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Borderline Galore: Bulgarian Documentary
© Yoana Pavlova
10 May 2016
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While fiction cinema deals with storytelling, documentary cinema often tries to look into the narrative framework and to address questions related to politics, society, culture, ideals.

Given the fact that the Third Bulgarian State emerged merely twenty years before the Lumière brothers established the so-called actualités as a form, the nation΄s foray into documentaries naturally passed through several decades of historical chronicles – first shot by foreign cinematographers, then by local crews. Still, the productive 1920s and 1930s were so advantageous in gaining creative and industry experience that two documentary shorts by Bulgarian directors were selected by the 8th Venice Film Festival in 1947 – Stoyan Hristov΄s A Village Wedding / Svatba Na Selo (1946) and Zahari Zhandov΄s People In The Clouds / Hora Sred Oblatzite (1946) – with  the latter also being an award winner.

After the nationalization of the Bulgarian cinema by the newly established socialist regime in 1948, documentary cinema returned more or less to point zero, at least in terms of critical distance from the public discourse. Propaganda newsreels piled in, especially in the 1950s, when themes from the heroic past and from the ecstatic everyday life were staged in permanent crescendo mode. With the launch of Vreme Film Studio and the latest opportunities offered by the national television, slowly popular science and educational films replaced hardline propaganda. In the 1960s and the 1970s, documentary cinema in Bulgaria formed both experimental ground and safe harbor from the exigences of social realism, thereby being transformed into some sort of artistic limbo for beginners or fallen auteurs. Meanwhile, alleged political antagonists like Georgi Stoev-Jackie, Georgy Penkov-Johnny, and Hristo Iliev-Charlie played around with cinéma vérité under the disguise of comedy but their work remained in the periphery.

Real dissidents were those filmmakers who pursued documentary filmmaking in the 1990s, amid financial, social, and political crisis, although their choice was often dictated by necessity. Funded by the National Film Center of Bulgaria, and usually also by the National Television, those hybrid works prevailed in the border zone between creative non-fiction and journalism. From the most important names of the post-1989 period, directors like Vladimir AndreevGeorgi Balabanov, Kostadin Bonev, Stefan KomandarevSvetoslav Ovcharov, Rumyana Petkova, Stanimir TrifonovIglika Trifonova could not resist the temptation and later chased a career in fiction cinema, while others like Ralitza Dimitrova, Milan Ognyanov, Adela Peeva, Malina Petrova, Eldora Traykova (it is no coincidence that the majority on this list are women) stayed true to their documentary vocation and made a household name, albeit the fact that their projects strayed away from the modern-day conjuncture. Nevertheless, all above-mentioned artists left a memorable trace in Bulgarian film tradition, and so did their critical and searching gaze.

The boom in digital technologies at the turn of the millennium put things in order: narrative cinema was finally achievable, even if filmmakers were no longer sure as to what message they want to convey, whereas a new generation of authentic documentarists came on the stage. Furthermore, with the variety came the nuances. The underground was quickly occupied by informal groups like Bidon Film, with filmmakers Nikola Boshnakov, Oleg Konstntinov, Mitko Taralejkov, as well as DoP Ana Stoyanova and writer/translator Svetlana Komogorova-Komata in the center. Their short and mid-length documentary production was abundant and punky yet self-aware of its marginal status, thus also ironic towards the status-quo and the act of filmmaking per se. One of their most well-known films, Nikola Boshnakov΄s Jackie, Johnny and Charlie are no Pet Dog Names (2011) is dedicated to Bidon΄s socialist predecessors for a very good reason.

With this being said, the major players in the post-2000 terrain of documentary cinema are also those who feel the need to work on subjects that matter to them personally, subjects that are truly relevant to the daily life the way their generation perceives it. Those people often came back to Bulgaria after having spent some years abroad, or have accumulated enough professional experience and civil discontent to channel fresh energy in documentary filmmaking by employing the best European practices. And while practically every country on the Balkans was successful in originating a New Wave in feature cinema, in Bulgaria it was the documentary cinema that took the lead. Amidst public confrontations in the film sphere about new legislative regulations, state funding scandals, deafening sociopolitical vacuum, existential despair – it was non-fiction artists who acted quickly, packed light, and shot a spectacular array of stories we did not even know exist, hence capturing the flag by narrative cinema and its psycho-explanatory mechanism.

Georgi and the Butterflies by Andrey Paounov

In this context, it is important to mention Agitprop and most notably – founder and producer Martichka Bozhilova – as  the inspiration for this rise and as someone who has been pushing the envelope of high professional standards and achievements ever since. With Agitprop΄s first blockbuster, Georgi and the Butterflies (2004) by Andrey Paounov, the map was set, and new riches emerged. It is noteworthy that Agitprop is a collective with core crew members like the production department or the renowned DoP duo Georgi Bogdanov & Boris Misirkov, but each project and director bring a different flavor. In this sense, Agitprop΄s affluence consists of merging various perspectives. Tales about Hollywood adventurers, romantics in Scandinavia, Turkish soap operas, Black Sea pirates, or the Code Cinema initiative commemorating the first centenary of Bulgarian cinema – they inhabit the same narrative space, but one that goes well beyond the territory of the country.

To give you the full picture of documentary cinema in Bulgaria nowadays, the proposed documentary selection consists of three sellouts by Agitprop and five more documentaries by independent authors, all produced by emerging professionals in the last decade. These are among the most successful and popular films, especially abroad, as local viewers tend to feel conflicted when seeing their own portrayal on screen (which is a sure sign that the zeitgeist is present). On a side note, these films are well-traveled, still this is the first time they are being shown together, as an attempt to explore the grand discourse of the Bulgarian reality. The goal was not only to collect eight highly acclaimed and diverse spiels to demonstrate that the typical Balkan craze is strong with us. The proposed line-up is rather an overview of the way aspiring Bulgarian filmmakers approach identity constructs through key polarities, such as history / amnesia, order / chaos, we / they, culture / nature. Likewise, the eight selected titles illustrate ongoing trends in world documentary cinema: the immersive allure of psychogeography behind an international infrastructure project in Corridor #8 (2008) by Boris Despodov or the ex-flagman of socialism, Dimitrovgrad, in City of Dreams (2011) by Svetoslav Draganov; archive footage as a background for introducing a controversial personality like the former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in The Boy who was a King (2011) by Andrey Paounov or the most famous Bulgarian football player beyond the country΄s frontiers in Stoichkov (2012) by Borislav Kolev; defying newspaper cliches about the Roma community in Roma Quixote (2013) by Petya Nakova & Nina Pehlivanova or about environmental issues in Vitosha (2013) by Lyubomir Mladenov; documentary films as an art form thanks to the scenography in Tzvetanka (2012) by Youlian Tabakov or the sound design in Sofia΄s Last Ambulance (2012) by Ilian Metev. And last but not least, by juxtaposing these films precisely at BelDocs, we aim to study how they they correlate to the cultural and social dynamic of the region.

P.S. I would like to express my gratitude to professor Dina Iordanova (University of St Andrews), a Bulgarian academic living and working abroad, as well as a distinguished specialist on Balkan and Eastern European cinema, whose moral support and contribution to the brainstorming process during the preparation of this programme were invaluable.

Yoana Pavlova is the currator of Borderline Galore, Bulgarian Documentary section in BelDocs International Documentary Film Festival.

  Sofia`s Last Ambulance
  Georgi and the Butterflies
  The Boy Who Was a King
  Svetoslav Ovtcharov
  Martichka Bozhilova
  Boris Missirkov
  Georgi Bogdanov
  Vladimir Andreev
  Dina Iordanova
  Stephan Komandarev
  Ilian Metev
  Andrey Paounov
  Adela Peeva
  Borislav Kolev
  Stanimir Trifonov
  Ralitza Dimitrova
  Youlian Tabakov
  Lyubomir Mladenov
  Iglika Trifonova
  Yoana Pavlova
  Kostadin Bonev
  Svetoslav Draganov
  Boris Despodov
  Georgi Balabanov
  Eldora Traykova
  BelDocs Official Webpage
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