A Book Review by Brandon Konecny.
A full historical account of Bulgaria’s cinema under Communism—given the topic’s obscurity and the lack of translated resources in the West, such a venture seems to smack of futility. To even have hopes of pulling off a project of this sort, one would have to spend enormous amounts of time rummaging through the Bulgarian National Film Archive, watching films that have yet to (and perhaps never will) be translated into English, and taking an extended stay in the small mountainous Balkan country. It all seems overwhelming, and it’d be enough to scare away even the boldest Eastern European film scholars, making them recoil to study the region’s more “available” cinemas like those of Serbia or Poland. But with her book The Conformists: Creativity and Decadence in the Bulgarian Cinema 1945-1989, Evgenija Garbolevsky shows she doesn’t frighten as easily as her peers. Originally conceived as her 2011 Ph.D. dissertation, its remarkable display of scholarship made it more than good enough to see print via Cambridge Scholars Publishing; and to them we’re thankful, for they’ve made available the first (and best) sustained look at Bulgaria’s activity in cinema since Ron Holloway’s long out of print, and less than perfect, Bulgarian Cinema (1986).
Now, if you’re a veritable Eastern European film junkie like, say, your reviewer, The Conformists is an exciting publication, and it possesses a number of draws. It’s ever timely, given the continuing street riots in the nation’s capital (which inexcusably continues to escape the selective eye of Western media), and the scarcity of research on the topic available to the Anglophonic world makes it especially novel, a real bookshelf gem. But to fully appreciate Garbolevsky’s achievement—and not just that of illuminating the saga of this neglected cinema—it is important to understand how many different approaches to film studies she’s trying to marry between two covers.
As its subtitle indicates, the book is, first and foremost, a film history text and as such is concerned with the examination and placement of the nation’s cinema within a coherent account of the socio-political climate of twentieth-century Bulgaria. While this alone would be enough to establish its importance within the realm of literature on Eastern European cinemas, Garbolevsky goes even further. She puts forth several approaches that are not common to history books, providing multiple charts showing trends in theater attendance, engaging in a slew of textual analyses, and considering research from fields as diverse as genre studies and film theory. But what’s most impressive is how she situates Bulgaria’s cinema not just within its own film culture, but also within that of its regional and even global counterparts. In doing so, she makes the convincing case that, despite the nation’s cultural insularity—though not nearly as crippling as Romania and Albania’s at the time—Bulgaria’s cinematic output mirrored many of the tendencies in vogue in international cinema. This amalgam of approaches that Garbolevsky masterfully weaves together effectively shows the small Balkan nation’s cinema in all its diversity, multiplicity, and contemporaneity.
It’s a titanic of a task, to say the least, and one she facilitates by structuring her book around a thorough chronology of Bulgaria’s cinema, devoting each of its four chapters to articulating roughly a different decade. The first focuses on Bulgaria’s formative years of involvement with the seventh art, spanning from the Communist coup d’état in 1944 to 1958. She describes a cinematic landscape that evokes associations with the iconography of the Western genre, a formless and confused frontier fraught with innumerable uncertainties and challenges. Early-twentieth-century Bulgaria was, as she writes, plagued by a paucity of film equipment, hands on education, exhibition, and talent. Plus, the power dynamics of the day weren’t very helpful either: the new medium was inextricably tied to the formation of a strong Communist society, and following their Soviet allies “the Party strongly encouraged, in addition to socialist realist expression, a nationalist consciousness in [filmmakers’] oeuvres” (37). This put Bulgarian filmmakers in an ideological straightjacket in terms of both their films’ form and content and brought them to a critical decision: to conform to the Party’s ideological and aesthetic dictates or risk not being able to work in film at all. Neither option was attractive and most settled for the Faustian bargain of the former. But this decision was, as Garbolevsky rightfully points out, not one rooted in cowardice or outright complicity but rather in creative necessity.
With the early years of Bulgaria’s work in cinema laid out, Garbolevsky moves on to what is perhaps the strongest and most attractive chapter in her book, which examines the obscured division between artistic conformism and rebellion in the nation’s film culture, and the forms it assumed in the works of the 1960s. Here, she configures filmmakers’ subversive practices within global cinematic trends (e.g. auteurism, employment of Aesopian language) and addresses their particular relevance to their national context. On the global level, as an example, she argues that Bulgarian cineastes became more aware of international cinema and began to view themselves as auteurs rather than simple workmen of the industry; and on the local level, she shows how filmmakers began to cloak their subversion in surface appearances of allegiance. As in Spain, Latin America, American Science Fiction, and the rest of the Soviet sphere, filmmakers resorted increasingly to seemingly apolitical allegories as their mode of artistic and political expression, whereby nothing was “directly stated but rather symbolically implied” (68). This enabled them to both evade inept censors and have a podium from which they could express their political frustrations towards the Party to politically minded audience members, as if winking at those “in the know.”
What’s particularly impressive about this chapter is Garbolevsky’s masterful illustration of these subversive codes at work in exemplary films of the decade. She takes readers through a number of textual analyses, noting consistent themes and symbols, and even draws on directorial accounts of production practices and the ideas of such thinkers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Julia Kristeva to inform her readings. It is also worth noting that, while Garbolevsky demonstrates a keen attention to textual detail, she doesn’t give herself over to the scholarly anality that’s so common of published dissertations, the tendency to put forth an inordinate amount of research and microprecise observations so as to appear unquestionably thorough. Such an achievement is refreshing; it allows readers to feel more like readers rather than hair-splitting members on a thesis committee. But most importantly, her thoroughgoing plot summaries are considerate of Anglophone readers and their limited access to her case studies. The vast majority of classic Bulgarian films—outside of amateurly subtitled bootlegs—are unattainable in DVD or Blu-ray format. This scarcity also extends to contemporary Bulgarian cinema. As Dina Iordanova notes, the National Film Centre in Sofia, the nation’s capital, doesn’t even carry copies of newly produced films.1 Garbolevsky’s summarizations may (alas) constitute the extent of Western readers’ experience of these fascinating works.
Garbolevsky, in chapter three, turns her attention to the 1970s, which she describes as the golden era of Bulgaria cinema, and explores the political circumstances that allowed for the flourishing of such a fecund artistic atmosphere and the attendant plethora of high-quality films. Like the previous chapter, Garbolevsky allocates space to historical background as well as considerations of specific case studies, the latter constituting over half of the chapter. She begins with a succinct historicization of Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of then Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov, and attributes much of the decade’s creative productivity to her political leverage in the cultural sphere, allowing for a suspension of film censorship (though auto-censorship was still expected of filmmakers) and increased dialogue, however superficial, between the government and intelligentsia. With this information in hand, she proceeds to observe exemplary films of the decade and shows that, in terms of characterization, protagonists became much “rounder.” Unlike its predecessors, normally being impenetrably heroic, protagonists became anti-heroes, possessing both imperfections and ambiguous allegiances, blemishes and inconsistencies, and embodied the shared concerns of the audiences. Films of this decade thus became markedly existential and, as Garbolevsky claims, aimed to facilitate a dialogue with audiences and engage them as both Bulgarian citizens and human beings.
In the final chapter, Garbolevsky concludes by covering the tragic 1980s, a decade replete with breadlines, market shortages, energy crises, terrorist threats, Soviet neglect, and the forced name changes of 100,000 ethnic Turks to Bulgarian-sounding ones (170). Needless to say, the vital signs of Communism weren’t promising, and its foreseeable passing appeared backlit by similar situations in the rest of the Eastern Bloc. She spends much of the first half of the chapter detailing the Party’s actions to preserve its power with the creation of film festivals and increased funding of films, insisting on the production of historical epics to celebrate the 1300 years of the creation of the Bulgarian state. These weak attempts, however, could not resuscitate Communism, eventually giving way to democratic elections in 1989. But this death certificate, as Garbolevsky shows, was twofold: with the government’s collapse went filmmakers’ secure state funding, distribution networks, theaters, and ultimately its audience. It’s a blow from which the industry still recovers, with slightly over sixty films produced between 1990 and 2005, an abysmally low number considering the over six hundred feature films produced under Communism (3).
These chapters amount to a startlingly impressive study, establishing the book as one of the best resources available on Eastern Europe’s cinemas. It does prove itself, however, not to be immune to a deficiency that looms large in the works of its counterparts—Ron Holloway, Dina Iordanova’s, most notably—namely its neglect of film form, with only one mention of shot types (long shots on page 137) in the entire book. Garbolevsky is clearly gifted when it comes to considerations of thematics, genre, feminist theory, and existentialism, and in-depth discussions of film form are, admittedly, beyond the scope of a film history text. However, her discussion of Bulgarian films’ similitude to (and divergence from) various modes of realism—neo-, magical, socialist realism—prompts its address, however brief. For how is one to thoroughly consider works under the stylistic rubric of, say, neorealism without a discussion of its formal idiosyncrasies, such as longtakes, handheld camera, and natural lighting? It’s a loose end that hangs on the nagging edge of awareness throughout the early chapters, and while detailed plot descriptions are frequently on offer in the text, it’s uncertain why Garbolevsky didn’t give the same priority to film aesthetics.
Another problem with this book—and it’s a minor one at best—is that her modes of examination seem, at times, unfocused. During her plot summaries, for example, she occasionally classifies profilmic objects as “phallic signifiers,” or references Freud’s “return of the repressed” in relation to historical epics, or employs Laura Mulvey’s Foucauldinized conception of “the gaze,” to use Joan Copjec’s description. Though intended to be instructive, her use of these psychoanalytic concepts, on initial glance, feels a bit out of place in a film history text, especially since its relevance is not programmatically indicated as part of her interpretive methodology in the introduction. This is not to uphold empirical historical research over and against theory, nor is it to say that theoretical concepts can’t find their place in Garbolevsky’s text—far from it. Rather, the point is that these concepts, interesting as they may be, could have been better integrated into her overall project.
These are all but minor criticisms, however, and they can by no means efface the remarkable scholarship that abounds in Garbolevsky’s book. Every page radiates with a passion and attention for detail that readers are sure to find stimulating, and it’s by far and away the best resource available on the subject, simply a must for all those interested in both Eastern European and under-researched national cinemas. Garbolevsky’s The Conformist could well be the decisive text that inaugurates a renewing interest in Bulgarian cinema. One can only hope that she continues to contribute to this field of study, and enlightened readers of her book will doubtlessly await baited for her chapter in the forthcoming volume Cinema, State Socialism and Society in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1917-1989: Re-Visions (2014). But until then, Bulgarian film enthusiasts have her outstanding book.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
1 “Bulgarian Cinema: Optimism in Moderation,” Dina Iordanova. Cinemas in Transition in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989. Catherine Portuges and Peter Hames. 2013. Temple University Press.