Binka Zhelyazkova Film Collection
This ad-hoc collection consists of the work of Binka Zhelyazkova, an emblematic Bulgarian cinema director, as it is preserved in the Bulgarian National Film Archive, plus related materials. Zhelyazkova was among the first generation of professional Bulgarian cinematographers and one of the first female directors not only in Bulgaria, but in general. The collections informs not only about the work of this notable director but gives also insight into the development of Bulgarian cinema throughout the entire period of state socialism.The collection comprises the films of Binka Zhelyazkova as well as extensive written materials (film documentation, reviews in the press etc.) and photographs. It outlines the contradictory and dramatic cultural situation in Bulgaria in the second half of the 20th century. The materials exemplify the pressure exerted on artists as well as of their opportunities of resistance and evasion, of maintaing personal and political integrity, and of creating socially engaged, vanguard cinema.
Sofia ulitsa Gen. Yosif V. Gurko 36, Bulgaria 1000
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Provenance and cultural activities
The collection is part of the rich film and non-film fund of the Bulgarian National Film Archive (BNFA). In accordance with the Law on the obligatory Deposit of Printed and Other Works, a copy of all films produced in Bulgaria must be deposited at the BNFA. The archive, therefore, also preserves the entire film fund since the emergence of the cinema in Bulgaria. It also collects various materials other than film, related to cinema (film posters, screenplays, photographs, brochures, documents, publications, etc.).
This ad-hoc collection presents the work of the emblematic Bulgarian movie director Binka Zhelyazkova. She was one of the first female cinematographers internationally. The material also provides valuable insights into the role of cinema under state socialism and the constraints, under which filmmakers were forced to operate, but also the opportunities created by the generous funding of filmmaking by the state during state socialism.
Recognizing the large significance of motion pictures for propaganda, the communist authorities from the very beginning tried to form a core of filmmakers with distinctly communist convictions. The establishment of the Committee of Science, Art and Culture (CSAC) in 1947 established a state monopoly in the field of cultural production. The various unions of artists were put under direct party control and private initiative in the field of culture was eliminated. Film production was nationalized. Political interference was particularly stringent during Stalinism, when the government established censorship practices on the model of the Soviet Union. The Committee of Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries did not permit contacts with Western European countries.
During the second half of the 1950s, expressions such as “dethroning of the personality cult” and “unfreezing” became prominent in the political terminology, as a sign of de-Stalinization. The repressive methods of the past were even criticized. However, the increase of artistic freedom proved elusive. After the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the intensity of repression was again increased in Bulgaria.
Nevertheless, so-called "anti-conformist film" emerged in Bulgarian cinema. It was strongly influenced by international trends in cinema. Current researchers identify three varieties (Братоева-Даракчиева 2013: 92):
1) Movies breaking with the aesthetic standards of socialist realism without attacking it ideologically;
2) Movies opposing official ideology by critical representation of reality, without experimenting with styles;
3) Films rejecting both the ideology as well as the stylistic conventions of the socialist realism.
The first example of an anti-conformist film of the third category was the movie "Life Flows Quietly By..." (working title "Partisans"), Binka Zhelyazkova’s first feature film, created together with her husband, the script-writer and director Hristo Ganev, who shared the same views. Zhelyazkova and Ganev belonged to the first generation of intellectuals trained by the new, communist authorities. They were convinced communists, participants in the communist resistant movement during World War II and involved in the establishment of the new regime. Zhelyazkova graduated from the State Higher Theatrical School in Sofia in of 1951. Ganev was among the young people sent to the Soviet Union to be trained in filmmaking. In 1954 he graduated in film dramaturgy from the All-Russian State University of Cinematography in Moscow.
However, their very first movie "Life Flows Quietly By..." (1957) made the couple inconvenient to the totalitarian authorities. The movie was one of the first in the Eastern Bloc revealing the gap between the communist ideal and the social reality. It presented the ethical crisis, the moral lapse, the corruption and abuse of power by the former partisans who filled high posts in the party. The movie provoked a scandal and was suspended. It became forbidden to talk and write about it. Because of the film, the leadership of the Office of Cinematography, the Feature Film Studios and the Ministry of Culture were changed. The discussions around the ban show the mechanisms by which the party exercised ideological and political control over cinema. Decisions provoked by this event were taken by the highest leadership of the communist party: the 1958 Decree of the Central Committee on the state and further development of Bulgarian cinematography aimed at preventing further "unprincipled", "apolitical" and “inartistic films which present a distorted view of life in the country" (Братоева-Даракчиева 2013: 100).
This decree was an outcome of the strengthening of censorship and political repression after the events in Poland and Hungary in 1956. This initiated a response that would shape Bulgarian intellectual life until 1989, including cinema: left-oriented artists were turned into dissidents who either criticized social reality from a Marxist point of view (so-called left criticism) or searched for an individual style. They strove for changes in the social system but did not aim at its destruction. "The bitterest struggle in cinema is waged between the communist intellectuals who seek to stay true to their ideals and the party leaders for whom the communist ideology becomes more and more a demagogic legitimation of the authorities. [...] Hence the paradox: dissident prove to be first and foremost the movies of the communists most loyal to their ideal such as Hristo Ganev and Binka Zhelyazkova (‘Life Flows Quietly By’, 1957; ‘The Tied Up Balloon’, 1967) and Valeri Petrov, script-writer of the film ‘On the Small Island’, 1958, also stigmatized by the notorious decree." (Братоева-Даракчиева 2013: 104)
The authorities subjected opposition in cinema not any more to direct repression and they refrained from sending artists to detention, but they practiced complete control over the creative process. These include, e.g., regular punishments such as bans of specific works of art or temporary prohibitions to work, and the publication of commissioned articles in the specialized press criticizing the "political mistakes" committed by individual artists (Христова 85-86). At the same time, there were attempts to acquire the loyalty and obedience of the same artists by awarding them various honors.
These specificities of cultural opposition in Bulgaria are illustrated well by Binka Zhelyazkova’s collection. With their next joint work, "We Were Young" (1961), Zhelyazkova and Ganev once again posed the question of the departure from former idealism and the search for the enemy among your own ranks. This movie film received awards in Moscow, Varna, Prague and Cartagena (Columbia). After the award in Moscow, Zhelyazkova received the Bulgarian Georgi-Dimitrov-Prize, in form of a medal and a cash reward. This was the highest state honor for contributions in the field of science, arts and culture in the People's Republic of Bulgaria. At the same time, her film projects were being rejected.
In 1967, Zhelyazkova completed the movie "The Tied Up Balloon" (1967) based on a script by the well-known author Yordan Radichkov. Even before its premiere, the film was already bought by foreign film distributers. Yet, ultimately it was not shown neither in Bulgaria nor any other country. A decree of the Central Committee banned the movie right after the first showing. It was said that the movie presented socialist reality in general and the peasants in particular "in the light of pessimism" and as a "half-savage crowd" which, of course, was unacceptable to the Party. In movie Zhelyazkova used the style of so-called magical realism which was opposed to the aesthetic premises of socialist realism. Thereafter, Zhelyazkova was banned to make movies for five years.
In the wake of the Prague Spring, manifestations of dissent, disobedience and protest by intellectuals increased in Bulgaria. That was the reason why the authorities, in the person of Todor Zhivkov and the Central Committee, created the myth of the "obedient Bulgarian intellectual who sends to the people only messages related to the socialist ideology such as the government present it and apply in practice." The aim was to "belittle the strong opposition of dozens of Bulgarian intellectuals against the actual policy and against parts of the operating norms in society" (Христова 2007). Official party documents speak of "opposition" but the critically minded intellectuals were defined as a detached "group", so to present them as an aberration. Recent research described these dissidents as "intellectuals who independently from each other took a stance of self-assertion through honest artistic and civil reactions; to be a moral corrective to the rulers, a stronghold of values for society" (Христова 2000: 56).
After a period of forced silence, Zhelyazkova again produced films together with her husband (the trilogy "The Swimming Pool", 1977; "The Big Night Bathe", 1980; "On the Roofs at Night", 1988). She also worked with other artists on feature as well as documentary films, which showed her disappointment about the communist regime and its dogmatism. She strongly criticized the methods and policies of the Party. At the same time, her moves were searching answers to existential questions about freedom and compromise, about the value of life and the meaning of ideals. Zhelyazkova bravely experimented with artistic techniques and produced an engaged cinema with a suggestive and expressive language.
Some of Binka Zhelyazkova's movies were first released years after their creation, immediately before or after the fall of the communist regime: in 1988 the movie "Partisans" ("Life Flows Quietly By...") was finally shown 31 years after its production; "The Big Night Bathe" (1980) and two documentaries, "Obverse and Reverse" and "Lullaby", shot in the early 1980s, were not released until the end of the 1980s. The movie "The Tied Up Balloon" was released in 1990.
For a short time of time Binka Zhelyazkova was director of the Bulgarian section of the international organization "Women in Film" established in Tbilisi in 1989. In 1996 she was proclaimed the Face of Cinema in Eastern Europe; her portrait appeared on the cover of the collection "MovEast". However, because of health reasons she soon retired thereafter into private life. For their artistic and courageous political stand, Zhelyazkova and Ganev were awarded the Prize of the Ministry of Culture for the Overall Contribution to Bulgarian Cinema in 2007.
The collection includes released and unreleased films as well as documents relating to the work of Binka Zhelyazkova. It presents the constant pressure exerted on free thinking artists as well as their ways of self-assertion and opposition. It shows the variety of forms of artistic protest by intellectuals. By that, it rejects the notion of general obedience and conformism of Bulgarian intellectuals which had been purposefully created and nourished by the communist authorities.
The collection presents forms of artistic revolt of public nature. While the works of Binka Zhelyazkova were less popular during the so-called transition period, they are examined more broadly today. The collection provides an essential source of information for the study of this prominent Bulgarian intellectual and for the travails of cinema under communism in Bulgaria.
Description of content
The ad-hoc collection contains most of Binka Zhelyazkova's films (six out of the seven feature films and her two documentaries) as well as an abundance of written materials, photographs, documentation, reviews in the press etc. It shows the contradictory and dramatic cultural situation in Bulgaria in the second half of the 20th century. It is indicative for the pressure exerted on artists as well as their opportunities of resistance, personal withstanding and defense of moral stances by creating engaged, vanguard cinema. Some of Zhelyazkova's movies were first released years after their creation, immediately before or after the fall of the communist regime. Her "On the Roofs at Night" (script Hristo Ganev) is the only movie to be kept in the Archive of the Bulgarian National television.
- film: 0-9
- grey literature (regular archival documents such as brochures, bulletins, leaflets, reports, intelligence files, records, working papers, meeting minutes): 10-99
- memorabilia (posters, flyers, stamps, etc.): 0-9
- photos: 500-999
- publications (books, newspapers, articles, press clippings): 100-499
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
Sofia ulitsa Gen. Yosif V. Gurko 36, Bulgaria
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Important events in the history of the collection
- visits by appointments
Author(s) of this page
- Kasabova, Anelia Dr.
Toke, Lilla 2004. Paradoxes We Live With: A Feminist Interpretation of Two Eastern European Women’s Films. (M. Phil. thesis, Central European University, Budapest, in conjunction with Open University, United Kingdom, Gender and Culture).
Kovacheva, Antonia, interview by Kasabova, Anelia Dr., August 24, 2016. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection