Irina Aktasheva (1931-2018) and Hristo Piskov (1927-2009) met during their student years in Moscow. They married, came to Bulgaria, became directors, and became friends with some of the most interesting figures of the cultural life of the time. In 1965, they made Monday Morning together, a black and white story with a frenetic jazz rhythm, influenced by the French New Wave and the Soviet eccentric Marlen Khutsiev. The brilliant music was written by Milcho Leviev, the masterful cinematography was done by Dimo Kolarov, and the 19-year-old Pepa Nikolova had her first starring role (among a host of current and future stars of the native cinema). The screen was small for her rebellious heroine, who would dance her way out of any place that seems permanent. It was the kind of film that launched the careers of everyone on the team high and far, but communist Bulgaria was so annoyed by visible talent and individuals with independent lives that censorship intervened with a dash. Monday Morning never made it into theaters (unlike the pair's previous film, Death Isn't There, which was suppressed by a brief run in a handful of theaters with zero publicity), and for a decade Aktasheva and Piskov did not get a chance to film again, despite offering the "creative collectives" of the State Film Agency “Bulgarska Kinematografia” hundreds of pages of projects. In her latest film, Silence with Dignity, documentarian Adela Peeva (Whose is This Song?, Divorce Albanian Style, The Mayor) took on the task of raising as much as she can the dual silence of Aktashieva and Piskov - the creative one, once imposed on them by force, and the one they voluntarily chose. The silence of people who have been run over by the system, but are determined, by refusing to complain, to prevent its final triumph.
"Art jumps the lights" is a line from the novel Avalanche by Blaga Dimitrova and from the film of the same title, which is probably the only film by Irina Aktasheva and Hristo Piskov that immediately comes to mind. It was conceived shortly after the completion of Monday Morning. Before Christmas 1965, a tragedy occurred near Malyovitsa peak, where out of a group of 16 mountaineers preparing to climb the Pamirs, 11 perished. The couple talked to Dimitrova about a joint project and she began writing a script based on the same case. The idea of all three is to have Pepa Nikolova in the iconic role of the "intractable" Dara "with the excessive vitality", "who keeps getting sidetracked". The script was rejected for years for heaps of contrived reasons. In the meantime, Blaga Dimitrova wrote her eponymous novel (1971) based on it and - loyal to Piskovi - did not respond to other directors' interest in the text. It was around these troubles that Irina Aktasheva and Hristo Piskov heard her speak of "silence with dignity" as the only meaningful response to the vicious attacks, and they liked this formulation very much... They did not manage to make the film until 1982, having to take the more age-appropriate Vanya Tsvetkova for Dara. It's remarkable how in Avalanche, as it turns out in the end, their style remains easily discernible, seemingly intact: the jazzy rhythm, the brilliant casting, the emancipated woman in focus, the shots of seething street life and striking exteriors, the children playing in the background (in the flashbacks). As if that wasn't enough, there are little touches of sheer defiance. In the film, one of the characters says something that isn't in the book: "Our goal is Mount Communism." In Silence with Dignity, the actor Philip Trifonov repeats the phrase and points to its obvious subtext: the failure of the entire country on the way to this "peak" is brutal, deadly. Looking at the mosaic of available and missing pieces arranged by Adela Peeva, one realizes: art jumps the lights where there are lights. In obscurantist regimes, all victories are pyrrhic - both those of the empowered scoundrels and those of the ones who won the battle for dignity but lost their chances of public expression. And the main victim is the whole society.
"All the dances have been cut out", says Irina and Hristo's daughter Natalia Piskova as she flips through the censor's notes on Monday Morning. Some officials and State Security agents had suggested corrections: this to be removed, that to be corrected. Not only was the "morally lax" girl at the centre of the action too sympathetic for a person expelled from the Komsomol, and the working-class people of the dockyard revealed as middling philistines, but the twist was a bit too much - down with the carefree joy, long live the wry pretense. The authors made some changes, then saw it is pointless, and gave up. Once, they met Radoy Ralin on the street and he wrote them an epigram: "This film is now suspended / and no mistake would be the reason. / The ban would then be ended, / for us to show some freedom." And yes, the release happened at the zenith of perestroika in 1988, incidentally, just when nobody cared about topics from 23 years ago. In 1987 The Piskovs made Only You Heart, not knowing that it would be their last film - the chaos and moneylessness after the changes ended their professional path (of the 1990s, Piskov says: "It's been worse, but it’s never been viler").
Adela Peeva did not meet Irina Aktasheva until her husband's death, while she was preparing the website Women Film Directors in the Bulgarian Cinema. In a sense, it was already too late for everyone: not only most of the participants in the former events were deceased, but also the oppressive, intricately entangled context seemed incomprehensible against the background of the twenty-first century in our thuggish, yet open country. Peeva has gathered the little that can compose a meaningful narrative, and welded it through words, images, testimonies, chronology - Silence with Dignity is perfectly comprehensible, answering basic questions, ending where the mass of little-known or frankly ridiculous elements of the past threatens to form an avalanche.We hear the sweet-tongued film critic Neda Stanimirova speak knowingly and sympathetically of the inseparable couple; Georgi Mamalev and Emil Hristov reminisce about working with them; Ingeborg Bratoeva aptly calls Monday Morning a “film under arrest"; Stefan Danailov, the young acting student in the full swing of the dance in Monday Morning, who had grown into an old member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, speaks with something like condescension about the Piskovs. We see the picture of another pair of filmmakers, Binka Zhelyazkova and Hristo Ganev, whose Life Goes On Quietly (1957) was also taken away from the audience until 1988. We understand that creator of The Peach Thief Valo Radev was one of the staunchest deniers of Monday Morning. We learn of functionaries - criminals in historical perspective - whose names I don't want to mention, but Peeva was obliged to include in this narrative along with their poisonous actions and words...
When you're simultaneously a journalist, a historian and a colleague of the subject of your research, and you have to dive into an era of callousness and social engineering of the lowest order, it's impossible not to have an opinion, and a sharp one at that. One of the best qualities of documentarian Adela Peeva is that she doesn't let her opinion drive the narrative. In her work, facts are set out in a manner that does not require a guiding interpretation. Collected expertly, the lies and truths, insolence and sincerity, qualities and defects stand in sufficient contrast for us to filter out and judge for ourselves.
"Here, things don't usually happen with conflagrations, but rather moulder from the inside," Peeva told the Sega newspaper in an interview about her film Long Live Bulgaria (2017). It is a terribly sad film about nationalism that should be seen and understood by as many people as possible. And which creates craving for more of what she does. Just as Silence with Dignity creates craving for more of Irina Aktasheva and Hristo Piskov. Peeva selects essential themes from our (Bulgarian, Balkan, human) present and past, which should be properly reflected on before we are able to make a step forward. The Piskovs have made - in defiance of censorship and self-censorship, of provincialism, patriarchal tics and the material constraints of the environment - quality, loving cinema, full of life and contemporary detail, fit to fill a small museum of the decade in question. Only there's nowhere to see them.
If one doesn't own a TV set to keep an eye out for a possible one-time broadcast on Bulgarian National Television of one of the films of both the deceased couple and the filmmaker who told us about them; if one doesn't find themselves in the right time in the right major city where one of the titles might reappear as part of a panorama or festival, there is simply no way to learn more, to explore, to pass on. Yes, Whose Is This Song? is available on HBO, Piskovi's Poor Street on filmira.bg, and Avalanche can be rented for three leva from the new and still underdeveloped website gledam.bg. But everything else is inaccessible in the virtual space, which in early 2021 is more important than ever for the future of cinema. Running the name of an author through the National Film Centre's search engine does not get you to his/her films, but at best to fragmentary announcements on past occasions. The electronic catalogue of the Bulgarian National Film Archive is empty - never mind that it is there that one would expect to find, if not titles to watch, then at least the complete filmography of Bulgarian filmmakers. (For contrast, I would point to the international Internet Movie Database, where everyone goes for inquiries and information is uploaded on a wiki basis - by volunteers. There, a single person has managed to load the data for hundreds of old and new Bulgarian films - none other than the director Georgi Dyulgerov. So it is possible.)
In order to keep things from getting too mouldered from the inside, to keep the reasonable voices and undeniable talents of Bulgarian cinema from sinking into oblivion, a systematic effort must be made to ensure access to it. Otherwise, what was it all for - the dreaming, the doing, the patience, the silence with dignity?
This publication is supported by Bulgarian National Culture Fund