Culture : Bulgaria’s Cinema Struggles Toward a Comeback : When communism went out, so did state support for the arts, ushering in an age of capitalist realism.
The stock-still grounds of Boyana Studios, where paint flakes from an imposing edifice and a whining wind breaks the wintry silence, would need little enhancement to serve as the set for a spooky thriller.
Once bustling with 1,600 employees and a round-the-clock production schedule, the pale green buildings now echo with emptiness, and all signs of life have vanished from the sprawling lawns and parking lots.
As has happened throughout Eastern Europe in this age of capitalist realism, state support for the arts has plummeted in Bulgaria and sent its film industry into mothballs.
The state-owned studios that produced more than 1,000 feature films during four decades of communism have turned out fewer than a dozen over the past four years of newfound freedom.
In addition to the drastic drop in output, nine out of every 10 movie theaters in the country have closed since the start of this decade because property restitution and privatization schemes have supplanted the state economy and allowed building owners to convert their facilities to more lucrative uses.
Film distribution has also succumbed to a post-Communist phenomenon known as “spontaneous privatization,” whereby former state monopolies are acquired by budding capitalists who can then manipulate the market for their own gain.
“The result is that more than 99% of all films shown in Bulgaria now are foreign, and at least 95% of them are American,” says Pavlina Zheleva, head of foreign relations for the National Film Center, created in 1991 to rescue Bulgarian domestic filmmaking.
Public enthusiasm for Hollywood products is partly a consequence of their having been banned or heavily circumscribed during the Communist era and partly recognition of American film’s reputation as the world’s best, says Zheleva.
But she and other cultural officials fear Bulgarians’ devotion to U.S. films risks closing off an important avenue for artistic expression that has only recently been opened to them.
“It may not be a dramatic effect, but there will be a loss for our society” if the film industry is allowed to slip into oblivion, Zheleva warns.
Driven by the struggle to keep the Bulgarian genre alive, the film center has succeeded in marshaling modest funding from government and foreign sources for a survival ration of domestic projects that might keep the most ambitious filmmakers at work.
Prospective producers now present their project ideas before a national film board, which chooses a handful of the most worthy proposals for partial funding on condition the rest of the production money is secured ahead of time.
In an effort to drum up more money for subsidizing the domestic art, National Film Center President Dimitar Dereliev says he has been lobbying Bulgarian legislators to enact a supportive tax law. The center wants a modest fee levied on the distribution of foreign films to generate a better subsidy fund for Bulgarian productions.
“It’s too early to speak of independent producers,” says Zheleva. “We have 130 of them registered, but only about 10 are still working.”
Cinema’s fall from grace has been particularly drastic in Bulgaria because it was the art most doted on by former Communist Party chief Todor Zhivkov, whose daughter Lyudmila served as culture minister and spent lavishly to develop Bulgarian film.
Although the Communist-era productions were usually steeped in propaganda and shackled by censors, purveyors of politically correct culture wanted for nothing.
The cavernous Boyana Studios that are now closed much of the year are equipped with modern lighting and cameras, and Boyana is said to have one of Europe’s most extensive stocks of wardrobe and props, with 80,000 period costumes and workshops capable of producing everything from prehistoric reptiles to replicas of medieval armor.
Those at work trying to rescue Bulgarian cinema from the perils of the capitalist era say those gifts from deposed Communist patrons may prove the industry’s salvation.
“Our future is in co-production and the sale of services,” says Boyana President Nikolai Nikolov.
Even the successful bids for partial funding often founder for lack of private patronage, which is difficult to secure in a country as isolated and impoverished as Bulgaria. And too little time has passed since the age of censorship for directors and producers to readjust themselves to the new environment in which funding, rather than freedom, is the commodity in shortest supply.
Nevertheless, two of the 11 films produced by Bulgarians since the fall of hard-line communism have won relatively high acclaim.
“The Border,” co-produced with French sponsors and released last year, and “The Cannery Season,” also released last year, both examine the social damage inflicted during the Communist tyranny.
The studios have managed to stay in business, if only just, by luring foreign producers and directors here with Bulgaria’s low wages, trained professionals and diverse geography.
“I wouldn’t say we can compete on an equal basis with Hollywood studios,” Nikolov understates, noting Boyana’s distance from American and West European filmmaking centers and the renowned indifference of Balkan workers to the pressures of time. “But we have a lot to offer, and those who have worked with us so far say they were satisfied, even surprised.”
Little-known French and Canadian filmmakers have been the first to take advantage of Boyana’s dearth of domestic occupation, says Nikolov, but he also boasts of having lived up to the standards of a few renowned directors, including Bernardo Bertolucci.
“Nevertheless, there are some drawbacks that we cannot hide,” Nikolov confesses. “Cinema is a lot of small details, and it is no secret that Bulgaria falls below international standards in important areas like telecommunications.”
But for those willing to weather the risks and aggravations, Bulgarians say, production in this Balkan backwater is a way of cutting costs without sacrificing quality.
Nikolov says his strategy is to keep the studios working on foreign projects so there remains a functioning laboratory for the domestic industry, if and when it gets back on its feet.
Despite their efforts to generate subsidies and enact Western-style regulations against piracy, film center officials admit that prospects for an industry renaissance are bleak for the immediate future.