Social Realism as a Prerequisite for Imposing Censorship in Bulgarian Cinema

Social Realism as a Prerequisite for Imposing Censorship in Bulgarian Cinema

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The topic of censorship in Bulgarian feature cinema is important from a research point of view because it complements and enriches not only the history of native film production and film studies in the era of the socialist state but also gives a new perspective and take on the cultural life in the country.

Until 1989, the thesis of the existence of censorship in the field of culture stumbled in the official position of the ruling party and its governing bodies that censorship restrictions were absent and that the only restriction on freedom of expression was related to “fighting the remnants of formalism, cosmopolitanism and naturalism ”, as well as“ the bourgeois influence of foreign worship, against the ideological diversion of imperialism in the field of artistic creation ”.

The real approaches to censorship in cinema are carried out at the institutional (legislative) level in two stages. The first was realized with the adoption of the Film Culture Act (1946). It has one main goal – the state’s monopoly on the import, export and distribution of films. In the context of the topic, this turns out to be the first definite step towards real censorship. The mechanism is extremely easy to operate. “Regardless of what film is produced in the country, its distribution, ie. the real screen life of the work (in the country and abroad), its contact with the viewers takes place with the permission and will of the state ”.

In 1948, the Cinematography Act (1948) was passed, which completely repealed the Film Culture Act. It puts an end to any private interest in cinema, and its philosophy is borrowed from all the other laws that are being adopted at the moment, namely, complete nationalization. The law on cinematography already demonstrates the repressive mechanisms. Even with the first article of the normative act, the message is clearly set: “The cinematographic work in the country is a monopoly of the state”. In reality, the law does not place any emphasis on ideological censorship, but it is present in the spirit of the Law and especially in Article 2, where it is written “Bulgarian Cinematography” is assigned the following tasks: to create a national Bulgarian cinema; to carry out its central, planning, artistic and economic management. The law gives another powerful weapon in the hands of the government – the opportunity from now on the functioning of cinema in Bulgaria and the vision for its future to be determined only by decrees and other regulations prepared by the leadership of the Communist party. 

In 1947, there was a total showdown with any opposition to the Bulgarian Communist Party and the Patriotic Front, which dominated it. All opposition newspapers have been suspended. All private publishing houses and printing houses have been nationalized. The first lists of “forbidden literature” are distributed. Through a series of repressive measures, all potentially alternative to socialist realism creative practices and tendencies are deprived of an institutional basis. The apparent “competition” between methods and tendencies officially ended in December 1948, when the Fifth Congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party adopted the resolution “On Marxist-Leninist Enlightenment and the Struggle on the Ideological Front”, where socialist realism was declared “the only correct method of artistic creativity ”. In the stage between September 1944 and December 1948 the restructuring of the “cultural front” in Bulgaria was completed, which for a long time lost its autonomy, remained permeated by one-party policy, guaranteeing its aesthetic and ideological control through the doctrine of socialist realism.

In the field of native film cinema, it turns out that the newly adopted law does not sufficiently cover the ideological platform of the Communist Party. Obviously, the situation is not good enough and the achievements after almost four years are absent or not as remarkable as expected. Probably these are some of the reasons for the adoption on January 31, 1952, of the 91st decree of the Council of Ministers on the state and tasks of Bulgarian cinema. It raises both economic and business, as well as ideological and artistic problems. Naturally, in the first place, with a long introduction, built in points, all possible achievements of socialist cinema so far are noted. These are: the rapid growth of kinefication – “from 213 cinemas in 1944 – to 1045 cinemas in 1951, including 80 established inside factory premice. The establishment of Soviet films that “mobilize millions of workers”, mentioning that they occupy 87.2% of all screen days during the year. The number of moviegoers is also increasing. The first films of socialist cinematography are also mentioned, of course as indisputable successes, with the approval of all working cinema-goers. The real purpose of this decree is to outline the main directions in which to develop the native cinema. In the first place are the lack of a sufficient number and good scripts, and the lack of artistic advice. Instructions are given to develop the issues of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics and the principles of Bolshevism. ”The Council of Ministers notes that the ideological and creative life of the General Directorate of Cinematography is extremely weak. (…) Some creative filmmakers still do not have clear ideological positions on the main issues of their practice and are captive to some bourgeois formalist “theories”. Along with the conclusions set out in the decree, it also outlines specific solutions to the problems that filmmakers must take into account. These are specific orders for films “dedicated to the socialist construction of our country, which will recreate on the screen the images of new people – the heroes of labor from factories, mills and mines”. There are comical, from the distance of time, but extremely serious, and obviously disturbing moments for the cinematographers of that time. ” that it cannot have plans for its production until it has a solid, complete literary basis ”.

It should be noted that the 91st decree of the Council of Ministers also has extremely repressive tasks, which are locked in only one point, but quite enough to change the fate of many cinematographers. reactionary, incompetent, careerist and useless for the work of the enterprise employees ”. The quote can be taken as a literal invitation to deal with the troublemaking professionals in cinema. Very quickly a letter marked “Top Secret” appeared, not just by anyone, but from the then Minister of the Interior, Lieutenant General Georgi Tsankov. He sent a report to Prime Minister Valko Chervenkov on “weaknesses identified in the Cinematography Committee.” Referring to the point in question in the 91st decree, he warned: persons from the events of the People’s Power ”. The Minister went on to describe in detail the biographies of some of the people and concluded with a recommendation for a comprehensive examination of the work of the Cinematography Committee by the State Control Commission, referring to point 15 of the said decree.

In the spring of 1953, the Cinematography Committee issued a decision that was communicated to all its staff. It was taken as a result of a meeting of the party, state and union-creative leaders. This decision is part of the measures of Cinematography related to the state economic plan for 1953. For the purpose of the present study, here are some passages that state the ideological framework that our film production must maintain, eg: “All further work in Cinematography is led, rebuilt and improved in the spirit of the genius work of  Stalin “Economic problems of socialism in the USSR”, the materials and decisions of the 19th Congress of the CPSU, the 91st Decree of the Council of Ministers and the instructions of others. Valko Chervenkov gave before the meeting with the party, state and allied-creative leaders for the work of the cultural front, as they form the basis of the overall activity of the various departments of cinema “. Furthermore, the cited document outlines specific parameters and principles of work that must be observed by everyone who has decided to make cinema: a) to discover and promote the new sprouts of life, to indicate the patterns and paths of social development, the new progressive phenomena and prospects for victory of socialism, to popularize them and attract the viewers for socialist reconstruction of the country; b) to show in positive and artistic images the new socialist people and the magnificence of their human dignity, in order to see in our people the characters and habits alien to capitalist society; c) to correctly and boldly reflect class contradictions and life conflicts, to point out and promote the positive and to whip up the shortcomings and vices in society, for this purpose boldly proceed to the creation of cinema satire in our country and short satirical films; d) to properly reflect the typical in life, to consciously amplify and sharpen the positive, progressive phenomena, to emphasize the political problems and to saturate the films with partisanship; e) to reflect the rise of socialist society, to emphasize the advantages of the socialist system over the capitalist one, emphasize the stagnation, decay, contradictions and intensifying struggle in the capitalist camp; f) the films created by our cinematography must instill in the working people a feeling of boundless love and devotion to our socialist homeland Bulgaria ”.

In this long quote is locked the whole ideological narrative in which the native filmmakers must work in the future. They put in the hands of the party’s leading cadres a blade and a precondition for their main ideological work – cleansing, through real and preventive censorship, as well as with commissioned films. At the same time, the social and political climate is changing. After the twentieth congress of the CPSU, which debunked the cult of Stalin and the subsequent example in Bulgaria with the overthrow of Valko Chervenkov, and the establishment of Todor Zhivkov in power, artists feel a breath of fresh air and optimism. Cinema is gaining strength. More and more films are being made by directors, screenwriters and cinematographers who have returned from studying at foreign schools. The influence of Italian realism has significantly captured our cinematographers as well. An alternative model to the official doctrine appeared – the “anti-conformist film” . All this is changing rapidly, following the events of 1956 in Hungary. Ideological comfort is narrowing. This is what happened with the specially issued Decree of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party on the occasion of Binka Zhelyazkova’s film “Life Lives Quietly / Guerrillas /” (1957), which makes it clear that the guardians of ideological purity fulfill their duties in their lives. “Reality is shown one-sidedly and distorted. This film actually debunked the image of the people’s partisans, slandered their struggle, made false summaries of our reality ” according to a Decree of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party on the state and further development of Bulgarian cinematography, Cinematography, 1958. The film’s premiere was postponed for 31 years, in the last years of Perestroika in 1988. It featured several other films that did not comply with ideological doctrine. It is no coincidence that the Decree was not adopted by the Council of Ministers but by the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, which clearly speaks of the state and party policy that has merged into one. Over the years, several times, through the press or at scheduled meetings between the artistic intelligentsia and the top party leadership, the real role and the tasks set before the native cinematographers have been reminded.

Ideological purity and adherence to socialist realism as a normative aesthetic are taken care of not only by departments of the Party and the state. It is presumed that the management of the Feature Film Studio itself, as well as the various commissions and the Arts Council that work for it, are entrusted with this task. Such is the Screenplay Commission. Its role is to approve or not the scripts received by the Studio, as well as to give recommendations for the further work of the screenwriters. As everywhere in the country, not everyone is conformist. This does not go unnoticed, as can be seen from a report by the Director-General of Bulgarian Cinematography Filip Filipov to Krum Vassilev, Head of the Art and Culture Department at the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, with a copy to the Director of the Studio, with a copy to the Editor-in-Chief. The screenwriting commission “At the age of 12, I got acquainted with the literary script” Journey for salt “by Kolyo Nikolov, directed by Binka Zhelyazkova. I was also informed about the nature of the discussion of this scenario in the Art Council. I must tell you that I am embarrassed by the fact – such a script, which shows our socialist reality in a crooked mirror, is submitted to the Art Council for consideration. (…) The scenario “Journey for Salt” shows our turbulent and life-affirming socialist modernity in abstract, depressing and pessimistic tones. (…) There are also political ambiguities, such as the history of the distribution of salaries (…) I cannot accept that the members of the Script Commission come out in defense of such a work. Conclusions must be made about them – whether they can be members of this unit of ours – the Scenario Commission, which is an important ideological and artistic filter in the preparation of scripts “[16]. I will remind you that so far the director Binka Zhelyazkova has already had two banned films in her creative career – “Life flows quietly / Partizani /” and “The Attached Balloon” (1967). The life and creative career of the author deteriorate to such an extent that she fails to make a new film for a long time. Ideological supervision keeps away not only her but also several other talented authors who try not only to emancipate themselves from the canons of socialist realism but also to build a new, contemporary aesthetic in Bulgarian cinema. Even when working in the style of socialist realism, the topic or issues they treat are a problem. For example, in “Life flows quietly / Partisans /” Binka Zhelyazkova together with her husband and screenwriter Hristo Ganev (both former partisans) show the discrepancy between the communist ideal and the contemporary socialist reality of the characters. And so that there is no doubt in this statement, I will cite as an example a sentence from the Report of the then Director-General of the State Union (DO) “Bulgarian Cinematography” Pavel Pisarev to the head of the “Art and Culture” department at the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party Alexander Lilov some conclusions about the state of Bulgarian film ”, which directly states:“ Piskova, Binka Zhelyazkova and Rangel Valchanov have not made films for four years due to serious ideological fluctuations in their work and civic behavior ”. In the same letter an analysis is made (and other specific names are given) of the reasons why the cinema is stagnant and further build on that position with the opinion of foreign experts invited to the Varna Festival, and the opinion of the audience and the public. Among other things, the report points out the positive aspects of our native film production: “A distinctive feature of the state of Bulgarian cinema at the moment is the fact that its creators are convinced of the ideological, political and aesthetic positions of the Party. For the last three years, our writers, screenwriters and directors have not deviated from the Party’s line in the field of cinematography, and no films have been created that have not been shown to the audience. With the help of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, the anti-party actions in the socio-political practice of the Union of Filmmakers were broken, the bearers of which were some unsustainable cinematographers in their political positions ”.

The examples given are only a small part of the mechanisms by which the government used socialist realism as the only possible art form to settle accounts with inconvenient artists and works. Of course, cinema is not an isolated case, on the contrary. The mechanisms of intimidation at that time were identical in every sphere of scientific, technical and cultural life in the country. The important thing was that ideological purity remained intact. And for this purpose, means and techniques were not spared, but that did not go the same way for human dignity and creative freedom.

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