In the fall of 2010, faced with cuts in public financing, Bulgarian filmmakers and other members of industry bodies swept across the capital, Sofia, in a wave of protests against austerity measures introduced by the right-wing ruling party. At the time, the country’s fledgling film industry was in a state of crisis. But eight years later, “the situation is completely different,” says Jana Karaivanova, executive director of the National Film Center. “Bulgarian filmmaking is thriving.”
A selection of contemporary Bulgarian cinema is on display this week at the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival, with the Focus Bulgaria sidebar spotlighting eight feature films and documentaries from the Eastern European nation. Beginning with Stephan Komandarev’s “Directions,” which world premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard last year, the program showcases the growing cinematic output of a country still building an industry from the ground up.
“It’s impossible not to notice that Bulgarian cinema is more and more present in most of the big festivals,” says TIFF artistic director Mihai Chirilov, who compares the movement to the emergence of the Romanian New Wave a decade ago. Such recognition, he says, is “not only a fashion. It’s a sign that something’s boiling there.”
Festival audiences have taken notice. Komandarev’s darkly comic snapshot of Bulgarian dysfunction – told through the lens of a taxi driver’s erratic night fares – was joined in Un Certain Regard last year by German writer-director Valeska Grisebach’s “Western,” which was shot in Bulgaria as a co-production with local firm Chouchkov Brothers, while Ralitza Petrova’s debut, “Godless,” about a nurse who sells the identities of her elderly patients on the black market, took the Golden Leopard in Locarno in 2016. The film will be screening in Focus Bulgaria this week, alongside another Locarno selection, “3/4,” first-time director Ilian Metev’s delicately balanced study of the changing relationship between a father and his two children, which took the top prize in the fest’s Cinema of the Present section.
Despite acclaim elsewhere in Europe, “Romanian audiences don’t know much about Bulgarian cinema,” says Chirilov. Though he describes the two countries as “brothers in arms” who share a border and a common Soviet past, he jokingly notes that their camaraderie finds its most frequent expression at holiday resorts along the Black Sea.
“The irony is that most of the Romanians don’t go to the Romanian seaside; they go to the Bulgarian seaside,” he says. “It’s sexier, it’s cleaner, it’s cheaper. This is maybe the only thing Romanians know about Bulgarians.”
There’s much to learn. With a third the population of its neighbor, Bulgaria produces the same amount of films each year while making more than double the box office. Despite the success of the Romanian New Wave, which has been one of the world’s most formidable cinematic movements since the turn of the century, “we don’t have any commercial Romanian cinema,” says Chirilov. “We have films for festivals, but people don’t go to cinemas in Romania to watch all these awarded films.”
“It’s not just commercial content,” notes Karaivanova, of the popularity of Bulgarian cinema with local viewers. “It’s very good artistic pictures that won the hearts of the audience in the theaters.”
Bulgarian filmmakers have gotten a boost from the government. The annual budget includes roughly $7.7 million to fund filmmaking, distribution, and promotion, with Karaivanova pointing to a slight bump in financing this year for minority co-productions. Whereas a decade ago the National Film Center’s annual call for funding applications would get 25-30 submissions, that number today tops 100.
The center has been actively strengthening co-production agreements and looking to introduce new ones “in order to make it easier and more productive” for local bizzers to engage with their foreign counterparts, says Karaivanova. Bulgarian producers, for their part, “are very energetic in creating co-productions with our neighboring countries, and with other European countries,” she adds.
This year the National Film Center inked a deal with Sofia’s Nu Boyana Film Studios to collaborate on the production, promotion and international distribution of films supported by the NFC, an agreement that Karaivanova says “can take some of the projects to a totally new level.”
“It needs to be encouraged,” she says, of the Bulgarian industry’s growth. “It’s so important to have success on both the national and the international level.”