"A Man Leaves Us" A Premiere after 37 Years By Hans-Joachim Schlegel
The special screening of the Bulgarian film A Man Leaves Us (Odchádza clovek) by Martin Slivka was one of the highlights of the 9th Sofia International Film Festival. This movie, a short film (27 minutes) shot in Bulgaria in 1968 and dealing with a typical Bulgarian theme, has never been shown there. Now we could see it accompanied by an introduction and a discussion presented by the National Bulgarian Cinematheque.
A Man Leaves Us is an ethnological poem about funeral customs in Bulgaria. The director Martin Slivka (1929-2002) was one of the most important theorists and filmmakers of the ethnological film. His teacher Karel Plicka was awarded the Coppa Venezia at the Venice Festival in 1934 for his documentary film poem Earth Is Singing (Zem spieva), edited by Alexander Hackenschmied. Like Plicka, Slivka not only documented the archaic funeral costumes in a backwoods Bulgarian village, but showed a very expressionistic ethnological poem about death integrated into life. A political-philosophical commentary quotes mainly the Bible on the subject of the origin of man from earth and his return to it. So we are confronted with an archaic agricultural life whose Christian-orthodox funeral rites contain many pre-Christian elements derived from nature.
Martin Slivka’s ethnological interest was focused on the Roma (gypsies), especially on the common and dividing factors of the different Slavic peoples. His interest in the roots of archaic-religious phenomena was criticized by the official socialist theorists and politicians of 1968. In that year tanks from various socialist countries buried the Czechoslovakian so called springtime politics. The Bulgarian consul in the Czechoslovakian city of Bratislava demanded that A Man Leaves Us should be forbidden, because the film showed an underdeveloped, poor and religious Bulgaria. So the film was banned by socialist censorship into the vaults of the archives.
It wasn’t shown in public until 22 years later at the Documentary Festival of Nyon in Switzerland, where it was awarded a Sesterce d’argent. After another 14 years it was now shown for the first time in the country where it was shot, the country it is all about.
After the fall of socialism in 1989 censorship was abandoned, but there were new market forces which prevented the screening of “uninteresting” films und put an end to the cultural exchange between the former socialist countries. It is also possible that the topic of death wasn’t only a problem for socialist censors but also for the advocates of the new carefree mood of the post-socialist era.
But discussions after the screenings in Sofia showed that today there is still an interest in serious filmic works. This was also said by Bulgarian director Stefan Komandarev, whose films Bread over the Fence (2002) and Alphabet of Hope (2004) document today’s problems of a Bulgarian village. The discussions made it clear how modern Slivka’s A Man Leaves Us is still today. In times of cultural globalization, topics and images of a specific national nature are very important for questions of identity. These topics are very important if the so called common European house of film culture should not become a faceless everyday building.