Elka Nikolova was born and raised in Bulgaria, where she studied psychology. In 1994 she moved to New York and attended the New School where she studied film and media. She worked in film and television for eight years before she embarked on making films independently. With an urge for themes that are rooted in her home country's history and culture, she made a number of short films before making her first feature length documentary film Binka: To Tell A Story About Silence (2007), about the pioneering female director Binka Zhelyazkova. Her second documentary film, The Unknown Rescue (in development), explores the last minute survival of all the 48,000 Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust.
Sean Kaye-Smith: You are now based in New York, yet your first two films are strongly connected to Bulgarian history and culture. Was that a natural choice?
Elka Nikolova: I immigrated to the US in 1994 right after the collapse of the Communist system in Eastern Europe. For me, as for many others of my generation, we graduated from school when the system was falling apart and there was no alternative for us, so many chose to leave the country seeking better opportunities. Our generation was a lost generation, a transitional generation. It is barely represented in Bulgarian cinema and also in all levels of society. Many of us are outside of the country. Bulgaria today is very different from the Bulgaria we left. It is a new country but many of us have not come to terms with the history and the country we left. So that is why it is important for us to do this. We were presented with a very limited view of the world and our perspective was distorted, so we need to know the truth about who we really are. The generation after us doesn't have this same need.
I started making my first documentary film Binka after I graduated from the New School in New York. I was not sure where I wanted to go from there. I started making Binka maybe to see if I could go back home to Bulgaria and work there. I also became aware of the fact that I was a woman in a very male dominated industry and I wanted to see what the situation was like back home. I immediately identified with my subject Binka Zhelyazkova, who was the first woman feature film director in Bulgaria. I was very impressed with her and with her resilience and strength. But somehow during that process I realised that going back at that time was not an option, I had changed too much and I wasn't going to be accepted readily back home. It was a difficult discovery. But that first film just scratched the surface because I touched upon themes that were so much deeper that I could explore with Binka.
That is why my second documentary film [The Unknown Rescue] is also related to Bulgarian history. It has to do with the fate of the Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War. A lot has been said about how the Bulgarian Jews survived or have been saved but very little was said about how these people were treated, how they were sent to labour camps, with their property taken, and that they were almost deported. It has to do with the way our history was presented to us and how we interpreted it. And most importantly it's about how little we know the real facts about what really happened in our country in the past 70 years. I am troubled by the fact that I know very little about my own history. I feel as if I don't really know who I am or that I don't belong anywhere in particular. That is why it is important for me to learn my history and that is why it might seem that I am preoccupied with it but for me this is a precondition to move on. It is a personal journey that I must take and there is no way around it.
SKS: Growing up in Bulgaria were you aware of Binka Zhelyazkova and her work back then?
EN: No, I was not aware of Binka and her work that much. I knew maybe one or two of her films but not to the extent that I wish I had known about her.
SKS: Considering her pioneering career, why do you think Zhelyazkova is so neglected by film history?
EN: Bulgaria is a very small country. It was also a very closed country. The state sponsored film industry produced 20 films a year out of which maybe a few were seen outside of Bulgaria, mostly in the Eastern Bloc. I asked Binka personally about her experiences when she was at the Expo '67 in Montreal with her film The Tied Up Balloon (Privarzaniyat balon, 1967), and at Cannes in 1974 with The Last Word (Poslednata duma, 1973). These were a few rare chances for her to meet with peers from outside the Iron Curtain. For her, these events were great experiences but unfortunately they were never followed by more screenings. There remained few opportunities for exposure. The story goes that The Tied Up Balloon was bought for distribution abroad but the State Cinematography cancelled the contract paying penalties. Even film scholars who specialise in Eastern Europe have heard very little, or not at all, about her work. Even though she claimed that she didn't have contact with filmmakers from other countries and that it was hard to exchange ideas, she stayed in touch with what was going on in cinema at the time. She was right on the mark with the Italian Neorealism with her film We Were Young (A byahme mladi, 1961), the French New Wave with The Tied Up Balloon and feminism with The Last Word. Thematically and stylistically, her work was in tune with all these developments in cinema.
The Tied Up Balloon, 1967
SKS: What do you consider to be her most important films?
EN: I think the period from 1957-1981 was the time when Binka Zhelyazkova produced her most important work. Her first film Partisans (1957), which she co-directed with her husband, is very important because it was one of the first films in Eastern Europe to address the personality cult and the corruption within the newly established system. It also showed the power of Zhelyazkova's visual style, which she demonstrated in abundance in her next film We Were Young. This film established her as independent from her husband director and showed her potential in full force. The film won first prize at the Moscow Film Festival in 1961. We have to remember that there were very few women in the fifties who were making feature films worldwide, and one of them was Binka Zhelyazkova. My favourite of her films is The Tied Up Balloon and it is very different from We Were Young. If We Were Young draws on Italian Neorealism and is very classic in structure, The Tied Up Balloon is post-modern in structure. It employs an army balloon as its main character and has a bunch of raggedy-rag peasants who are chasing it from one village to another. Also in the film there is a beautiful but mute young woman who somehow becomes entangled in the chase. Unfortunately the film was seen as a threat to the image of the Bulgarian peasant and maybe as a comment on the larger picture of what was going on in society at the time, so it was shelved for 30 years by a party decree.
This was an extremely damaging moment for Binka's career, because it excluded the film from the process and the attention she could have gotten for such an innovative film. It is an important film because it employs new and innovative techniques for its time, but for me the most significant element is maybe the use of silence in the treatment of the character of the young woman, an alter ego of the director herself, who felt as if her voice was being taken away during the making of the film and afterwards. Interestingly enough a few years later this technique was used by feminists to voice their frustration with the existing film language in its treatment of women on screen. Binka built on this idea later in The Last Word, for which she wrote the script as well. Even though thematically the film deals with the antifascist movement during the Second World War, it has only women characters in the main roles, although they were women in prison. It is an explosive and very dynamic film, which was in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974. There is a scene where the women prisoners, after their hair is cut as a punishment for disobedience, laugh at the warden, who is watching them behind a window on the second floor of the prison. Binka was again on the mark by employing laughter in her attempt to break the silence and find a voice for these women.
Inspired by The Last Word were the two documentaries The Bright and the Dark Side of Things (Lice i opuko, 1982) and Sleep, My Baby (Nani-na, 1982) about the women and their babies at the only women's prison in Bulgaria. In my view these two films are unique not only because the cinematography is haunting but also because they give us a glimpse of the state of the prison system in the socialist society. In a society where officially women had equal rights, where there was no unemployment and crime was little visible on the streets – it was severely punished and swept under the rug – women tell stories of abandonment not only by their husbands but also by the system who failed to protect them, so they had to take the law in their own hands. Unfortunately the fate of these two films followed the fate of The Tied Up Balloon. They were screened only at a private screening and shelved for a long time.
Her later career was marked by disillusionment which is reflected in her last feature films, the trilogy consisting of The Swimming Pool (Baseynat, 1977), The Big Night Bath (Golyamoto noshtno kapane, 1980), and On The Roofs At Night (Noshtem po pokrivite, 1988).
SKS: How is Zhelyazkova viewed in Bulgaria at present?
EN: Binka Zhelyazkova is very well known among the film community but outside of that it is a different story. Still very little is known about her work even in Bulgaria. Her films are rarely shown and there are not released on DVD, which makes them inaccessible to the modern audiences.
SKS: How was Binka: To Tell A Story About Silence received in your home country?
EN: The film was accepted very well. It was screened at the opening night at the Golden Rose Film Festival in 2006 and then it won the award for best directorial debut at the 2007 Plovdiv Golden Rhyton Festival of Non-Feature Film. It was also shown on Bulgarian National Television and many Bulgarians even today want to see the film and want to write about Binka's films and career. Few scholars have included Binka's work in their writings.
SKS: Your films so far are clearly labours of love. How difficult were they to make? And does the personal connections with the material sustain you?
EN: Making films independently is very difficult, if not bordering on the impossible. It takes a long time for the project to gain momentum and lots of persistence and hard work. I don't have the luxury of having all the funds at the same time so the process is interrupted. Life also interferes, I had a child right in the middle of finishing Binka, so I had to take some time off to take care of my son. At times only the personal connection to the material is what is left and the notion that it is something I have to do, that I can't move on if I don't do this film. The projects I have chosen so far have very much to do with my personal journey and the questions I am asking that are important to me.
SKS: So far you have concentrated on documentary and the pursuit of truth. Do you see a time when you will engage with the fiction film?
EN: I have thought about this a lot and I always remember Binka Zhelyazkova's unrealised dream to make a film about her childhood. I grew up in a very unique and interesting period of time and somehow I want to capture that on film. I have always wanted to make a film about adolescence and what it meant to grow up during the most stagnant years of communism. I think of this more of a comedy than a drama.
SKS: Your films seem to be, in very different ways, attempts to rescue people and their stories. Do you expect this theme to continue in your work?
EN: Yes, it does seem like I am making films about people or groups of people who were neglected or forgotten. This desire comes from being an immigrant in a different country. That is why people cling to their own culture for support, because everything is new and unfamiliar in the new culture. Imagine that every time when you tell somebody that you are from England and their answer is: England...? And then comes that blank look on their face and you know that they have no idea what you are talking about. This is what happened to me when I first came to the US and people had no idea what I was talking about at all. It was as if my history was completely erased, it didn't matter. Not only that but I was looked upon as if I was from a different universe all together, somewhere from behind the Iron Curtain... I realised how closed my country has been to the world and how little people knew about Bulgaria at all.
The Last Word, 1973
Nowadays it still happens but less often. Maybe I don't care so much anymore but this notion of not having anything to hold on to prompted me to make Binka and now The Unknown Rescue. I have been struggling with that for some time and the work on The Unknown Rescue is helping me to put that behind. My new realities have not settled in enough for me to have the perspective and to make a film about it yet, but I believe that my next film will deal with contemporary themes not history.
SKS: Can you tell us a bit about Bulgaria's film culture? Growing up in the country, did you see a lot of home-produced films, or was it mainly Russian or American films?
EN: As a mentioned earlier Bulgaria produced few films per years domestically so we saw a lot of Russian films about the Second World War naturally, but we also watched quite a lot of Eastern European films mostly Czech, Serbian TV series. Also we watched a lot of French comedies, we all grew up with Louis de Funès and Fernandel [Fernand Joseph Désiré Contandin], and Alain Delon was our hero. We also watched a lot of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy comedies. Besides that we didn't see many contemporary American or British films. Anything that the censorship considered safe and maybe that is why we saw a lot of classic comedies.
SKS: How would you describe you working methods?
EN: I am a very intuitive person, so when I choose a subject I usually have something to say about it or am asking myself a lot of questions and am trying to figure things out. I have a background in psychology so maybe that is part of the reason I am so interested in human emotions and experiences. Bulgarian cinema has a very poetic quality especially in the 1970s period and that has had a big influence on me. I used that imagery in Binka when I worked on the image of the little girl, which is the alter ego of Binka Zhelyazkova in the documentary. I like to edit the rough cut myself and then, when I meet with the editor, I can explain better what I want or what I am thinking about.
SKS: As a woman filmmaker who has made an important documentary about a criminally neglected woman director, can you comment on the legacy of women filmmakers, or the current position of women in the industry?
EN: I think more needs to be written about women's contribution to cinema, more films need to be made about it; more of their work needs to be made available for people to see. A major and conscious effort needs to be made to ensure that their work is documented and represented, so women don't fall out of the pages of film history again for a long time. Seeing what others before them have done will help women to gain confidence in their work so they can build upon that foundation. No wonder men are so confident when making films, it is because they have Fellini, Bergman, Chaplin and Scorsese to look up to and build upon. We need to rediscover the work of women filmmakers like Binka Zhelyazkova and cherish it and study it. For me, after looking at a film like The Tied Up Balloon I was asking myself, How did she do that? Maybe one day I can make a film like that. It is possible to be innovative and challenging, be a woman and be a major film director. But we are not there yet. Many women today, including myself, make documentary films but not that many make feature films. And the irony is that documentary is probably harder to make because it takes a long time, your subjects are unpredictable and so on and so forth.
Often I watch big film productions about war, or all the adventure films where the budgets are huge and in the whole cast of thousands there is one woman character and that is usually the pretty wife of the hero who is whiney and left behind, while he goes off to save the world. These films are still being made today and they are pretty insulting to watch. Women have far bigger roles than that and we need to find ways to give them space to tell their different stories.