Contemporary Bulgarian documentary cinema


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Contemporary Bulgarian documentary cinema, viewed from a few different perspectives, is at high standards. It is both stable in terms of the amount of produced films and quality – numerous documentary films hold the features of high art cinema, and our films are successful at prestigious international festivals. Despite, it seems, its small distributions in the country (I do not overlook the numerous special efforts put into this direction and later on I will further elaborate on this), there is somewhat of an audience interest in it, in particular when basic efforts were made. For example, during the Golden Rhyton film festival, organized as an exception in February at the Cinema house in Sofia, the screening halls were pleasantly full without the screenings of all documentary films to be free.

Our documentary cinema is up-to-date in terms of several features which are important for measuring contemporeity, especially abroad.  For instance, women who make documentary films at home such as screenwriters, directors and producers are enough to claim there is gender equality in the filmmaking industry. It is important to note that in Bulgaria women take responsible and creative job positions not due to modern quotes, which are already established as a world requirement, but this process has been developed and established naturally and gradually – the strong female presence in cinema started long before post totalitarian time. It is suffice to remember Nevena Tosheva, who made dozens of documentary films such as Lassies (1977) and The Boarding house (1979); Binka Zhelyazkova’s Nani-na (1982), a seminal director in feature cinema too. It is also worth mentioning the film Pantheon (1987) by Malina Petrova and thinking about the cinema of the 1990s, where we find the names of remarkable films and women such as: Iglika Trifonova, Elena Yoncheva, Milena Milotinova, Yulia Kancheva, Maria Trayanova and many others.

*Caption: Before the End (2020), directed by Eldora Traykova, awarded with The Golden Rhyton prize in 2020

It is suffice to mention the name of Eldora Traykova, a BBC award winner, as well as a holder of two big Golden Rhyton awards and of a directing award from the same festival, about Adela Peeva’s films nominated twice for an award for documentary films by the European film academy, about the special award of Anna Petkova from Karlovy vary festival, Vesela Kazakova and Mina Mileva, whose documentary films have a triumphant success at international film festivals and they touch each viewer. Amongst the youngest and most talented generation of Bulgarian women directors are Marina Averina, Boya Harizanova and others. Not few are the women producers nowadays, such as Martichka Bozhilova, Rositsa Valkanova, Galina Toneva, Katya Trichkova and many others. They have made exceptional achievements, but what is more important is that their films are of great quality and this is the best way to evaluate a film.

Documentary cinema is developing well in terms of the genre variety too. Here is the moment to bring an important clarification, because the lack of knowledge is plausible (and it is slightly embarrassing), documentary cinema is not a genre as it is often defined. It is a kind of a cinema! Being such, it also has its own genres. Therefore, we can claim that Bulgarian documentary cinema develops in terms of different genres. There is a slight predominance of the historical, to be more exact, the bio pics of historical characters from the Bulgarian culture. This specific genre of historical patriotic type is also usually the most preferred by the feature films too. Documentary films on contemporary topics are also performing well at international festivals and have won prestigious awards. It is extremely important to produce historical films, which demythologize stories, break strong clichés and makes us both rethink some concepts and focus on the present moment; such films are also of extreme significance for our cultural memory and education. Of course, it is not less important to have films on contemporary topics. It is namely through the means of cinema that we put an accent on current issues and social wounds. When art focuses on certain issues it is possible that the viewers can feel empathy and to become, if not more human (it might sound a bit naïve), at least more understanding. Bulgarian documentary cinema deals well with this task in terms to quality and its ability to directly face painful issues.

*Caption: Stoichkov (2012),directed by Borislav Kolev. The film has over 20 000 viewers only at the cinemas, which is a record for the Bulgarian documetary films.

Contemporary Bulgarian documentary films try to meet the international requirements for documentary cinema and follow the up–to-date trends. For example, recently the numbe of films with a first person narrator at home has increased, the films dealing with the personal stories of their authors, and the bio documenray narratives. Perhaps this is in relation to the fast creation and dissemination of video content today (which is accessible to both authors and viewers), which inevitably affects the nature of cinema today.

Also, recently the longer film time in documentaries has been gradually established as a standard, which could be observed here too. However, it could eventually turn into a huge problem, since it is a formal requirement set by the organisers of festivals, which often the authors of films fullfil, without a real need. But this is a topic for a different dicussion, the point made here is that most of the contemporary Bulgarian documentaries also meet this requirement.

*Caption: A shot from the working process of the film The Postman (2016), directed by Tonislav Hristov. One of the most selected and awarded documentaries. It received also the Golden Rhyton national award.

Certainly, more could be desired because there are drawbacks and this is completely normal. In a nutshell, most of the issues which contemporary documentaries face are: historical settings are compromised to the extent that the sensation about the historical epoch is destroyed, as well as some of their cinematic features are lost, which often raise laughter and ridicule. However, another more serious problem is that they present at times incorrect information. Whether due to the subjective views of its creators or their negligence, the film authors make scandalous mistakes about historical facts and present incorrect information, which cannot be tolerated in a historical film production, despite its artistic merits and acceptable subjectivity. In the contemporary films the length is another issue, as already mentioned before, and the repetitions. Other times the directing in situations which need to be documentary is plausible, which sometimes could ruin the viewer’s sensation about authenticity and there are also films that resemble not very good television reports in which the publicity becomes predominant. Despite all these present drawbacks (there are possibly more), the number of successful documentary productions which are artistic, interesting to watch, made with imagination and emotion are prevalent to the mediocre ones and meets well the qualitative and quantative requirements. The problem though in general is the lack of a wider interest in this kind of cinema, of a created, educated and systematically boosted interest, which should be the concern of authorities. A probable negative factor in this respect could have been the established inertia in Bulgaria since the 1980s, when documentary cinema was used as a trap for letting the steam and more of the strong, valuable and bold films, the one which could stir a real interest, were not allowed for mass dissemination.

*Snapshot: Uncle Tony, the three fools and DC (2013), directed by Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova, which has received an impressive number of selections and awards from international festivals, although in Bulgaria it has been awarded only at the Idols festival.

It is absolutely necessary that the interest in documentaries is taught because it fills easily and often pleasantly all knowledge gaps, it corrects false historical clichés and it also deals with injustice, and very often if it does not change somebody’s life it will at least change somebody’s situation. It has this power to make all these happen, but it needs to be given a chance and in this case the screen is the chance. The more screens, the better.

*A snapshot from The Adventurer, directed by Anna Petkova, awarded with a Golden Rhyton 2022 for the best documentary film  (x2)

It is a fact that at cinemas, outside the multiplex centres, a lot of efforts are made in this respect, for example, special screenings are arranged, meetings with the authors, documentary film festivals are organized, days of thematically selected films and other events are initiated, which play a vital role in the film-viewer relationship, and as a whole for the cinematic life of the documentary though it is extremely important to have a more mass distribution, to leave the elite circle, not in the sense to compromise with the artistic value of the film, but in the sense of becoming more widely accessible.

Contemporary Bulgarian documentary cinema

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