CINEMAS OF COMMUNISM

CINEMAS OF COMMUNISM

Thu, 09/03/2020 - 07:58

Going to the pictures was once de rigueur in Bulgaria. No longer

Primorsko
A projector at the abandoned openair theatre at the International Youth Centre in Primorsko

A few years ago, a niece of mine, a young teenager from a mid-sized Bulgarian town, got into a bitter dispute with her best friend who happened to live in the larger Ruse, over one question: what is a cinema? A cinema is a place where people go to watch movies, the girl from Ruse said. No, cinemas are shopping centres, my niece insisted.

Ironically, they were both right. Of course, for most people outside Bulgaria a cinema is where you go to watch pictures, but in modern Bulgaria, cinema screens exist mainly in malls, and only Sofia and the big cities have these. For people in smaller towns and villages, Kinoto, or The Cinema, is where you go to shop for cheap clothes, have a coffee with friends, or try your luck in a some basic casino.

A mural, Sofia

A mural inside the Home of Cinema in Sofia. Under Communism, this was the theatre of the Association of Cinematographers. Now it is one of the screens used in the Cinemania and International Sofia Film Fest events

Cinemas and cinema-going in Bulgaria shrank and died in the 1990s, but the reason for this is more than global lifestyle changes like rental DVDs (do you remember those?), cable TV and torrent trackers. It was a part of a painful process that continues to reverberate throughout the country.

Movies were screened in Bulgaria for the first time in the 1890s, in Sofia and Ruse, and took off among the population very quickly, as is evident by the fact that the first Bulgarian-made movie was released in 1915. In the interwar period, going to the pictures became so popular that poet Nikola Vaptsarov wrote a scathing poem, "Cinema," criticising the glamorous lifestyle sold by the Hollywood industry to the poor Bulgarians. "Where am I in this plot?," he asked in angry lines, "Where is my drama?" Nevertheless, the Bulgarians stuck to their habit. According to some estimates, by 1944 in Sofia alone there were about 50 private cinemas.

The former Moscow theatre in Sofia now accommodates offices and shops

The former Moscow theatre in Sofia now accommodates offices and shops

This all changed abruptly when the Communists took over. The Communists clearly understood the powerful propaganda value of the cinema, which had been recognised by Lenin himself, whose words "Of all the arts, cinema the most important for us"* were widely quoted. In 1948, the state company Bulgarian Cinematography was established, and soon all private movie theatres were nationalised. The network of cinemas expanded, with the aim that not a single citizen in Bulgaria should be left without movies. New cinemas were built, and in smaller towns, villages and military bases community halls were adapted for screenings. The films themselves travelled around the country, spending a week or two here, then moving to another place, reaching thousands of viewers. As a result, according to some estimates, by 1980 Bulgaria had over 3,400 movie-screening facilities, both proper cinemas and screens in community centres.

Bulgarian Cinematography worked hard on the propaganda front. There were no more Hollywood romantic dramas. The newsreels were dedicated to current events like the achievements of the new regime, the struggle against the "internal enemies of the people" (meaning the opposition), and carefully selected and manipulated international news. Every year, about 25 film were shot. These, particularly in the 1950s, concentrated on heroic stories of the partisan movement and the Ottoman period, and on light comedies depicting life in Communist Bulgaria as easy and happy. The thematic scope widened in the 1960s, however, and in the following decades films were made – comedies, dramas, historical re-creations – that still remain popular with Bulgarians. It was the time when some actors came closest to achieving stardom in a Communist society: they had fame, and more money, but their lives could hardly be described as glamorous.

 cinema in BotevgradA cinema in Botevgrad

Movies from the USSR and the East bloc dominated the market of imported titles, but films from France, Italy, and even the United States and the UK, also reached Bulgarian screens.

Bulgarian film-makers worked under tight restrictions (a few movies were shot, and then banned from distribution), while foreign ones had to pass official censorship. Movies seen as criticising the West, such as Apocalypse Now, were allowed, while titles deemed anti-Communist never made it, such as The Deer Hunter, with its Russian American characters. Films that received the seal of approval were sometimes edited for nudity, sex and violence: the horse's head sequence in The Godfather, for example, was cut from the film after a student, claiming the plot as an inspiration, killed several people in the dormitories in Students' Town in Sofia.

The summer cinema of the Georgi Dimitrov International Youth Centre at Primorsko, on the Black Sea coast

The summer cinema of the Georgi Dimitrov International Youth Centre at Primorsko, on the Black Sea coast

Understandably, this only made foreign movies more interesting to the Bulgarian public, who flocked to see not only global blockbusters such as Star Wars, but also more fringe titles by Fellini and Bertolucci, screened in the specialised movie theatres that appeared in Sofia and the big cities in the 1970s.

The mostly uninspiring TV programmes and the lack of alternative entertainment, combined with cheap tickets, turned Bulgarians into enthusiastic movie-goers. Everything, however, changed dramatically after 1989.

In the 1990s, Bulgarians were suffering through an ongoing economic crisis, soaring unemployment and emigration, inflation and even hyperinflation. The cinemas that once used to be packed with people, were now empty, and struggling to survive. In 1998, the Ministry of Culture transferred the ownership of the state movie theatres to the Ministry of Industry, and in the following years most of the cinemas were sold to private investors. These businessmen were not interested in losing more money, so they stopped screening movies and turned the cinemas into shopping centres, restaurants, casinos, or bingo halls. In smaller places these establishments continue to be called Kinoto, or The Cinema.

A cinema in Malko Tarnovo

A cinema in Malko Tarnovo

Sofia was not spared this change. Of the several dozen state-owned cinemas that used to exist, only two remain today, the Odeon and the Home of Cinema. Both show mostly independent movies. Some of the rest were re-purposed as shopping facilities, like the former Iztok cinema which is now a Billa store. Others were demolished. In 2016, both the Serdika by the Vasil Levski monument and the former Georgi Dimitrov cinema disappeared. The former is making space for a future luxury hotel, while the latter was left to disintegrate after years as a popular Chalga club.

Bulgaria is full of such stories. While people in the big cities now have Multiplex screening uninspiring selections of mass produced rom-coms and blockbusters, for a whole generation in the rest of Bulgaria "going to the cinema" means simply "going to the shopping centre or the pizza restaurant." 

* It is actually a misleading interpretation of his actual words: "While the people are illiterate, of all arts for us the most important are cinema and circus"

Cinema theatre in Maglizh

Cinema theatre in Maglizh

 


us4bg-logo-reversal.pngVibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners


Issue 167-168 America for Bulgaria Foundation Communist Bulgaria

Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

0 comments

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

ancient and medieval fortress matochina night
BULGARIA'S TOP 10 FORTS
Castle-wise, Bulgaria is nothing to compare with Scotland – and many other European countries. There is little reminiscent of Transylvania's menacing fortifications, Bavaria's fairy tale confections, or the Loire Valley's romantic châteaux.

Monument to Father Paisiy in the centre of Bansko, his supposed birthplace
WHO WAS FATHER PAISIY?
The Revival Period. Any visitor who has been to Bulgaria for more than a couple of days for business and/or pleasure has heard this combination of words, but what does it mean?

stunning stone pyramids bulgaria
PINNACLES OF LEGEND
We often take landscapes for granted: the mountains and the river valleys we love to look at and explore seem immune to the passage of time, eternal and unchanging, even though we know this is not true.

gods bridge
FINDING GOD'S BRIDGЕ
It is easy to say that the Bulgarian Northwest has been forgotten by God. Economically depressed and depopulated, it has for years consistently topped the EU's least developed regions list.

beautiful dam bulgaria
BULGARIA'S SPECTACULAR MANMADE LAKES
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, industrial development has taken its toll on communities and landscapes. Polluted air, water and soil, the destruction of nature and a decimated biodiversity are all its consequences.

woodrow willson monument bulgaria sofia
WOODROW WILSON COMES TO SOFIA
Seen from a US standpoint, the 28th American President is usually being put in the "upper tier" of US leaders despite criticism of his propagation of racial segregation.

urbex bulgaria cold war radio jamming site
COLD WAR REMAINS AT PADARSKO, BULGARIA
If you ever find yourself in the Thracian Plain northeast of Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city that holds many enticements to both expats and casual visitors alike, you will probably be bored.

bishops basilica of philippopolis mosaics
FIVE STUNNING EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCHES
Early Christian communities appeared in the Balkans as early as the middle of the 1st century. A couple of centuries later, there were so many followers that dozens of them were martyred for their faith during Roman persecutions.

Bulgarian Black Sea beaches
BULGARIA'S WILDEST BEACHES
Anyone who's visited Sunny Beach or the stretch of coast south of Sozopol will be amazed: Bulgaria's Black Sea shore, actually, is not just a concrete jungle dotted with multi-storey hotels, casinos and bars.

eyes of god cave
INSIDE GOD'S EYES
The Eyes of God: whoever came up with this name for the most impressive feature of Prohodna Cave, near Karlukovo, did a good job. The two openings in the ceiling of the cave really look like the gaze of a supranatural being.

nesebar from air night
BIRD'S EYE VIEW OF NESEBAR
Looking for some peace and quiet on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in summer is a natural aspiration, even in a year of pandemic and reduced international tourism like 2021.

sea daffodils
BULGARIA'S SEA DAFFODILS
Some of the sand dunes along the southern Black Sea coast that have not yet been overbuilt with hotels and resorts are the home of a fine and very delicate wildflower, the sea daffodil.