Pakosnitsi. Mukhata (Pests: The Fly) by Zahari Zahariev and Vasil Bakardjiev was made in 1937. 

Bulgarian cinema has had sporadic success abroad. Its first major award was an early one (1946) in Venice for an ethnographic documentary, Svatba na selo (Village Wedding, Stoyan Hristov) about Sovoliano wedding customs, in South-Western Bulgaria. It was followed by awards for fiction films in Venice: Neposkoen pat (Troubled Road, a Man Decides, Ivan Bratanov, 1955) and a Silver Lion for Ritzar bez bronya (Knight without Armor, Borislav Sharailiev, 1966), as well as a Silver Bear in Berlin for Avantazh (Advantage, Georgi Djulgerov, 1978). (Tutui 2011, 314-15) The most recent success, albeit almost 30 years ago, was for an animation film, Zhenitba (The Wedding, Rumen Petkov and Slav Bakalov), which received a Golden Palm in Cannes in 1985 for the best short-length film. 

From these examples we can speak of a film tradition in Bulgaria. However, possibly due to its sporadic success, Bulgarian cinema is not always mentioned in histories and encyclopedias of world cinema. French film historians Georges Sadoul and Roger Boussinot grant several lines in their books, while with the Anglo-American authors Bulgarian cinema is often omitted altogether. In his encyclopedia, American author Ephraim Katz grants special paragraphs to cinema in Bulgaria, Greece, and Yugoslavia but altogether ignores Romania and Turkey. British author David Parkinson uses both broad multinational formulas (“Eastern Europe” in order to make reference to Bulgarian and Romanian cinema before 1970), as well as national names (“Romanian” and “Bulgarian”), especially after their international affirmation. American author Gerald Mast uses only the names of the main national cinema schools, inclusive of the Yugoslav school, but the cinema of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Turkey are not to be found. 

Foreigners have noticed trans-border phenomena that the Balkan scholars have ignored or missed and therefore such a phrase as “Balkan cinema” is useful. For the natives such perception may be offensive and, indeed, sometimes it has been superficial and simplifying. After 1990, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia and faced with new countries and new cinemas, as well as with an increasing number of co-productions, such perception is required even more. In this respect Dina Iordanova noticed: 

Where before we talked of one, albeit diverse, national cinema, now we distinguish Croatian, Slovene, Bosnian, Macedonian, Serbian and Montenegrin cinema, and are confronted with difficult decisions about who and what belongs where. The whole rushed undertaking of creating distinct film traditions is particularly artificial because, carried out as it was a moment when the borders of national cinemas were collapsing and giving way to increasingly trans-national film-making, building on new national cinemas today is a causa perduta. (2000, 5)

The documentary film has never been a genre with substantial box-office success and is often, therefore, imagined by producers as a poor relative of the fiction film. Only sometimes, as propaganda tools, could it enjoy lavish funding. In Communist countries documentary has never been underestimated, and therefore the production of documentary films has always been strictly controlled by authorities. After 1990, the governmental studios were no longer obliged to make the often-contentious “commissioned films”, but the filmmakers could not enjoy total freedom as the funds drastically decreased and such studios slowly disappeared. Although during the 90s the rest of the world was witnessing a boom of production due to the rapid spread of cheap video equipment, countries in transition saw only the emerging private television stations offer jobs, and it took some time to adapt and revive the production of documentary films. 

Obviously, during communism, the Bulgarian documentary films directors did not enjoy the same visibility as their younger colleagues today. However, we should mention at least Christo Kovachev, Yuli Stoyanov, Nevena Tosheva, Nikola Kovachev, Eduard Zahariev, Oskar Kristanov, Georgi Stoev, Vasil Jivkov, Lydia Usheva and Adela Peeva. Well-known Christo Kovachev (1929–1997) received several awards abroad, inclusively the award for the best documentary in Venice (From One to Eight/ Ot edno do osem, 1967). A self-taught filmmaker, he was in good terms with communist leader Todor Jivkov, and founded Studio Globus where he helped several young directors.   

If we take into account the documentary films produced by the studios Vreme, Ekran, Globus, Spektar, and Sofia Press we can estimate a total production of over 150 films per year in the late 80s. (Yanakiev 2003: 189- 97) Meanwhile, neighboring Romania produced no less than 270 documentary films in 1980. Only during recent years has the quantity and quality of the documentary film production in Bulgaria matched and even overcame the one during communism. The revival of the documentary was partly due to some already established directors, but it was fresh and young directors that were predominantly responsible. First of all, an attempt to leave a certain provincialism behind and tackle topics belonging to a broader reality defines the genre in its contemporary context. It begins with director Adela Peeva who was the first Bulgarian nominated for the best European documentary in 2003 for Chia e tazi pesen? (Whose Is This Song?), followed by another nomination for Razvod po albanski (Divorce Albanian Style, 2007). The former documentary aims to identify the roots of a Balkan folk song, which sees the director travel to Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, Serbia and Bulgaria. As the director herself confesses, the story began in a small restaurant in Istanbul where she was having dinner with a Greek, a Macedonian, a Turk, and a Serbian: “There I heard the song whose story I present in this film. Immediately afterwards, everyone started humming and singing in their own native language. Everyone insisted that the song was from their own country.  A dispute thus arose: Whose is this song? I knew from childhood that the song is Bulgarian. I wanted to know why others claimed it was theirs.” (Dimitrovna 2004)

The director adds that the story about the melody is not over. It received fifteen awards at various international film festivals, and in post-screening discussions Peeva could hear opinions that the song is Bengali, Chinese, Iranian or Sicilian. (Mincheva 2012) The camera held by Joro Nedialkov captures discussion partners and “heroes” who are musicologists, famous musicians, as well as ordinary people. The pace is fast; therefore we take part in a real Balkan adventure. Adela Peeva notices that the stormy Balkans display both “national characteristics which represent a real wealth”, as well as a “complex of identity” striving to define what is its own. (Mincheva 2012)

In Divorce Albanian Style the pace is slower and includes interviews combined with archival footage documenting the epoch of Enver Xoxha. After a period of collaboration with other Communist countries, including sending students abroad to study, the Albanian dictator decided that he was the only real Communist and began to isolate his country against what he called ideological viruses. Many Albanians who had studied abroad had married Russian or Polish women, but now they were forced to divorce. Some men acceded to the demand to divorce and their wives left the country, while others did not obey and both husbands and wives spent years in jail. The film reconstructs the stories of several broken families. With sobriety and patience the same director of photography helps Adela Peeva avoid melodramatic accents. The director remains particularly lucid when she considers that Divorce Albanian Style is about certain people who “were waiting for somebody” to tell their story. (Mincheva 2012) Now it is a time when such stories can be told; however, it is also about very painful and personal matters and therefore, as incredible as it seems, a prominent Albanian physician even today remains embarrassed to talk about a mother he has never seen and was told that she was a spy. 

Kostadin Bonev also dares to tackle a topic outside of Bulgaria: the fate of Sulina, a small town in the Danube Delta, in neighboring Romania. During the inter-war period, the small town was a free port and enjoyed a certain prosperity and cosmopolitan air, but little by little was turned into a sad pile of ruins and confined to the fate of the earth. Although a foreigner, Bonev explored the Danube Delta with the patience of an angler, and, as such, he was able to uncover the essence of the small town and produce another notable documentary, Evropolis – gradyt na deltata (Europolis – The Town of the Delta, 2010). Bonev’s should be seen in the context of those documentaries earlier produced by Romanians: Porto Franco (Anca Damian 2001) and Asta e (Europolis, Thomas Ciulei, 2001). Bonev’s film relies on archival footage and contemporary interviews which contribute to a thorough investigation, revealing the tragedy of the inhabitants who feel forgotten by authorities. Thus his documentary becomes more objective, while the Romanian ones seem more lyrical in comparison. 

The most important boost for revival came from young director Andrey Paounov just one year after Whose Is This Song? Not at all incidentally Georgi i peperudite (Georgi and the Butterflies, 2004) obtained foreign funding and went on to win no less than twelve international awards. (Manov 2007) Georgi and the Butterflies was a different kind of documentary, beyond expectations from an East-European director. Bulgarian film critic Antonia Kovacheva pointed out such expectations: “For a while such exoticism has persisted with the newcomers from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as from the Balkans. Such exoticism has been exhausted due to the stabilization of the countries in the region, but it is still a great expectation for such sad films from the shanty ghetto of South-East Vienna”. (Kovacheva 2007) During a time when most East-European directors were making pessimistic films about the difficulties of transition from communism to market economy (Ivanova 2007), Paounov offered a story full of optimism with its focus on Dr. Georgi Lulchev, a psychiatrist and director of a home for psychologically disabled men. Dr. Lulchev had long dreamed of organizing a farm in the yard of the psychiatric home he ran, where the patients can raise snails, ostriches and pheasants, and produce silk and soybean food. The doctor’s wife concludes that he has butterflies in his head, as do his patients. 

<figure 12.1 here> Georgi and the Butterflies. ©Agitprop

It is worth mentioning that Paounov studied cinema both at NATFIZ in Sofia and at FAMU in Prague. There he encountered serious financial difficulties, and therefore had to find a job. Today the director writes in his CV: “He has been a bartender in Prague, a cook in Washington DC, a gardener in Toronto, a boom operator in New York, and an accounting clerk in San Francisco.” Like his character, Dr. Georgi Lulchev, Andrey Paounov found a way out and a real story able to make us laugh occasionally, and at least smile. The director disclosed in an interview that:

I have not decided to make documentaries because they are easier or tougher, or as some training for feature films, but simply because in my opinion at the moment the conditions in Bulgaria, the situation, the people, the characters, the environment are so convenient for telling true stories that it would just be stupid to miss this chance. We do not make our films with some sense of inferiority that maybe some other film industry is better, bigger, and we are second-class producers of audiovisual works– just the opposite!…When it comes to good movies, all the barriers [between fiction and documentary] disappear. (Manov 2007)

Unlike his previous upbeat documentary Georgi and the Butterflies, Problemat s komarite i drugi istorii (The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories, 2007) is this time about lack of prospects. This story, provided by co-writer Lidia Topouzova, tells the tale of a former political prisoner camp, but adds a great deal, as well, about the town of Belene where the camp was located. The nearby island reminds us of a sinister past and some concrete foundation of the intention to build a nuclear power station. However, people cling to hope even without reasons. Several scenes are indelible: the self-taught musician who plays Chopin, the Cuban worker, symbol of Communist cooperation, playing the guitar and, of course, the pervasive giant mosquitoes who have become the inhabitants’ latest reason for self praise. The end is almost surreal and evokes Fellini’s Amarcord: a truck spreading insecticide is closely followed by the kids on bicycles cooling themselves in the clouds of the very same poison.

<figure 12.2 here>  The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories. ©Agitprop

Paounov’s latest documentary, The Boy Who Was a King (2011) tells Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’s story from the time he was a boy of six and King of Bulgaria (1943) up to his return to his native land as a prime-minister (2001-2005). As the story of the King’s destiny the film is sometimes gripping, but ultimately for many is protracted. But for Bulgarians and other East-Europeans the film has something extra. As with other public figures in the Balkans we are dealing with a reconsideration of values. The former King who became prime minister has brought hope for a while but eventually he disappointed. Therefore, a longer story that reconstructs contemporary history without prejudice is accepted by the local public. 

Corridor No. 8 (2008) directed by Boris Despodov was awarded a Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Berlinale as well as a Heart of Sarajevo for best documentary. It is the thrilling story of an important European road (Corridor No. 8) linking Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania, a major infrastructure project for ten years in the early stage of development. First of all, one can understand that it is still impossible to travel by train from Bulgaria to Macedonia because, in spite of promises, 550 yards of rail need finishing in order to connect the two countries. Moreover, the tunnel begun by the Germans in 1941 is used nowadays to grow mushrooms and store cheese. The audience is also shocked by a train evoking the Wild West, or a journey to a pimp who works for KFOR soldiers. Paounov’s conclusion is that despite the fact that these three countries are so poorly linked by roads, they are in fact incredibly close to one another. However, although showing absurdities, the director uses a light, temperate approach without ridiculing his subjects, making everybody laugh, including probably the people he interviewed. This was a different from older directors, especially from those from the communist time. Belonging to a younger generation, he can innovate, replacing pathos with objectivity and humor. As in the case of Paounov, humor lead to an undeniable success not only at festivals, but also with local spectators which is quite unusual for documentaries. 

<figure 12.3 here> Corridor No. 8. ©Agitprop

Former journalist Jordan Todorov demonstrates both expertise and understanding in his two investigations. His Betonni faraoni (Concrete Pharaos, 2010) is a striking story about a cemetery. The tombstones of the rich members of the Kalderash Roma community are awe-inspiring. They are, in fact, underground homes furnished with beds, wardrobes, stereos and wine tanks. The relatives and friends are thus invited not to mourn, but to feast together with the deceased. This might be considered exotic by some, but others consider it improper and against religious precepts. After watching the documentary we can conclude that Emir Kusturica invented less than we thought about the life of the Balkan Gypsies in Dom za vesanje (Time of the Gypsies, 1988) and Crna macka, beli macor (Black Cat, White Cat, 1998), but was among the first to be able to see a fascinating reality previously missed or ignored. 

As director Jordan Todorov himself says about his second documentary, Dad Made Dirty Pictures (2012) is about “the Erotic World of Stephen C. Apostolof.” Stephen Apostolof was a man of many contradictions. He made soft-porn films (often credited as A.C. Stephens) up to the advent of hardcore in 1972 and one attempt at a mainstream film, Hot Ice (1978), but he was also a family man and very active in Los Angeles’ Bulgarian Orthodox community. This time, in imitation of Apostolof’s films, Todorov uses a narrator, D.T. Anderson, who gives voice to Apostolof’s memories. Footage from Orgy of the Dead (1965), a film adapted from Ed Wood’s novel, interspersed with a hilarious interview with one of the performers in the film (Nadejda Dobrev), as well as other footage, contributes to more than simply a biography of an interesting Bulgarian immigrant, but to an entire reconstruction of the USA in the 70s. Besides sexploitation, Apostolof proved in his films that he could turn science fiction and James Bond into parodies, and therefore the film about his life and career could not be anything other than utterly amusing. Only the end is somehow pensive.

<figure 12.4 here> Concrete Pharaos. ©Agitprop

It is important to pinpoint that Georgi and the Butterflies, The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories, The Boy Who Was a King, Corridor No. 8, Concrete Pharaos and Dad Made Dirty Pictures were all produced by Agitprop. The name of the studio ironically evokes the golden times of documentary during Communism: “Agit(ation) and Prop(aganda).” Producer Martichka Bojilova explained that the studio Agitprop was born during Georgi and the Butterflies. Then they decided “to make good cinema, the way we like, if possible with less compromise. That means to shoot on film, not on video, and to make time for the filmed material to mature, as well as to work only with people who are ready to spend a lot of time for the sake of an idea.” (Manov 2007)

There are at least four comedic documentaries in Bulgaria made in recent years, and therefore we can consider the genre a genuine Bulgarian brand. We can justify such a conclusion by turning to earlier examples from Bulgarian literature and cinema. If we take a closer look at Bulgarians we can notice some specific humor. Mainly it is about self-irony. Its earliest roots are to be found in “Bay Ganio” (1896), a collection of short stories by Aleko Konstantinov. Bay Ganyo is simple-minded, swindling, speculating and manipulating, yet also tenacious, struggling and finally breaking through. Sometimes this itinerant peddler of rose oil and rugs is perceived as a stereotype of the uneducated, profit-driven Bulgarian and a member of the newly formed lower middle-class. His travels through Western Europe were adapted into film, beginning with a silent short in 1922 (Bay Ganio, Ivan Nichev). There was an even earlier attempt at cinematic comedy in Bulgaria, The Bulgarian is Gallant (Vassil Gendov, 1915), but unfortunately this first Bulgarian fiction film is lost. The most successful, even abroad, self-ironic cinematic mirroring was Trimata glupatsi (The Three Fools, 1970), a short animation by Donyo Donev, followed by a series of ten other shorts until 1990. It is about three middle-aged men, bald and paunchy, who demonstrate stupidity, greed and other flaws. Instead of talking they use interjections, while the national character of the cartoon is suggested by the use of folk instruments, such bagpipe and drum. Recently, we can notice two comedies: Halmat na borovinkite (Blueberry Hill, Aleksandr Morfov, 2002) and Misia London (Mission London, Dimitar Mitovski, 2010). Morfov’s film is a Kusturica style fairy-tale about a foreigner reaching a true Wild East somewhere in Bulgaria. The latter is the greatest box-office success in Bulgaria after 1989 about a concert to celebrate Bulgaria joining the EU that ends in catastrophe. As in Corridor No. 8 there is a great difference between reality and expectation from this country recently a member of the cosmopolitan and globalized EU. 

Looking back we can find several comical documentaries in Bulgaria during communism. The Air/ Vazduhat (Oskar Kristanov, 1975) is a daring skit about industrialization from an ecological point of view, while Shepherds/ Ovcharsko (Oskar Kristanov, 1978) tells the story of a stubborn shepherd with his own ideas about the world, and who comes to conflict with his superiors.

However, Europe encountered many other amusing documentaries from the neighboring Balkan countries in the same period. Blestemul ariciului (The Curse of the Hedgehog, Romania, Dumitru Budrală, 2005) is at first glance a bitter story about poor Gypsies earning their living by basketry. Yet the main character is a delightful storyteller, charming the audience with a mixture of naivety and folk wisdom. Several times, his weary fellow travelers ask him to tell anecdotes from his life in order to amuse them. For instance, his understanding of the wife who cheated on him while he was in detention is both touching and exhilarating. Kimon Tsakaris’ Sugartown: Oi gabroi (Sugartown: The Bridegrooms, Greece, 2006) is about the endeavors of a Greek town without women to find brides in Russia. In the Serbian movie Kako postati heroj (How to Become a Hero, 2008), film director Mladen Maticević tells the story of one year of his life after he decided to run a marathon race. The director, a large man of forty, was drinking beer while watching a football match. During halftime, after watching some athletes running a marathon, he made a bet with a friend that he can run the full marathon race. His family was afraid that he would disappoint them again, while friends both encouraged him and discouraged him to pull it off. His struggle to prepare and run the race becomes a metaphor for the capacity of an ordinary man to surpass oneself. Biljana Garvanlieva’s Shnajderkite (The Seamstresses, 2010) is a crude satire on the patriarchal conception of man as a provider for his family. Only women have jobs in the Macedonia city of Stip, working, as the title indicates, as seamstresses in the suddenly burgeoning textile industry.

As all the above mentioned comedic documentaries were made in the Balkans, we can try to draw another conclusion, or at least speculate with certain reason. Facing a difficult history, the Balkan society has always been a rough mix of abjection and purity, as we can see in films from Michael Cacoyannis’ Alexis Zorbas (Zorba the Greek, 1964) up to Kusturica’s Underground (1995), among others. Therefore filmmakers turned almost inherently to an oxymoronic vision and to black comedy. Black comedy supposes humor deriving from topics considered unfit and to serious for comic treatment, such as death, war, and poverty. Kusturica and other ex-Yugoslav directors, as well as the Bulgarian Dimitar Mitovski have proven that serious topics can produce humor and the reality of Balkan contrasts can be stylistically rendered by oxymoron. Obviously, filmmakers have imagined that the dysfunction of the societies in transition includes forms of the absurd which they underline through irony and humor. Romanians successfully resorted to a severe cinematic style similar to Italian Neo-Realism, while Bulgarians have been, up to now, keen to notice and less to invent and therefore their cinematic vision is characterized by striking documentaries. It is not by chance that some of these documentaries have the same black humor of ex-Yugoslav fiction films. 


______. “Chia e tazi pesen?” (“Whose Is This Song)” BNT na zhivo. Bulgarian National Television Live. Accessed March 1, 2014. http://archive.bnt.bg/bg/movies/details/1482/chija_e_tazi_pesen

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