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

snake island bulgaria
FEW SNAKES AND NO RUSSIANS
"Russian warship, go f*ck yourself!" When the Ukrainian defenders of Black Sea's Snake Island shouted out to the outnumbering Russian forces at the beginning of Putin's "special military operation," they hardly anticipated that they would coin a catchphrase

Sacred hunt, a mural at Aleksandrovo Tomb
THRACIAN BULGARIA
There are places in the world where you can get to know long-vanished nations and their former glory: Egypt, China, Greece... Bulgaria also makes it on this list.

st chistopher zlatolist
THE MYSTIC POWER OF ZLATOLIST
Born in 1883 near Serres, which was then in the Ottoman Empire and today is in Greece, Stoyna Dimitrova was seven years old when she experienced something extraordinary.

old burgas
LOOKING AT BURGAS, DARKLY
Despite some researchers' claims that Bulgaria's largest city on the southern Black Sea coast is ancient (related in some way to... Troy), most would agree that Burgas is quite new.

Tombul Mosque in Shumen is arguably the most beautiful in Bulgaria
BULGARIA'S TOP MOSQUES
Sunni Islam is Bulgaria's second largest religion after Eastern Orthodoxy.

sozopol from air
SOZOPOL WITHOUT TEARS
Should I visit Sozopol? There is hardly a place that divides opinion more than this town on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Yes, by all means do go to Sozopol, will urge some of your Bulgarian friends.

roman plovdiv theatre
EXPLORING ROMAN PLOVDIV
Plovdiv claims 7,000 years of uninterrupted history, starting from prehistoric times, but the earliest visible traces of this long past are much younger.

An Orthodox Satan is about to devour a unrighteous man in the village of Teshovo, western Bulgaria
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
Guidebooks boast about the beauty and artistic importance of the murals in Bulgaria's churches that date from the later centuries of Ottoman domination.

thracian gold treasure
TOMBS, TREASURES AND ROSES
Everyone has heard about the Valley of the Egyptian Kings, but Bulgaria has its equivalent.

vidin fortress danube
VIDIN: CITY ON DANUBE BANK HOLDS HOST OF SURPRISES
Where can you find some intriguing Jewish heritage? No, the answers to these questions do not lie in established destinations. The place where you can see all of these is Vidin, the largest city in Bulgaria's Northwest.

shabla lighthouse
SHABLA: HIDDEN GEM TUCKED BETWEEN SEA AND LAND
Some cannot get enough of its beaches, beauty spots and tourist amenities, while others lament that much of its calm and pristine nature has been lost to overdevelopment.

boyana church sequoia
BULGARIA'S REDWOODS
Bulgaria may be famous for many things but sequoias is apparently not one of them. Think again.