A Bulgarian documentary about an opressed animator has to face censorship

20. 11. 2014

Author: Filip Ĺ ebek

Hardly any documentary has in the recent decades in Bulgaria sparked the interest of the public, and at the same time such passions and controversial reactions as the film Uncle Tony, Three Fools and the Secret Service.

The protagonist of the film Uncle Tony, Three Fools and the Secret Service, Antony Trayanov (known as Uncle Tony), who in the 1970s, when the Bulgarian animation was world famous, created a legendary series of short films called Three Fools (Trimata glupatzi) with Donyo Donev. Whereas Donev was a favorite of the communist regime and has built an enviable career on the international level, Uncle Tony stayed in the shadow and was not allowed to shoot films. And, as the filmmakers Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova prove in their documentary, one of the active agents of the Bulgarian secret service responsible for the opressions, was Donyo Donev himself. Immediately after its completion, the documentary, supported also by Institute of Documentary Film, faced attempts to impose censorship and the director and producer of the film have been exposed to harsh criticism and, in some cases, even bullying from the Bulgarian film institutions, even their colleagues.

Why have you deciced to make a film about this story and when did you start working on it?
We came across the idea in 2010. Although we had been working on other projects at that time, we thought it would make sense to produce this film first. Because it is small and intimate but points out some big issues of our society, which remain unresolved till today. For example the fact that such an amazing man as Antony Trayanov (Uncle Tony) has not received his share of recognition despite having contributed greatly to the Bulgarian culture. He is not in the encyclopaedias; he is not on the Internet, he has never been on TV. You cannot find him at the Academy where he had been teaching animation for more than 2 years. The professor, head of department, has even denied Trayanov's academic presence in the Academy. The US Variety magazine aptly described this episode as showing "Kafkaesque prevarication". Despite all this, Uncle Tony was a living legend when started shooting the documentary. His students adored him and anybody who wanted to learn animation was coming to his house. It’s such a pity that he died during the time we were editing the film and could not see the success of it. The editing took la long time because the film wasn’t state funded and we’ve had to make it with our own resources.

Could you briefly introduce the story to the readers, who are not familiar with The Three Fools and their international success in the 1970s?
Antony Trayanov, whom everybody called Uncle Tony had a major role in the artistic creation of many famous Bulgarian films, including the “Three Fools” but remained unknown largely due to the political circumstances. At that time, only people closely connected with the Communist Party could direct films in the State Cinema Studio. A crucial problem depicted in our film is that he wanted to make his own films but was not allowed to do so for more than 20 years – his prime years.The film “Three Fools”, directed by Donyo Donev, was an ingenious creation also thanks to Antony’s brilliant animation and choreography. In our film we simply wanted to draw the attention to the fact that many great inventions in all areas of life are the result of co-authorship.

Your film was screened in Bulgaria from November 2013 until early July 2014 and it is said that there was an unusally high attendance for a documentary.
It was screened in three art-house cinemas in Sofia and we’ve had screenings in the countryside. It was a battle of its own to keep the film in the cinemas because a lot of people worked hard against our cinema distribution.We had agreed that every screening should have certain number of viewers otherwise the cinema takes it off. However one cinema took it off after only 2 months while still having high attendance. The programing director, also a cinema critic, was furious about the film and the effect it creates. Second cinema took it off after 3-4 months again with high attendance but they didn’t justify the removal. There were many phone calls and a lot of pressure on cinemas’ directors.One cinema kept it till July and they wanted to run it for longer but we asked them to stop because we had serious troubles at the time. It turns out that Euro cinema in Sofia is the only independent cinema that doesn’t care about institutional pressure. Everybody who tried to screen the film for whatever occasion received letters threatening with court proceedings and people were naturally afraid so they stopped screening it. Not a single cinema critic wrote about it. Actually there was one extremely malicious article in magazine Cinema written by the programming director of the first cinema. We fell in a complete isolation.

Your film was co-produced by Bulgarian National TV. Did they know from the beginning, that the information about Donev's colaboration with the secret service will be a part of your film? Is it true, that the national TV has later also withdrawn its support?
There is nothing new or shocking about Donev being an agent. This is old news from 2003 when journalists uncovered his dossier to the public. This happened because he applied to become a member of the Parliament. The television had been very supportive throughout the process of making our film and they allowed us to express our author’s view, which we appreciate a lot.However at a later date, they withdrew their support, that’s true. The film had been due for broadcast for quite a while now but they wouldn’t show it. We assume it is a matter of inner contradictions and personal battles in the TV management because some people passionately support it while others don’t.

What are the main reasons for the film being harshly criticized by the Bulgarian National Film Centre and the Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers?
The Bulgarian Film Centre turned against us when a new director was temporarily appointed. This director decided to act as attorney for Donev’s relatives and took a lot of destructive action against the film and us. He personally sends letters to festivals not to screen the film because it’s illegal. The Union of Bulgarian Film Makers got upset when we declared publicly that they had disqualified us from the Academy Film Awards. After a letter from Donev’s relatives they got scared and tried to eliminate our nomination for Best Director – they added an extra bulletin, which was against regulations. We started complaining and insisted on counting the votes – the film guild votes anonymously for these awards. It turned out that we we had also Best Documentary Film nomination which had also been covered up. We went on stage at the Bulgarian Film Award ceremony to announce that there is censorship in Bulgaria. The ceremony was broadcast alive on the Bulgarian National TV and our appearance caused a lot of turmoil: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTubumWYzP4

Were you threatened personally in the sense that your filmmaking career in Bulgaria might be over?
Yes, there were such threats and we think that they are quite realistic unfortunately. Our projects had been turned down three times since the premiere of Uncle Tony at the National Film Centre’s application calls. Of course that could be for artistic reasons – nobody can proof that it’s not a coincidence. But if that tendency continues and our projects keep being rejected, it’ll no longer be a coincidence. Interesting thing is that one of these rejected projects received a European fund from Creative Europe’s programme MEDIA. At our National Film Centre it was ranked the last! Obviously the European committee found the project strong enough artistically.

Are your pieces of evidence about Donev's collaboration with the secret service really so strong, that you are not afraid that his family would sue you or ban the film for defamation?
Defamation is in place when there is a slander or a lies, and this isn’t the case. The film is very gentle, we accentuate on Donev’s artistic achievements. Because defamation can’t be proved our opponents started attacking the copyrights of the film. But we have all copyright contracts and can show them to anyone concerned. The letters sent by director of our Film Fund are entitled "official copyright warning".

Are really all members of Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers against your film? Did you get also some kind of support?
We got an amazing support from some outstanding members of the film guild such as documentary producer Martichka Bozhilova and her Balkan documentary centre - BDC. She said that we have to learn to deal with issues from our recent past in order to make reconciliation in our society. Mira Staleva, a deputy director of Sofia Film Fest and member of European film committees accentuated that the whole of Europe must learn about this and urged journalists to cover it. Last but not least, we received support from the authors of “the Lesson”, recently acclaimed Bulgarian drama. They posted on Facebook. Former director if the National Film Centre – Alexander Donev supported us. We received a strong overall support from a lot of colleagues and journalists in Bulgaria.

European Documentary Network and a renowned magazine Variety stood up for your support as well.
EDN’s involvement was crucial in psychological sense because till then our opponents thought they’ve beaten us. Nobody expected such reaction from Europe and it was amazingly satisfying to see the perplexity amongst the institutional representatives. Normally such attempts for free speech are suffocated in their own country before the international community notices. We are extremely grateful for the support from EDN, EAVE, Cineuropa, Dox magazine and Variety. We also had internal support from Bulgarian journalists who didn’t take sides with the film institutions and we must thank them as well.

Have you thought about contacting the Court of human rights in Strasbourg? Your case seems to be an obvious violation of the freedom of speech right...
Yes, exactly! If an innocent film provokes such anger we might as well ban the documentary cinema as a genre. Our position is to not fuel the arguments further and keep a civilized debate. Failing that we may have to consider appealing to Strasburg.

How do you now see your future as documentary filmmakers in Bulgaria? What are your nearest plans with this film and do you have already plans for another one? What it will be about?
We thought for a while that we would have to leave Bulgaria, go to America and work there. But thanks to you, and all the people who wrote about this and supported us, perhaps there is some hope left. Few months ago we won European funding as we mentioned above and a special mention for a pitch in London. We were the only company from Bulgaria who won at that Creative Europe’s call amongst extremely tough European competition. Perhaps there is God and perhaps there is future for us.

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