EXCLUSIVE: Thessaloniki pays tribute to Bulgarian filmmaker Binka Zhelyazkova
- The Greek festival rediscovers a strong female voice of European auteur cinema by organising the first retrospective dedicated to her outside of Bulgaria
The 62nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which will unfold from 4 to 14 November, remains faithful to its mission of presenting valuable Balkan cinema to international audiences. This time, the programming team casts light on the Iron Lady of Bulgarian cinema, namely Binka Zhelyazkova (her surname originates from the Bulgarian word for “iron”), the first ever female filmmaker in the country and one of the few active women directors globally in the 1950s, whose unconventional work is characterised by her individual artistic style and her bravery in questioning her era’s ideology. The festival will present the first six of her seven features, plus two documentaries. Although all her films were completed between 1957 and 1988 in communist Bulgaria, their obvious parallels with Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, mature cinematic language and free spirit make them universally relevant, and one could hardly guess they were born within a totalitarian regime. Yet they remain unfamiliar outside the specialised film circuit; as Mark Cousins asks in his documentary series Women Make Film after elaborating on her work, “Why is Binka Zhelyazkova’s name not known to all movie lovers?”
Born in 1923, Zhelyazkova was a leftist thinker since adolescence, but soon after the communists came in power in 1944 came a disappointment in the implementation of ideas to reality. Her debut, Life Flows Quietly By… (1957), written by her husband Hristo Ganev, a former partisan and the scriptwriter on most of her films, is among the first cinema pieces in the Eastern Bloc to raise the question of the discrepancy between governance and leftist ideals, their monetisation and reduction to everyday comfort. For portraying the turpitude of some former heroes of the Bulgarian resistance against Nazi occupation who gained positions of power in post-war communist Bulgaria, the film was banned, and therefore premiered more than three decades later, in 1988. Although her second film, When We Were Young (1961), about the struggle of Bulgarian insurgents against the Nazis during the Second World War, was awarded the Golden Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival, Zhelyazkova and Ganev would be closely monitored by local authorities throughout their whole career.
Next came the surreal and stylish social satire The Tied Up Balloon (1967, based on an absurdist play by Yordan Radichkov) which is now considered to be a masterpiece of Balkan cinema, but at the time was withdrawn from theaters due to its unusual depiction of village life and vague messages which contradicted social realism aesthetics.
In the 1970s, Zhelyazkova's work gained wider international recognition. The Last Word (1973), selected for the Cannes Film Festival’s competition, tells the stories of six female political prisoners waiting to be led to death row and boldly questions the meaning of physical survival and the price of compromising with personal beliefs and dignity – a theme that permeates her whole filmography. The elegantly filmed existential love triangle The Swimming Pool (1977), bestowed with the Silver Prize in Moscow, and the allegorical moral tale The Big Night Bathe (1980), screened within Un Certain Regard, further confirm Zhelyazkova’s place among the most prominent auteurs of European cinema at the time.
Along with the above titles, the retrospective will also include her documentaries Lullaby (1981) and The Bright and Dark Side of Things (1981), which zoom in on the existential sufferings of women and young mothers in a female prison – works which also remained hidden from viewers’ sight until the 1990s. In addition and in the context of the tribute will also be screened the documentary Binka: To Tell a Story About Silence (2007), in which Bulgarian director Elka Nikolova reenacts Zhelyazkova’s uneven and long struggle against censorship and oppression. However, the weight of Binka Zhelyazkova’s work nowadays expands further, beyond its political significance in a concrete past period; her cinema endures thanks to its radical non-conformism in both form and content, and remains pertinent today.
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