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