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Binka Zhelyazkova: The Loneliness of Being the First

A revealing retrospective of Bulgaria's first woman narrative director showcased great achievements despite an arduous and fraught career.
Yoana Pavlova
Binka Zhelyazkova
Binka Zhelyazkova
For many, pre-1989 state socialism exists in the public imaginarium in between the fantasy and the meme as an ideological monolith without any political or psychological nuances. It is easy to forget that twentieth century history is made in part by millions of people interpreting the Marxist-Leninist lore on their own, with their consciousness determined by the various circumstances in which they lived. The post-WWII rhetoric contributes to this smudge as well, since the newly formed Eastern Bloc was too busy projecting grandeur into the bright future to care about the individual. Politicians and high-ranked officials from the previous regime were sentenced to death or prison while partisans seized key public positions. It was a time to reunite and build, with the help of cinema.
When Bulgaria nationalized its film industry in 1948, it took several years to expand from propaganda newsreels to dogmatically truthful fiction features. Initially, the young, inexperienced cadres come mainly from the world of theater and literature, or attend hastily organized professional courses. Among the lucky ones is Hristo Ganev, a former partisan who graduated from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow and returned to his homeland as a hopeful scriptwriter. His partner and collaborator, Binka Zhelyazkova, expelled from high-school and ostracized as a Workers Youth League (WYL) member before 1944, studied at the then State Theater Institute in Sofia and gained invaluable experience as assistant director on the makeshift sets of early socialist cinema—and all of this as a new mother. Nevertheless, the beaming enthusiasm of the first half of the 1950s is overshadowed by a moral panic caused by the ongoing de-Stalinization in the USSR, disturbing the grand yet vagarious post-WWII narrative, paired with Todor Zhivkov's arrival as the new Party (and de facto country) leader.
Life Flows Slowly By...
Hristo Ganev's script Life Flows Slowly By... (Zivotat si teche tiho…, 1957) was originally titled Partisans, hinting at an inspiration from his own background in the the anti-fascist struggle. The national commission needed two years to accept the final version, and the protocols from the numerous scrupulous debates around every dramatic aspect as well as its possible interpretations are still accessible at the Central State Archive. They reveal not only the newly acquired demagogic lingo but also a deep divide between the apparatchiks, too afraid to greenlight a story about a failed senior party member estranged from his former comrades, and the artists, too excited by a material that shines with its fresh and bold take on the somewhat bleak socialist reality. At long last, Zhelyazkova is assigned to direct, as the first woman narrative filmmaker in Bulgaria, with Ganev officially a co-director.
Despite the burden of this responsibility and the politically hostile atmosphere, Zhelyazkova delivers a surprisingly self-assured and proficient debut. Life Flows Slowly By... is clearly inspired by Italian neorealism but also by the Slavic lyricism that international film festivals soon earmark as a Soviet brand. The resolute mise-en-scène is mixed with daring poetics and with the elation of calling things by their proper names, much earlier than the Polish cinema of moral anxiety. There are multiple complex exterior shots, especially the partisan scenes in the mountain, yet Zhelyazkova is not interested in genre cinema (partisan film became a trademark of Yugoslavia in the 1960s). What she employs in this first feature, as well as in her works afterward, is a frame narrative, because she feels the deconstruction of the before/after optics is her moral duty. Additionally, Life Flows Slowly By... introduces on the big screen a new type of socialist woman: determined, self-reliant, learned, but capable of unconditional love, and a woman who kisses first. There is an open finale à la Antonioni, way before Antonioni.
We Were Young
In 1958, Zhelyazkova's feature is supposed to be sent to Karlovy Vary, while Rangel Vulchanov's debut On a Small Island (Na malkia ostrov) is destined for Cannes, yet both titles, along with several others, are banned from distribution, and a number of administration officials are fired. That same year, Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying (1957)—a film many perceive as visually close to Life Flows Slowly By...—makes furor on the Croisette in Cannes and cements its spot in the canon. Little by little, Vulchanov's work sees the light of the day, first abroad and then at home, whereas Bulgarian critics and historians are prohibited from mentioning Life Flows Slowly By... until 1989, and today they agree that it marks the crossroads where Bulgarian cinema could have taken a different direction. Hence, Zhelyazkova's formal debut is We Were Young (A biahme mladi, 1961). No pro forma co-director this time, yet all eyes are on Zhelyazkova with the hope she would fail.
If Life Flows Slowly By... is an attempt to deal with the shared pre-1944 trauma plus the escalating post-1944 angst, We Were Young is the result of Zhelyazkova and Ganev’s personal dismay from the clash between ideals and actuality. At first glance, it appears that the two set their priorities straight. We Were Young focuses on the rather modest story of a WYL cell active in Sofia during the WWII years and an unexpected romance in the face of peril. Shot with much of the same cast and crew,  We Were Young reads as a psychodramatic ploy where the fearless faces from Life Flows Slowly By... grow hesitant, and vice versa. Stylistically, the film establishes Zhelyazkova's distinctive voice, even with minimalist means. It also marks the beginning of her collaboration with the composer Simeon Pironkov and expands her creative experiments with the sound environment, manifesting one of the key themes in her œuvre: silence. We Were Young features one of the very few physically disabled characters in Eastern Bloc cinema—a young woman, whose photographs devise the second, philosophical plan of the film. Her images of black and white normality confront the protagonists’ fervent ideals, thus opening space for Zhelyazkova's conscience to keep piling up questions. The (predictable) quietus of this character is depicted in avant-garde mode, which is a novelty in socialist realism cinema.
The Tied-Up Balloon
We Were Young received awards in Moscow, Prague, and at the first Golden Rose edition in Varna, so it is reluctantly shown in local cinemas, yet years pass before Zhelyazkova obtains permission to shoot another feature. The Tied-Up Balloon (Privarzaniyat balon, 1967) is based on Yordan Radichkov's novel of the same title, so the project seemed like a safe bet. Radichkov's literary career was on the rise at this moment, and his first film script, Torrid Noon (Goreshto pladne), with Zako Heskija (assistant director on Life Flows Slowly By...) attached to direct, premiered at Cannes in 1965. Bureaucrats slyly pit Zhelyazkova's notorious diligence against the tough conditions of setting such a frenzy on rugged terrain where an ensemble of rural masculinity chases a gigantic balloon shaped like a goldfish, with high-angle shots galore. Zhelyazkova's directing perfectly rendered on film Radichkov's peculiar magic realism, and added some more. Unlike the novel, the script includes a storyline of an unnamed girl on the run. In a white dress contrasting with the rags of Radichkov's timeless villagers, the girl is trailed in the wilderness by dogs whose barking is subtitled as an actual dialogue, only to be shot at the end. It is as if she is a phantom from a parallel dimension, forever trapped in the loop of History.
The Tied-Up Balloon screened at Montreal's Expo 67 and was immediately bought for distribution for North America and Europe. Meanwhile, Todor Zhivkov's entourage persuaded him that this work ridiculed authority and the Party leader himself. Zhelyazkova was summoned to his office, the distribution contract was terminated, and the film was withdrawn from Venice. In the light of the Prague Spring events in 1968, Zhivkov's intuition proves right. (Notably, in 1979 Radichkov premiered a stage play, Learning to Fly (Opit za letene), based on the feature to huge success. It opened simultaneously in five theaters across the country and traveled abroad. Apart from being an extremely talented writer, Radichkov happened to be part of  Zhivkov's hunting party too.) In the early 1970s, Hristo Ganev was expelled from the Party for refusing to sign a protest resolution against Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize. This puts his and Zhelyazkova’s family in a very difficult political and financial situation, together with another creative duo of well-known troublemakers, Irina Aktasheva and Hristo Piskov.
The Last Word
Regardless of the post-1968 normalization in Czechoslovakia, Todor Zhivkov is aware that touching base with Bulgarian intelligentsia is the best strategy to secure his post. Zhelyazkova is granted one more chance to direct, and she makes The Last Word (Poslednata duma, 1973), based on her own script and shot on location in the Sliven prison. A return to the anti-fascist subject, and this time in color, the feature stretches an even wider historical canvas framed between now and then. During WWII, women of various ages and backgrounds await their destiny in a single death row cell; flashforward to the 1970s, where we witness the socialist youth celebrate their memory. The Last Word is possibly Zhelyazkova's most vehement work, one that completely expresses her moral and artistic fury, yet is in synchrony with world cinema. There is Godard's Pierrot le fou, there is Věra Chytilová's Daisies, there is even a presentiment of Miloš Forman's Hair. Still, The Last Word's graphic and acoustic intensity matched with pulsating editing is reminiscent mostly of Kira Muratova's œuvre, only Zhelyazkova stays with the visceral; she is not tempted by the formalist abstraction. With this film she starts working regularly with actress Tzvetana Maneva, who transforms into the director’s Delphine Seyrig of sorts—as an alter ego but also as a socialist persona to be scrutinized.
The Swimming Pool
Following an enthusiastic reaction at Cannes, Zhelyazkova finally received some recognition. Her next three and last features are written by Hristo Ganev. The Swimming Pool (Baseinat, 1977), The Big Night Bathe (Goliamoto noshtno kapane, 1980), and On the Roofs at Night (Noshtem po pokrivite, 1988) do not have to engage in any battles; instead, they glide over the surface of late socialism, reflecting its fatigue and ennui while questions keep on piling. Zhelyazkova and Ganev never lose their sharpness: in The Big Night Bathe, the character Ninel explains that her name is the reversed version of Lenin, and in On the Roofs at Night the nicknames Big and Little Nadezhda (nadezhda means hope in Bulgarian) poke fun at Todor Zhivkov's beloved concept about the little and the big truth. In this sense, it is symptomatic that the protagonists of all three films are young women, high-school graduates or at the beginning of their university studies, state socialism's offspring wandering wide-eyed on the map of adulthood disillusionment. There is nothing didactic about the way Zhelyazkova treats them—on the contrary, she wishes they would find the paths and the answers she couldn't.
Zhelyazkova nevertheless saturates the journey of these characters with the old demons of doubt, envy, and falseness. Never a pawn herself, Zhelyazkova manipulates the semiotic field of Bulgarian cinema as a game board, picking actors against their typecasting (Kliment Denchev in The Swimming Pool and Todor Kolev in On the Roofs at Night) or aiding the reincarnation of The Last Word's militant faces into cynical pragmatics in On the Roofs at Night. In The Big Night Bathe she works with two Eastern Bloc stars, Małgorzata Braunek and Juozas Budraitis, almost as ready-mades. Tzvetana Maneva's presence as a prominent journalist both in The Swimming Pool and On the Roofs at Night problematizes the role of public media in an unfree society. The relativization of mediated reality goes even further in The Big Night Bathe, as a summer bacchanalia invades the set of a historical film about the Thracians. In 1981, Bulgaria commemorated its 1300th anniversary, so the indoctrination with myths and clichés was exhausting, and as Zhelyazkova implied, very dangerous too. Overall, the trilogy is pensive and under the sign of the water, literally as well as symbolically. After the cathartic rain in Life Flows Slowly By..., the snow in We Were Young, the river and the lake in The Tied-Up Balloon, and the partisan in The Last Word uttering, “I want to look at the sea” as she is about to be hanged, in her last three films Zhelyazkova fully embraces the water element, as if she is ready to dissolve.
Lullaby
Not without one last fight, though. In 1981, again for the grand 1300th  anniversary celebrations, she returned to Sliven prison, the only one for women inmates in Bulgaria, to make two documentaries. The Bright and Dark Side of Things (Litse i opako, 1982) and Lullaby (Nani-na, 1982) can be characterized as pioneering, not only given that their aesthetic borders with experimental cinema but also because of the valiant impulse to help the most disadvantaged in an ostensibly exemplary society. Mothers with multiple children turned recidivists out of poverty and systemic violence, Roma pickpockets forced to pay back their baba hak debt, clerks in large enterprises overtaken by rampant corruption, socialist prison's offspring—one can assume that Zhelyazkova is drawn to this unforgettable collection of stories and faces due to hunger for vérité, only to discover that the prison is an alternative society with its own false narratives. No sight of the controlled theatricality of The Last Word, yet Zhelyazkova constructs a remarkable mise-en-scène on the go, with the documentary dynamics of long-suppressed words, gestures, and tears. Formally pleading to those in power to review the prison conditions while serving as a mediator between the women and the outside world, the two films fulfilled their civic commitment and are shelved until 1989. 
After 1989, Binka Zhelyazkova chooses silence. She does not appear even in Elka Nikolova's documentary Binka: Da raskazesh prikazka za malchanieto (Binka: To Tell a Story About Silence, 2006)—already in poor health, she dies in 2011. Are all the opportunities to inscribe her name in the history of cinema indeed lost, or can the dehistoricized regard of total cinephilia offer another picture? The Thessaloniki International Film Festival's Binka Zhelyazkova retrospective in November 2021, the first of its kind, proposed some insight. So much can go wrong at this post-mortem encounter with an audience that has a very different sociopolitical experience, yet day after day the cosy room of Pavlos Zannas is filled with viewers of different ages, even if the youngsters prevail. Zhelyazkova's early works are met with attentive stillness, The Swimming Pool and The Big Night Bathe with noisy approval. There are more walkouts from the festival’s opening film, Audrey Diwan’s Happening, than from Zhelyazkova's documentaries, both rather long and hard to stomach.
The Bright and Dark Side of Things
The digital copies are not with the best possible quality, however, as Rosen Spasov from the National Film Archive (BNF) clarified, the institution's equipment is outdated and still on standby for a costly upgrade with the eventual support of the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture. Meanwhile, he told me, Zhelyazkova's titles are often screened in Sofia, where she has her fan base of cinephiles born after 1989. BNF also owns an  excellent 35mm copy of We Were Young that has been traveling all over the world, as the interest towards Zhelyazkova's work is constantly growing. Dimitris Kerkinos, in charge of Thessaloniki's Balkan Survey encompassing also the  Tribute section, admitted that the idea for this retrospective is inspired by Mark Cousins' Women Make Film. To him, Zhelyazkova's uncompromising auteurism and nonconformism still feel like a breath of fresh air even vis-à-vis today's curatorial abundance. His sole regret is that the line-up does not include On the Roofs at Night (produced by the National TV) due to the lack of time and resources.
As a Bulgarian, to say that watching Binka Zhelyazkova's oeuvre on the big screen and with foreign spectators is emotional would be an understatement. Four decades after 1981, national mythologies are equally deadly, but her filmography signals a therapeutic way out of the discursive impasse. Behind a veil woven of lies, the fantasy of starting anew.

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Binka ZhelyazkovaThessaloniki International Film FestivalThessaloniki International Film Festival 2021Festival Coverage
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