Vasil and Zhana Gendovi’s memoirs “The Thorny Road of Bulgarian Cinema” and “What is kept silent in the history of Bulgarian cinema” are interesting and inspiring reading for anyone who loves cinema.
The controversial figure of the undisputed pioneer of Bulgarian cinema is Vasil Gendov. Creator of the first Bulgarian feature film, the first Bulgarian screen adaptation, the first sound film and the Union of Filmmakers. A cinema extremist who completely dedicates his life to making films. A dreamer whose ambitions are so big that they cannot fit into the reality in which he lives.
His films, in all probability, were not always at the required level both aesthetically and technically, mainly due to the fact that Gendov was not a rich man and had a very difficult time financing his numerous cinema projects, even often sinking into severe debts, which he paid off with years. Thus, he usually started shooting a film without knowing if he would have the funds to finish it. He shot quickly and cheaply. Otherwise, there was no photo at all. And the meaning of his life was to make films. Despite continuous difficulties, he succeeded in everything he undertook. And this enthusiasm and persistence, described in his memoirs, arouse admiration in readers.
To the financial difficulties we must add the fact that a large part of our intelligentsia in the pioneering times of cinema had a negative attitude towards the new technical invention. And if Griffith’s films had already appeared in the world, and American film actors and actresses at that time were already highly paid stars, then in our country the most famous artists did not dare to “resign” with their participation in the “circus” new entertainment – the cinema. Only the theater actress from Plovdiv, the “shameless” Mara Miyateva, showed courage and agreed to participate in the film “A Bulgarian is gallant”, which made her the first Bulgarian film actress. Soon after, Gendov met the most important woman in his life – Zhana. She becomes his constant companion and support. She fell in love with the young director and his work so much that she withdrew all the money her father had saved for education and gave it to Gendov so that they could start shooting the movie “Love is Madness”. Quite naturally, the memoirs of the two are included in one book, because Vasil and Zhana walk hand in hand along the thorny path of Bulgarian cinema.
Today, everything surrounding Gendov is shrouded in myths and conjectures, regardless of the fact that he died only 46 years ago. We do not know for sure when he made the first Bulgarian film “A Bulgarian is gallant”. Although 1915 is officially accepted as the year of birth for Bulgarian feature cinema, there are serious doubts that the film was created in 1910 after all. Regardless of the year of its appearance, we know for sure that this particular comedy, about a bon vivant Bulgarian who meets a young, beautiful lady on the street and instantly falls in love with her, and she, irritated by his impudence, teaches him a good lesson, is the first Bulgarian feature film. Unfortunately, the film has not remained for the generations. The only film of Gendov preserved to this day is “Love is madness”. Everything else is destroyed. The myth goes that this happened during the bombing of Sofia in World War II. There is another theory – that totalitarian propaganda deliberately destroyed his bourgeois films. Today we are unlikely to know the truth about any of these questions. It’s good that at least we have the memoirs written by Gendov himself. The impossibility of making films, for him, is a deprivation of meaning and purpose, he could not break the connection with cinema. That’s why he writes his memoirs. Thanks to the director of the National Film Library, Antonia Kovacheva, and Faber publishing house, these memoirs, along with Zhana Gendova’s memoirs, have finally been published. The fact that we have the notes of both is very valuable. It is extremely interesting how the same event, narrated by both of them, has a different accent, a different embellishment, and sometimes even a different meaning in Jeanne’s memories and Vasil’s memories. But this is best left to be felt by the readers.
As Gendov’s years advanced, as well as his inability to photograph, his image of a loner with a grumpy temper solidified. Ironically, if Bulgaria most often lagged behind European cinema trends, right here, in the attitude towards the pioneers of cinema, we are approaching the European practice. One of the first directors of French cinema and the “father” of the fantasy genre, Georges Méliès, at the end of his life became a candy seller at the train station in Paris and ended his life in loneliness and ruin. His films were almost entirely destroyed during the First World War. And the “father” of animation, Emile Reynaud, dies in a homeless shelter. The fate of Vasil Gendov is similar – neglected and denied during his lifetime, he died bitter, lonely, poor and forgotten.
Vasil and Zhana Gendovi’s memoirs “The Thorny Road of Bulgarian Cinema” and “What is kept silent in the history of Bulgarian cinema” are interesting and inspiring reading for anyone who loves cinema. From them we learn not only about the difficulties faced by the filmmakers of that time for their strength and zest, but we also understand the cultural context in which they lived, we learn about interesting situations in which Gendov met famous Bulgarian intellectuals and politicians. And the balance after reading is that the parallels with today’s difficulties are amazingly similar, at least in financial terms, and the people who decided to professionally deal with cinematography are most often crazy enthusiasts from the blood group of the first in Bulgarian cinema. The good thing is that both Gendov and today’s cinema-goers in Bulgaria are involved in cinema for the most essential reason that can actually exist – out of love for cinema itself.