Image source: Scene from The Devil in Sofia (1921)
It started more than 100 years ago — on January 13th, 1915 when the screening of the first Bulgarian film Bulgarian is Gallant took place in Sofia.
The first experience of the Bulgarian audience with the 7th art came in December 1896 with a cinematograph screening in the capital. 20 years later the miracle of the Lumiere brothers in France (the early motion picture) came to Bulgaria. What followed was the production of the first Bulgarian film thanks to a young man from Sliven. His name is Vasil Gendov — screenwriter, director and actor in the film The Bulgarian is Gallant. Unfortunately, the film roll has been lost or possibly destroyed in bombings over Sofia during the Second World War. What’s preserved is just a couple of frames. It is known that the genre is a comedy, black and white, silent and its first screening took place at a Sofia cinema called Modern Theater. It is still not 100% clear whether the film was made in 1915. According to some sources, including Gendov himself, it was shot 5 years earlier.
A remake from 1998 of the original eponymous film from 1915
The film is about an elegant adventure-loving Balgaran who meets a young lady on the street and starts flirting. She decides to teach him a lesson and asks him to accompany her to the market where he pays for unnecessary purchases. Then the lady takes Balgaran to a luxurious restaurant and orders expensive drinks and brunch items on his account. She makes the gentleman carry all purchases and leads him to her home. On the way, she meets her husband and suggests ordering carriage in order to relieve the “carrier” from his duties. Then they head away in front of the eyes of poor bamboozled Balgaran who receives a small 50p coin for the service. The gallant is left standing like a statue with money in his hand and a bewildered expression at the carriage.
The main roles are played by Mara Lipina and Gendov himself. The cameraman Gaetano Pia de Flores films everything in a matter of 6 days in front of the house of entrepreneur Dimitar Saselov in Slavyanska 9 Str. in Sofia. The camera is Pathe system, bought second hand from Budapest.
The audience reactions after the screening are mostly positive. Some conservative critics had their doubts about the new shameful medium, as well as the provocative behavior by a woman. However, the main focus was on being a Bulgarian film — a major accomplishment while the film does not claim high artistic values. Vasil Gendov writes: “Bulgarian film! Bulgarian artists under Bulgarian sky!”
It is important to mention that the history of Bulgarian cinema starts with financial support from Gendov’s wife, Zhana. She gave all her money to help accomplish her husband’s dream of making the first Bulgarian film. Later, together they established the first production house in the country — Yantra Film.
The first Bulgarian sound film is also the work of the Gendov family. The Slave’s Revolt is dedicated to Bulgaria’s national hero and freedom fighter from Ottoman rule, Vasil Levski. It premiered in 1933 and caused a lot of debates. Certain changes were forced due to diplomatic reasons. The film successfully portrays Levski as a symbol on the big screen and helps to fund the restoration of the house he was born in Karlovo which is a museum to this day.
The Gendov family might not have received the accolades they deserved when they were alive. However, nowadays we can call them the founders of Bulgarian cinema.
Some of the other pioneers of Bulgarian cinematography are Borish Grezhov, Vasil Bakardzhiev, Nikolay Larin. The Vazov family left a creative trace in so many mediums and cinema was one of them. Aleksandar Vazov (nephew to one of the most famous literary figures in Bulgarian history, Ivan Vazov) is among the pioneers of Bulgarian cinema. They are all part of the first wave of Bulgarian cinema that lasted up until the change of the political regime in 1944. Only 17 out of around 50 works from the period were preserved.
After the first wave — characterized by the enthusiasm of the creatives, cinema moves on to its second stage of development. At this point personal initiative and auteurs are no longer the main figures. There is a big change between the two periods caused by the transition from monarchy to communism.
In 1946 was passed the first act on cinematography which also facilitates the creation of a cinema archive. Another bill further builds on it in 1948 — from this point filmmaking is run by the state.
One of the most prominent figures from this period is Zahari Zhandov. The director and screenwriter born in Rousse had a long creative path. His debut is in 1946 with two documentary films: People in the skies and A day in Sofia. The first one tells about the life of meteorologists in mountain stations and wins an international award for documentary filmmaking in Venice. While A day in Sofia is about daily life in the capital after bombings. His last film is Boyanski Master filmed in 1981.
In 1950 is the release of the first socialist feature film — Kalin, the Eagle by director Boris Borozanov. The story takes place in 1893 and the main character is a Marxist revolutionary. Another significant title from the 50s is Anxiety (1951) based on the play of Orlin Vasilev and screenwriter Angel Wangenstein. The following year Dako Dakovski put on screen Under the Yoke (one of Bulgaria’s most significant historical literary works). Product of the 50s is probably the first evergreen of Bulgaria’s cinema Favourite 13 with Apostol Karamitev in the main role.
Bulgarian cinema marks significant progress in the 60s. In 1962 was founded the State-owned Film Production Enterprise — Studios for Feature Films Boyana. There is a strong influence from Italian cinema, more precisely directors Fellini and Antonioni. What can be seen from this period is the formation of more sophisticated genre forms. Renowned literary artists like Dimitar Dimov, Radoy Ralin and Bogomil Raynov get involved in various film projects. More and more cinematographers developed their talents and there was an improvement in the production value. Some of them are Dimo Kolarov, Borislav Puntev, Vulo Radev, Viktor Chichov.
Cinema for children progresses with productions like Margaritka, The Captain by director Dimitar Petrov, plus End of a vacation. That is also the case for historical films like Kaloyan by Dako Dakovski and Legend of Paisiy by Stefan Surchadzhiev. The inspector and the night, The golden tooth, Adventure at midnight form the tradition in Bulgarian criminal cinema. In 1965 was filmed the first co-production with a western country named Legacy of the Incas based on the Karl May novel. Genre establishing moves on to comedies and some of the most prominent titles include Ancient Coin and Jack-of-All-Trades. Several literary works get screen adaptations — like Tobacco and The peach thief. Nevena Kokanova becomes one of the first female stars of Bulgarian cinema.
In 1969 comes the first Bulgarian action film — The 8th based on the book The fight has come, as well as At every Kilometer dedicated to the 25th anniversary of September 9th (Bulgaria’s entering into Soviet influence in 1944 and the beginning of the socialist regime).
The tendency at the time of leaving villages and migration towards cities is the main theme of several films by Luydmil Kirkov: The peasant with a bike (1974), Matriarchy (1977). The screenwriter is Georgi Mishev who was well regarded in the industry. Together they make The Boy Leaves (1972) which includes the cult song People and streets in its soundtrack.
The same year came out The Goat Horn by Metodi Ivanov, it is widely considered the most significant film in the history of Bulgarian cinema. Katya Paskaleva and Anton Gorchev play the parts of their life in the only known film to get a remake in Bulgaria.
The Barrier by Hristo Hristov gets a Silver medal from the Moscow festival in 1979. In the Same year, Everything’s love serves to show the audience how talented is Ivan Ivanov. The actor becomes adored, especially for the female part of the audience.
The following decade is very fruitful for Bulgarian cinema. The superstar Todor Kolev plays in the comedies The double, King for a day, Dangerous Charm; Ivan Andonov’s masterpiece Yesterday which portrays the life of students at the language highschool in Lovech, their relationships, struggles and drama. Another important film is All for Love with the amazing performance of Velko Kynev in the main role with director and screenwriter Nikolay Volev, as well as Time of Violence by Anton Donchev.
There is a series of children’s films that remain cult classics in the minds of several generations.: Hedgehogs Are Born Without Spines (1971), With Children at the Seaside (1972) , A dog in a Drawer (1982), Up in the Cherry Tree (1984) Vasco da Gama from Rupcha village (1986-87);
Before moving on to the period after November 10th, 1989 that marks the Democratic Revolution in the country it should be considered one important factor that influenced cinema during the years of totalitarian rule in Bulgaria — censorship. Many films were shut down, a lot of them with no good reason at all. On a Small Island (1958), Monday Morning (1988), Whale (1970), The Tied Up Balloon (1967), The Prosecutor (1988), A Woman at Thirty-three (1982), Margrit And Margarita (1988) are just some of the films that had problems with their releases due to the ruling party. Some never got a release. Binka Zhelyazkova is among the directors that struggled the most.
The years after the transitions are devastating for Bulgarian cinema. The unstable political situation affects all aspects of life, including culture. In 1999 comes the first series in the Democratic period — Danube Bridge, it is a great disappointment to both critics and wide audience.
The second decade of the new century comes with new hope for Bulgarian cinema which has some sort of a revival in recent years with a new generation of talented creators. Here are 12 Really Good Bulgarian FIlms from the Past 10 Years
All that makes cinephiles confident that 100 years after Bulgaran is Gallant the best of Bulgarian cinema is yet to come.