Binka Zhelyazkova: remembering the defiant conscience of Bulgarian cinema

Binka Zhelyazkova

In the film history of socialist Eastern Europe, subversive directors – often ex-partisans or members of the intelligentsia – are often lauded. But the role of Bulgarian cinema in this revisionist narrative has largely been overlooked. In the late 1950s, Bulgaria experienced a surge in cinematic production, birthing a loose tendency sometimes termed ‘poetic realism’ that skirted the demands of state censorship. The imperative to preserve these cinematic legacies grows even stronger following the decline in the film industry following the upheaval of 1989; as a friend from Sofia confirms, cinema screens these days have been relegated to a handful of large malls in the capital. Fortunately, recent retrospectives in Thessaloniki and London have shed light on the career of Binka Zhelyazkova: a pioneering female director who, despite facing constant censorship, emerged in the post-war era as the defiant conscience of Bulgarian cinema.


Early years: militancy and disillusionment

When the Fatherland Front – a pro-communist group – destabilised the Bulgarian monarchy in 1944, the Bulgarian Communist Party came to power under Georgi Dimitrov and shifted the nation from its previous Axis-aligned stance. As part of post-war communist Europe, the new government promoted the film industry with increased funding and stringent regulations. Binka Zhelyazkova had joined the Workers’ Youth League at 16 after being expelled from high school, later moving from Svilengrad to Sofia to study filmmaking at the then-State Theatre Institute and working as an assistant director at Boyana Film Studios. The regime sought convinced communists and party members for its film industry, but would soon bemoan Zhelyazkova, even as she apparently fit the bill.

Her husband and long-time collaborator, Hristo Ganev, was a former partisan and scriptwriter who, like many of his contemporaries, had graduated in Moscow before returning to Bulgaria. During the de-Stalinisation of the eastern bloc, which marked the end of Bulgaria’s own ‘Little Stalin’ Valko Chervenkov and the rise of Todor Zhivkov, the couple co-directed Life Flows Slowly By (1957). The narrative, one of post-war comrades turned modern opportunists in a disillusioned Bulgaria, occupies the liminal space between the nation’s troubled past and uncertain future. Given its critical appraisal of a society fraught with anxiety, the state imposed a 30-year ban on the film, which was released only in 1988.

The regime sought convinced communists and party members for its film industry, but would soon bemoan Zhelyazkova, even as she apparently fit the bill

Zhelyazkova’s formal debut then arrived with We Were Young (1961), in which an exploration of cinematic conventions marked the emergence of a director developing her own style. Through the darkness of war-torn Sofia, the flashlights of two young resistance members find each other in a reoccurring motif that brings Dimo (Dimitar Buynozov) and Veska (Rumyana Karabelova) together in romance. Crane shots establish the war-torn landscape, and slow zooms capture the youthful social consciousness of a rebel group who are new to the fight and are somewhat theatrical in defiance. Contrasting a story of youthful resistance and romance with another that ends in suicide, Zhelyazkova portrays both the brutal world of the war years and the cycle of an unwavering youthful fervour, tinged with foolishness and false confidence.

We Were Young (dir. Binka Zhelyazkova, 1961)

New Bulgarian cinema and The Tied-Up Balloon

While Zhelyazkova was in the nascent stages of her career, a new tradition of Bulgarian cinema was emerging, one with a distinctly New Wave sensibility, where allegories of resistance are conveyed through new visual landscapes. Rangel Vulchanov, working with poet Valeri Petrov, propelled Bulgaria onto the international stage with On the Small Island (1958) and First Lesson (1960). Novena Kokanova, known as Bulgaria’s ‘first lady of cinema’ famously starred in Vulo Radev’s The Peach Thief (1964). Stars (1959) by Konrad Wolf received attention for its ground-breaking visual language and timely narrative of Jewish persecution. The stage was set then for Zhelyazkova to deliver her most renowned work – if she would be allowed to take to it.

While We Were Young (1961) received critical acclaim, it was The Tied-Up Balloon (1967), based on Yordan Radichkov’s novel, that epitomised the new Bulgarian cinematic tradition. Scale is everything in this satire, which examines human folly through a village’s encounter with a drifting barrage balloon. False aggression is ingrained in rural life and humans are likened to dogs – with the animals themselves subtitled. The critique of man’s impulse to claim and conquer clearly extended to the government of the day, and the film was immediately banned. Comparisons to Fellini and Tarkovsky attest to the film’s magical realism and beautiful absurdism, and yet we must recognise Bulgaria’s enfant terrible as a distinct voice, a woman responding defiantly to state-imposed silence.

The Tied-Up Balloon (dir. Binka Zhelyazkova, 1967)

Reckoning with stagnation

As the Brezhnev-era Stagnation took hold in the 1970s, Zhelyazkova produced some of her most urgent and refined work. The Last Word (1973), starring Tzvetana Maneva, was filmed in Silven prison, known as one of Bulgaria’s harshest. Recalling the strict realism of the years of the anti-fascist struggle, the film follows Bulgarian teens honouring the martyrs of fascism in the modern day, before switching focus to seven women inmates facing death in Nazi captivity during the war. In one of the most striking scenes in Zhelyazkova’s oeuvre, the women, with freshly shaved heads, exchange glances and erupt into laughter – the last great act of defiance, where humility among the oppressed prevails. Zhelyazkova’s urgency to champion the martyrs of fascism after a six-year silence is palpable and fearless and was rightfully recognised that year at Cannes.

With The Swimming Pool (1977), Zhelyazkova brings us face to face with the social malaise in Sofia as stagnation accelerates and takes hold of the collective psyche. Students show little regard for past resistance heroics, veterans are mocked or forgotten, and television numbs the mind. Bela, a recent graduate, Apostol, a reserved architect, and Bufo, a free-spirited artist, befriend each other as they ponder lost opportunities and new realities. Yanina Kasheva delivers a brilliant performance as Bela, who confronts the repression of the past while coming of age. Through moments of silence, the strains of delta blues, and poetic dialogue, the film mourns the resistance of bygone eras.

Retrospectives of her work held in Thessaloniki in 2021 and London last year underscore a renewed interest in a director whose work remains pertinent in a contemporary political landscape marked by historical revisionism

Zhelyazkova’s concern with her country’s landscape is as much architectural as psychological, and if The Swimming Pool represents a coming to terms with stagnation, then The Big Night Bathe (1980) captures the nihilism that inevitably follows. Written again by her husband, this drama follows old friends who have gradually succumbed to ennui and despair. As the group result to playing a dangerous game involving a noose, Zhelyazkova questions whether the death of the spirit weighs heavier than that of the body. A few years later, she returned to Silven prison to make two documentaries: The Bright and Dark Side of Things and Lullaby (1982). Both bridge the gap between the public and inmates through heart-breaking interviews with imprisoned women, who tell of their victimhood within a system that perpetuates class inequality and drives individuals to desperation. These works, which lend voice to the most disadvantaged and reckon with deep trauma, were banned until 1989 – a year after the release of her final work, the two-part television film On the Roofs at Night (1988).

The Last Word (dir. Binka Zhelyazkova, 1973)

Final years

Zhelyazkova assumed the directorship of Bulgaria’s Women in Film organisation before ceasing work in 1989, eventually withdrawing from public thereafter. Her remarkable contributions to Bulgarian cinema were acknowledged with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, and she passed away four years later. Fortunately, to borrow a phrase from one of her titles, ‘the last word’ on the former enfant terrible has yet to come. Retrospectives of her work held at Thessaloniki in 2021 and London’s Barbican last year underscore a renewed interest in a director whose work remains pertinent in a contemporary political landscape marked by historical revisionism. As we consider her life and work today, we are reminded that the struggle against fascism knows no national or temporal bounds: we must continue to identify and confront our true adversaries, the types that, were Zhelyazkova alive today, she would undoubtedly ridicule.

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Thomas Sensini is a freelance writer based in London. Focused on cultural theory and post-war politics, he has written on various films movements. He is currently pursuing a degree in the Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins, London.