For the team behind the project, the preservation of found family movies and amateur footage is a way to access authentic stories – and authentic history
"Why do you do this?" Every member of the team behind Kino (Film) Club Super 8 has been asked this question, but it hasn’t made them any less determined to continue digitizing home and amateur movies shot between the 1930s and 1980s. "It would be interesting to imagine what would happen if aliens saw these films, what would they think about us as a society? Given that they were filmed for a small circle of people, that makes us the aliens in this scenario."
The "Kino Club Super 8" team consists of Neda Milanova, junior producer at AGITPROP and co-writer of the documentary Voev, her coworker at AGITPROP, the photographer Kevork Vanlyan, Bogomil Dimitrov, co-writer of Svetoslav Draganov's latest film Smiren, and the creator of the found photography projects Imaginary Archive and Bulgarian Visual Archive Tihomir Stoyanov, who is also a member of the team behind the photobook platform PUK!.
The first meeting of the Club took place in early 2020, at the old Bratya Treyman photo studio on Graf Ignatiev Street (which has since moved to a nearby space). After Neda Milanova joined, the team started to make plans to turn this into a full-fledged ongoing project. "A single film of this type is not a piece of cultural heritage, but three hundred films amount to actual cultural heritage," Tihomir says.
Paradoxically enough this project, entirely focused on home recordings from the past, got its start from the creation of a new feature film.
Bogomil Dimitrov and Tihomir Stoyanov met on one of the final days of the Smiren film shoot (the film premiered at last year's Sofia Film Fest and will be in theaters starting February 10), and they started talking about their shared interest in collecting film and photo archives. Stoyanov had received many 8mm reels over the last few years as part of the donations to his archive, but never found the right context in which to show or use them. "We decided to do a screening where we could see what kind of footage I have, what he has, and that's how it all got started," Stoyanov says.
How does a reel become a file? "Usually the material is in poor condition, and it can be damaged even more with each screening," Kevork Vanlyan says. The team first looks at recordings made on 8- or 16-millimeter film (less often on the wider format Super 8-millimeter cameras, which came out in the 1960s and were not very common in Bulgaria). They take pictures of what they see using a smartphone, annotate the various details, and store the reels with interesting thematic or visual content in a kind of golden fond. Restoration involves cleaning the film, splicing the tape and processing it through a scanner that photographs the tape frame by frame so that the content can be digitized. The process is slow – four minutes on tape take one hour to digitize.
What’s on tape
Kevork says they haven’t found “anything shocking" in what they have viewed so far, but there have been "curious details." The oldest film they have was shot on 9.5mm (the first home movie format available), dates back to the early 1930s and shows places like Hisarya and Bansko. Most of what they have collected so far was shot in the 1970s. This type of family movie, which could last up to 20 minutes, eventually disappeared with the advent of video cassettes (VHS) in the late 1980s.
While working on the Voev movie, Neda searched for found footage from that period and became acquainted with the rest of the team. One of the first items they worked on together was a peculiar find – an archive whose creator titled it simply as "Rado Films." It was extremely difficult to figure out where the footage was shot; in spite of the Bulgarian inscription "35 years of victory over fascism,” everything else, from building facades to garbage stations, pointed to the Komi region of the USSR, where a lot of Bulgarians worked in the logging industry. The “Rado Films” archive consists almost entirely of observations from a balcony capturing what little happened in courtyards of the apartment buildings. "I imagine Rado as this very bored teenager," Kevork says.
Other curious recordings document Bulgarian doctors examining animals in Egypt, and or a family's travels in Western Europe and the U.S. The only indication that the filmmakers are Bulgarian is that a Bulgarian embassy makes a brief appearance on screen. Recently, the Club posted a video on Instagram of an elderly man sarcastically mimicking Todor Zhivkov's New Year's speech.
In the process of dating these films, the differences between Eastern and Western societies during this period come to light. In the West, Super-8 had already become more common, while Bulgarians were still using the older eight-millimeter cameras. "When we digitize the material and are able to pause the footage, we often orient ourselves by the signs. A common snag is that certain clothing styles, like trousers and dresses, which we nowadays associate with 70s fashion, were worn in Bulgaria in the 80s," says Neda.
According to them, these fragmentary moments reveal things about our national character. The German found footage they’ve seen involves carefully composed shots, long panoramas, a certain sense of solitude and contemplation, whereas Bulgarian films are often quite literal, direct, people are always in the frame, and you can often tell that someone wants to be filmed in a certain setting so they can show the footage to others later.
"Home movies are about trivial things – children, holidays, vacations. But the personal perspective can sometimes make them very special," Neda says. "The fact that eight-millimeter cameras weren’t very popular in Bulgaria means that the people who were shooting these films really knew what they were doing, there was a certain experimental spirit, attention to detail."
As they try to compile an archive that is, after all, partially destroyed and difficult to collect because of how few cameras were available in the country back then, they also notice certain trends from the period. The people who are capturing moments from their lives on film are quite deft at using the cameras, they have an eye for detail, they are creative and knowledgeable enough to set up home labs. This is evidenced by the many publications aimed at cinephiles in that period. Another thing that surprised them is that some of the old home movie projectors are extremely complicated to use.
The very fact that Bulgaria was under the influence of another market altogether also seems like a topic worth further exploration.
In November, the team attended the annual InEdits conference in Saint-Etienne, France, which is dedicated to European amateur film archives, and the responses to their project further motivated them – they were the only representatives from Eastern Europe, and the typical camera and film brands used by Bulgarians at the time (Soviet and Czechoslovak Zenit, Quartz, Admira, Sema, and Orvo models) also attracted the curiosity of collectors.
How can one enter the Kino Club Super 8? Your best chance is to run into them on the street and ask when their next meeting is, though their first public events are starting soon: on February 1 at 6:30 pm at Bobbina (5A Triaditsa Street) they will screen a special selection of films. Despite their important mission, Kevork suspects that "it all probably seems a bit nuts."
The first public screening of the Kino Club Super 8 is on February 1 at 6:30 pm at Bobbina. More at @kinoclubsuper8 and kinoclubsuper8.com. If you have footage you'd like to share, you can email them at email@example.com