'The Bulgarian Horrors': Gladstone's Bulgarian Legacy
Exclusive Novinite.com interview with Associate Professor Dr. Michael Meltev.
Associate Professor Dr. Michael Meltev has taught at the new Bulgarian University in Sofia since 2000, as a member of the Department of Mass Communications. He graduated the Bulgarian National Academy for Theater and Film Arts in 1980, specializing in film and television direction. He has worked at Boyana Studios, with Bulgarian National Television, where he was CEO in 1993-94, and has chaired the Bulgarian Union of Film-makers, as well as lecturing and teaching at many academic institutions throughout Bulgaria. He has published numerous publications related to the fields of film and electronic media. Dr. Meltev has received several prizes and awards for his productions, both within Bulgaria and abroad. His latest film, "Listen to the Stars", was awarded the Golden Vityaz this year in Lipetsk, Russia.
Professor Meltev: apart from your normal academic duties, we understand you have been working on a media project throughout the year. Would you please tell us what it is you have been doing?
The past year has been generous relating to projects that we had designed with my friends Penko Rusev, Vladi Kirov and Associate Prof. Rumen Genov. Two of these projects were supported by the Bulgarian National Film Center, something extremely rare. So my time after those decisions was entirely dedicated to them.
Naturally, all my time and attention needed to be focused on the television project "Gladstone and the Bulgarians". The script presupposed a "para-documentary film", building on the conflict between the two opposed political schools of the 19th century – that of "morality in politics" or "moral law", as defended by W. E. Gladstone, and the so-called "real politics" or "no-nonsense" foreign policy of Benjamin Disraeli.
It turned out however that our colleagues in the BBC had already made a similar film, also that access to the archives of the British Parliament is quite difficult and, most importantly, this filmic approach does not provide sufficient opportunity to reveal the role that Gladstone really played on behalf of Bulgaria. Therefore, we chose the "documentary portrait" as an appropriate format for the film, whose main task is to acquaint viewers with this extraordinary person deliberately undervalued during the period of totalitarianism.
Was it a simple project, or did you encounter any particular difficulties on the way?
The task seemed simple, but it turned out to be rather a serious challenge: first, in researching the huge piles of documents, information and research in order to acquire even a vague idea of the living man behind the literary monument and dry research analyses; second, how to maintain authenticity to documentary origin and to detect and acquire pictorial material for an epoch when film did not exist - how to make that material "alive", to take it out of the "naphthalene" or atmosphere of the museum; third, how to make an interesting movie about a man who never smiled and of whom Catherine, his good and faithful wife, said: "William, you would be deadly boring, if you were not so great!", and fourth... and fifth... I shall not go on!
So, all the time during most of my past year was devoted to this journey into the planet "Gladstone".
But why choose to make a Bulgarian TV documentary about a Victorian English politician? And why now, precisely?
To turn the questions around, and answer the easier one first – because December 29, 2009 marks the anniversary of Gladstone's birth 200 years ago.
Anyway... the idea for the film came from our scriptwriter, Associate Prof. Rumen Genov. He has devoted much of his personal research into the personality and the epoch of Gladstone. I think that he is the most proficient and experienced person in this area in Bulgaria. Even when we were filming in the UK, we used to joke with him: "Is there anything you don’t know about this man?"
So, this associate professor was the initiator of a celebration in Bulgaria of the anniversary of the Great Old Man - today, as I said, marks two centuries since his birth in 1809. This initiative includes organizing scientific conferences, naming a hall at the New Bulgarian University after Gladstone, organizing an exhibition and a concert, and erecting a commemorative monument. As part of all these activities, this film is dedicated to the anniversary. Thank God, the members of the Creative Committee at the National Film Center supported the idea.
And why is it that we, in Bulgaria, have made a film about a Victorian politician? Well, the more I worked on the film, the more convinced I became that we were making a film about ourselves. Gladstone is a part of Bulgarian history, for good or for bad. In 1909, the anniversary of his birth was celebrated as a Bulgarian national holiday. Unfortunately, the years of totalitarianism have left their stamp of a conscious lack of learning: in history textbooks, there is only a line or two about him and his campaign, and his name is largely removed from the streets and schools. Eminent scientists reiterate the thesis of R. Shannon, that Bulgaria for Gladstone was only an occasion to assume his political ambitions as revenge on the UK conservatives in a moral outfit.
This thesis inevitably leads to his placement in the shadow of other European humanitarians, as one of the many but "not so unworldly", and this in turn is a precondition for a national self-pity. in an historical perspective – the presumption to consider ourselves as a scapegoat people.
So, what was the real effect of the publication of Gladstone's famous pamphlet, here in Bulgaria?
The essence of Gladstone’s pamphlet "The Bulgarian Horrors" lies in the rehabilitation of the Bulgarian people as a nation equal within the European family, a people with a praiseworthy background and culture. The pamphlet is an accusation of the lawlessness of the Ottoman Empire, a response to the feeling of guilt and a rallying call to the responsibility of Great Britain, which was the guarantor for all Christians inside the Empire. It is true that the "Bulgarian agitation" was a powerful social movement, which Gladstone joined. But once he joined the cause, he became its emblem, he was obsessed with it and bore all reproaches, insults, and the denigration of the jingoists.
I believe that it was that which made the European intervention and the Russo-Turkish War possible. Only five months before the campaign, England refused to sign the Memorandum of the European Concert for Bosnia and Herzegovina - then no one (except Serbia) had dared to intervene. For me, Gladstone made just as much of a contribution to the liberation of Bulgaria as Alexander II. This is why I devoted one year of my life to this film - becoming well acquainted with the Victorian politician is part of our national self-cognition, and gratitude is not a disgrace to nations with historical self-esteem.
In passing, it's interesting to see that there is still a street in the very center of Sofia, called Ulitsa Gladston. Why, and is it at all important to Bulgarians?
Bulgarians, for their most part, do not know why certain streets are named in one way and not in another. The same can be said about the British, too. While we were filming in the UK, we conducted a survey in Oxford, Liverpool and London. With very few exceptions, nobody knew who Gladstone was. A French woman decided that it was some brand of cigarettes; an Irish guy proudly refused to speak about English history (and the key to understanding Irish self-government is Gladstonism and "Bulgarian propaganda"); others had simply heard of the name and the added phrase "prime minister".
In Bulgaria, one guy decided it was a state, another one said he (Gladstone) went to Batak [site of an infamous Ottoman massacre of Bulgarians – Editor’s note] to help.
But let's not forget that, during totalitarianism, Gladstone Street was renamed as Poptomov, and the school there as "Cyril and Methodius". In our history textbooks, it was said Gladstone skilfully used the Bulgarian cause in order to return to power in Britain. Our professors and scientists cannot recover from that negative perception, probably reinforced by the policy of Disraeli, and admit even for a moment that, by defending Bulgarians, Gladstone also defended his own idea of "human rights" in the Christian, and even in the contemporary sense, of the concept.
Do you think that Gladstone was, as you mentioned, just playing for his own political gain, or was he really, truly outraged by the reported events here in Bulgaria?
In my opinion, Gladstone was very sincere in his reaction to the events in Bulgaria. He reacted with the same passion with which, in the 1850s, he had embraced the cause for protecting Italian political prisoners, or in the 1860s when he had opposed the so-called "Tea War" in China, the way he defended Armenians, Afghans...
This passion, he called it sacred, because it stemmed from his deep religious belief in equality before God and the law. He himself considered his presence in politics as a way to apply his own moral principles. Or, as Biagini says: "His policy is not empty moralizing. It was the "real politic" of Christian humanitarianism." Unfortunately, many of his assumptions and propositions are today considered obsolete and outdated. For me, however, they are so close, interesting and topical, that I am even afraid that I belong to his epoch, rather than the present one
Can you please tell us a little more about the project, in terms of the logistical difficulties or problems faced by an independent producer working in today’s economic climate, where money for artistic contributions may not be such a priority?
From a producer's aspect, the project is no different from any other Bulgarian film. The budget was reduced by half, we had to "split the coin in two" to afford to travel to London, Liverpool, Oxford and Haddon. And, we would have hardly succeed if it was not for the selfless support of friends from the UK, who provided for transport, organization and even the camera (Martin Turner, Pacific O'Prey, Gareth Price and the Cultural Department of the Bulgarian Embassy). And to this day, because of this, we call each other "Gladstonians".
On the other hand, the small budget did allow for a longish period of work, and probably compelled us to a more artistic interpretation of history, instead of the expensive animated reconstructions of the type one sees on Discovery Channel. Let's look on the bright side and hope that in this way the film would come out to be good.
What's the most important message, if any, you'd like to get across to the TV audience here in Bulgaria with your programme?
Let's explore the complex personality of the man who contributed to Bulgarian statesmanship and liberty, equal to the Russian Tsar, and through that cognition to implant his courage and stand up for human rights towards others.
Finally, your next project?
Again a documentary. It is about the people of the town where I was born. In the 1920s, the local Greek population was deported to Aegean Thrace, which was taken from Bulgaria in the European war, and refugees from Macedonia, Eastern and Western Thrace were housed there in their place. This made it a scale model of the Tower of Babel, labeled with the geographical concept of the Balkans. I hope we measure up to that task.
But, I'd just like to conclude: "Gladstone is the code word for the Anglo-Bulgarian friendship. Nobody said a bad word about him even when the most brutal confrontation in the Cold War took place. Maybe there was not enough good said or nothing said at all, but never a bad word against him - never!"
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