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Feature 15 Feb 17

Shutdown Rumours Repopularise Sofia’s Oldest Cinema

False rumours that the oldest cinema in the Bulgarian capital was about to be shut down have brought it hundreds of new visitors, sparking hopes of a revival of its glory days.

Mariya Cheresheva
The Vlaikova cinema can host up to 150 visitors. Photo: Vlaikova's private archive

It was an unusually busy Saturday evening at Vlaikova, Sofia’s oldest working cinema, located on the charming downtown street Ivan Asen II. After having a drink in the cinema’s cult cafe, which has been hearing the urban secrets of the city’s cinephiles since 1926, moviegoers of all ages filled the 150-seat hall.

One of the reasons for such a large crowd at this retro movie theatre, one of the three still remaining in the capital, was the premiere of “The Singing Shoes”, a biography movie about famous Bulgarian jazz singer Lea Ivanova.

But the main reason for such a turnout, the like of which has not been seen at Vlaikova for many years, was the false rumour that the cult cinema is about to be closed down.

A news report, published in a Bulgarian newspaper on February 6, claiming that the cinema was struggling to survive, triggered a wave of shock among Sofia’s film enthusiasts, which then led to a campaign on social media aimed at saving Vlaikova.

Staff at the Anton Strashimirov community centre, which runs the cinema, were quick to denounce the rumours, but they did not hide their satisfaction as the number of visitors skyrocketed, marking Vlaikova’s re-entry into Sofia’s cultural spotlight.

‘Saving’ Vlaikova

The cinema is located on Ivan Asen II, one of the most charming streets in downtown Sofia. Photo: Private archive

“Let’s get together to watch movies in support of the oldest cinema in Sofia –the Vlaikova cinema,” Stoyan Kostadinov, a student from Sofia, wrote in a Facebook event he created entitled ‘A weekend in with the Vlaikova cinema’.

“This emblematic cinema with amazing atmosphere has the ability to function as a time machine, taking you to another time which we picture as more romantic,” he added, calling upon people to spend Sunday afternoon at Vlaikova and help extend its 91-year history.

His calls was answered as droves of people chose Vlaikova for their weekend entertainment.

“I think the campaign had a positive effect. I hope that all those people realise that the cinema is here and they are always welcome,” Ilko Diugmedjiev, the secretary general of the Anton Strashimirov community centre, told BIRN.

“Suddenly publications came out [and said] that Vlaikova has to be saved. But in fact, there is no such need right now,” he clarified.

Despite this, the management of the community centre recognises the fact that running a local independent movie house in the era of the internet and multiplex cinemas is a challenge.

“Going to the cinema can be compared to reading newspapers - while some people still read them, others have totally stopped,” said Luben Dimov, chairman of the community centre.

“It is not a matter of money, but a matter of convenience. The comfort of watching movies at home limits visits to movie theatres - regardless of whether they are modern and luxurious or older, like ours,” he added.

The staff are willing to screen films for as few as two people at a time, they insist.

“Sometimes one old lady comes and we wonder what to do... so we tell her to bring at least one more person with her,” Diukmedjiev laughed.

“We do not like turning people back,” Dimov added.

Preserving the legacy

Ilko Diukmedjiev joined the community center in 1999. Photo: BIRN

The history of Sofia’s oldest and most romantic cinema explains the two men’s determination to preserve its legacy.

It was built in the 1920s by Maria Vlaikova, a teacher born in Bitola, in today’s Macedonia, and the third wife of the famous Bulgarian writer and public figure Todor Vlaikov.

Determined to create a cinema for the citizens of Sofia, which would bring them “not only aesthetic pleasure but would also serve as educating the younger generation and the people”, she raised a mortgage on her family’s property and started building Vlaikova in 1925.

The building, located in the centre of Sofia’s bohemian neighbourhood, was not only intended to show films, but also to host theatre plays, book readings, and in general to be “a home of culture, а centre of enlightenment”, as Maria Vlaikova wrote in her will.

Prior to her death, she donated the building to the former Ministry of People’s Education, stating precisely in her will that it could be used only as a cinema and theatre.

Nowadays, the cinema still owes its existence to Vlaikova’s final testament, which prevented it from ending up like most of Sofia’s former state-owned cinemas which were privatised in the 1990s and turned into nightclubs, department stores or just left to fall apart.

“The most important thing is that the community centre runs the cinema and makes its existence possible,” Diukmedjiev said.

He explained that the profit from the sale of tickets covers only a quarter of the cinema’s expenses, but the community centre manages to cover the other part by staging a variety of cultural activities, including plays, concerts and readings.

Hopes for development

Projectionist Dimiter Mitev, known as Uncle Mitko, is one of the legends of Vlaikova. Photo: Private archive

Dimov said although the cinema’s problems were over-dramatised, both it and the community centre still need help.

The building, which was damaged during the Allied bombings of Bulgaria during WWII, requires serious refurbishment.

It needs proper dressing and rehearsal rooms and a proper space for a library so people could read some of the 50,000 books from Anton Strashimirov’s archive, or just a flick through a newspaper, Dimov said.

He described the cinema as “centre for cultural life in this neighbourhood”.

“I grew up in this district, I lived next door. People have always gathered here – for a concert, for an exhibition, you see many familiar faces,” he explained.

“I want to have here all the technological innovations that will come in the future decades. But the building needs to be modernised in order to meet such needs, which requires a lot of money,” he added, expressing hopes that the state might support Vlaikova’s development.

With or without state funding, the story of the cinema is far from over.

“There is nothing better than a full house,” the Vlaikova team wrote on Facebook as they thanked everyone who came to the cinema over the weekend.

“We promise to offer you beautiful and interesting movies,” they added, inviting all lovers of quality films to come and enjoy the charms of Sofia’s oldest cinema.

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