Saved events

Press room

Hidden Figures – The Films of Binka Zhelyazkova

13 – 27 Sep 2023

Rarely screened films of Binka Zhelyazkova, a pioneer of Bulgarian cinema, active during Bulgarian’s totalitarian years, whose films were often censored by the state.

Barbican Cinema’s Hidden Figures programme returns this autumn with a celebration of the rarely seen work of Binka Zhelyazkova (1923 – 2011), a pioneer of Bulgarian cinema whose films were often censored by the state, yet who worked prolifically during the country’s totalitarian years from the 1950s to the 1980s. Zhelyazkova was not only the first female fiction director in Bulgaria, but also one of the few whose work reached beyond the Iron Curtain. Yet, despite this, she remains relatively unknown in the UK.

Although a committed socialist, she often found herself at odds with the Communist regime. Subsequently her filmmaking career was hindered, and many of her films banned upon release.

During her centenary year, the Barbican, in partnership with
New East Cinema and the London-based Bulgarian writer and programmer Savina Petkova, are pleased to present three of her films which showcase recurring themes that testify to her hope in a hapless generation in flux through satire, spy thriller tropes, and witty comedic episodes. 

Hidden Figures opens with the UK restoration premiere of one of Binka Zhelyazkova’s best known works The Tied Up Balloon, which was banned on its release in 1967 until 1989, by the then Bulgarian leader Tidor Zhivkov.

In the film, a mysterious barrage balloon appears in the sky over a remote Bulgarian village during WWII, causing wild anxiety amongst the locals. Adapted from Yordan Raditchkov’s novella of the same name, The Tied Up Balloon is a satirical look at the Bulgarian psyche, exploring the topic of surveillance anxiety under totalitarian rule. Drawing from Raditchkov’s literary style, Zhelyazkova’s now most celebrated feature ventures into the realms of magic realism and the surreal.

Teodosia Dobriyanova, New East Cinema curator says: The Tied Up Balloon had a brief but very successful life abroad. It premiered at the Montreal Expo in 1967, where it was well received, and it was meant to premiere in Venice as well. Rumour has it that at the time, the communist leader in Bulgaria was told that one of the donkeys in the film was an allegory for the leader himself, and The Tied Up Balloon was immediately banned and pulled out of Venice’s programme. The film was “arrested” until after the fall of the communist regime in 1989, when it was finally screened again, and would be later restored in 2021.” 

The second UK restoration premiere in the series, Binka Zhelyazkova’s simmering sophomore feature We Were Young made in 1961, considers the cost of resistance and sacrifice in Nazi-occupied Bulgaria. Amidst the political chaos, a romance blooms between two teenagers during an attempt to thwart the Nazi occupation.

The season closes with The Swimming Pool, one of her few films shot in colour. Set in Sofia, this is a study in late socialist ennui in which a jilted young woman starts a relationship with a middle-aged architect and ex-party member who later introduces her to his actor friend, starting an unlikely triangle between friendship, jealousy and budding romance.

Filmed on location in the streets of Sofia in 1971, The Swimming Pool explores the experiences of what it is to be a young woman in the city and often merges the fictional world with urban realities, becoming in many ways a portrait of the Bulgarian capital in the late 1970s.

Savina Petkova, writer and programmer says: “Our season spotlights a pioneering figure who has been sidelined by history, like many other of her female contemporaries. Binka Zhelyazkova tells universal stories, and her bold vision shines through the contexts the films engage in. Her work is already thematically accessible, if people can get access to them, which is what we hope to do."

Hidden Figures is a regular Barbican Cinema strand, which celebrates filmmakers who, despite directing ground-breaking films, have been neglected in the canon of world cinema. Directors previously featured include Lina Wertmüller, Euzhan Palcy, Ha Gil-jong, Jacqueline Audry and Idrissa Ouédraogo.


UK Restoration Premiere: The Tied Up Balloon + ScreenTalk
Bulgaria 1967, Dir Binka Zhelyazkova, 98 min

Wed 13 Sep, 6.15pm, Cinema 2

The Tied Up Balloon, adapted from Yordan Raditchkov’s novella of the same name, is a satirical look at the Bulgarian psyche, exploring topics of surveillance anxiety and docility under totalitarian rule. Drawing from Raditchkov’s literary style, Binka Zhelyazkova’s now most celebrated feature ventures into the realms of magic realism and the surreal.

After the fall of Bulgaria’s Communist regime in 1989, the film was allowed to screen again and received a digital restoration in 2021.

UK Restoration Premiere: We Were Young + intro

Bulgaria 1961, Dir Binka Zhelyazkova, 98 min

Sun 17 Sep, 5.40pm, Cinema 3

Like many of Binka Zhelyazkova’s films, We Were Young takes place in the early 1940s and centres its story around a handful of youngsters in their late teens, who are willing to risk everything to oppose the Nazi occupation.

Binka Zhelyazkova’s sophomore feature remains stunningly elegant while it simmers with suspense: clandestine meetings, the safety of shadows, and the murmur of a quotidian forever beyond reach for the partisans. We Were Young shines in this brand-new restoration from 2021.

The Swimming Pool + intro

Bulgaria 1977, Dir Binka Zhelyazkova, 98 min

Wed 27 Sep, 8.15pm, Cinema 2

After her prom night, as her classmates celebrate their graduation by a swimming pool, Bela (Yanina Kasheva) contemplates suicide by jumping off the pool’s tower. There, she meets Apostol (Kosta Tsonev), a middle-aged architect and ex-partisan who later introduces her to his best friend. An unlikely triangle forms between friendship, jealousy, and budding romance.