Nevena Kokanova: The First Lady of Bulgarian Cinema

18.06.2012 § Leave a comment

Nevéna Kókanova (Невена Коканова) was a woman of extraordinary beauty, talent and grace, who bore the laurels of stardom with humility while her face spoke volumes of love, loss and passion. But, as is often the case, the story of Bulgaria’s brightest star is really one of tumult, forbidden love and politics, a fascinating journey from beginning to end.

With material from the book “Nevena Kokanova” by Georgi Toshev, released by Galeria Impuls.

Nevena, born in Dupnitsa on December 12, 1938, is keenly aware of the inequities of the world from a very young age. Her father Bogdan is a military officer in the Kingdom of Bulgaria. When the Communist-led Fatherland Front government takes power in the 40’s, it consolidates its victory by persecuting the government and military elite of wartime Bulgaria as “enemies of the people”. Her father spends several years in the Belene labour camp. Even after his release, the stigma of being an “enemy’s” daughter will haunt her throughout her life.

With her family unable to live in Sofia, Nevena spends her childhood in the village of Kumarica, where she draws relentlessly and develops a passion for acting. After being fascinated by tales of a film shoot happening nearby, she is recruited as an extra and given a single line in the 1956 film “Две победи” (“Two Victories”). The experience is the final push that convinces the 18-year old Economics Institute graduate to audition for the National Institute for Theatrical Art (VITIZ) in Sofia.

In her audition, she gives a contemporary, unorthodox take on the study “woman sees a mouse in the room”, which runs counter to the theatrical dogma of the time. That, possibly coupled with the stain on her father’s name, contributes to her rejection. Director Yanaki Stoyanov comes to her aid in her moment of discouragement, offering her an apprentice position in his troupe at the Yambol theatre. Nevena begins her stage career with classical ingenue roles, playing a bare-footed Juliet to great acclaim, fascinating critics with her unpolished, organic talent.

As Juliet in Yambol

She is cast in her first major screen role opposite Lyubomir Sharlandjiev in the 1957 film “Години за любов (“Years of Love”). Lyubomir falls in love with her at first sight, and the 19-year old, inexperienced Nevena marries her first on-screen romantic partner. Her husband is not only an actor, he’s a director. He directs Nevena in a multitude of plays, first in Gabrovo, then in Ruse, all the while acting as her unofficial acting tutor, constantly honing her skill. In Ruse, they live in one of the make-up rooms of the theatre for a while due to a housing shortage.

Nevena with her husband Lyubomir Sharlandjiev

But Nevena is about to be propelled into stardom.

The screen adaptation of the novel “Тютюн” (“Tobacco”) is a long and dramatic story. Author Dimitar Dimov is under tremendous pressure to rewrite portions of his work, to soften the impact of the characters within, while director Nikola Korabov has the uneasy task of reducing a 1500-page novel to a 150-page script. Kokanova has been in a few films already and Korabov hopes to have her play Irina, the female lead – a strong, independent, self-aware and ultimately self-destructive character. There is pressure from the Artistic Council of Cinematography to have another actress cast. Nevena is young, inexperienced, unschooled, provincial, and an undesirable to the Communist Party, which at the time exerts a tremendous amount of censorship and influence over anything produced in the country. There is even talk of bringing in a foreign actress to play Irina, but Dimov is against it. In the end, despite a tremendous amount of difficulty and at great risk to his career, Korabov secures Kokanova for the role. She has reservations herself, feeling unequal to the task of filling the shoes of the strong and experienced literary character that is Irina, but she is made for the screen and she becomes more confident with every shooting day that passes.

Nevena in “Tobacco”

“Tobacco” is presented at Cannes in 1963, with giants such as Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Gregory Peck and Burt Lancaster in attendance. French poet Andre Morois kisses her hand on the red carper with the words “You affected me!” The criticism and envy levelled at her is quelled. The tremendous success of “Tobacco” makes her a household name in Bulgaria, but causes a period of stagnation in her cinematic development. For the next decade, she is typecast into one version of Irina or another.

Nevena as the alluring Irina in “Tobacco”

To continue developing, she commits to the stage, joining the Satirical Theatre alongside Georgi Parcalev, Neycho Popov, Stoyanka Mutafova, Grigor Vachkov, under the gentle tutelage of artistic director Boyan Danovski, who ensures an interesting range of roles for her. She partners with Grigor Vachkov on stage in “Romeo, Juliet and petrol”, and with theatrical giant Apostol Karamitev in “Warsaw melody” at Theatre 199, citing these two experiences as effortless and wonderful on-stage partnerships.

Her second iconic film role will be anything but effortless.

Vulo Radev, having been director of photography in several of her films, makes his directorial debut with a film version of Emilian Stanev’s novel “Крадецът на праскови” (“The Peach-Garden Trespasser”). Set just after WWI, the film is about a Serbian prisoner of war who sneaks into a Bulgarian colonel’s private garden, meeting his wife there by chance and starting a torrid love affair with her. Nevena’s beauty and her recent success fans the flames of envy and Radev has to put his reputation on the line and assume a tremendous financial risk to cast her. Moreover, she is in the middle of a theatrical engagement in the Satirical theatre in Sofia under director Metodi Andonov, at the same time that she is desperately needed to film “The Peach-Garden Trespasser” in Veliko Tarnovo. With Andonov’s help, Kokanova manages to shoot for the film while still performing nightly in Sofia. Despite the tremendous risk of her being fired from the theatre, she is driven by car to Veliko Tarnovo (some 4 hours) after every performance in Sofia, filming until noon the following day, when she is driven back to be on stage again at 8 pm. Needless to say, this puts a tremendous physical strain on the young actress, who has very little time for sleep.

Nevena with Rade Markovic in “The Peach-Garden Trespasser”

Moreover, while shooting the incredibly emotional romantic scenes in “The Peach-Garden Trespasser”, her and Serbian actor Rade Markovic fall madly in love with each other. Like him, she is already married, but the passion of this attraction is all-consuming and undeniable, the burning love of a young woman who’d committed to her husband when she was barely more than a girl. Torn between love and duty and in the spotlight of every wagging, jealous tongue in Sofia, Nevena and Rade steal furtive moments with each other whenever they can. A brief reprieve comes during the presentation of the film to the Venice film festival in 1964. The two co-stars spend 15 blissful days in one of the world’s most romantic cities, anonymous by day and acclaimed as a terrific on-screen couple at night.

Vulo Radev, Nevena Kokanova and Rade Markovic at the Venice Film Festival

Their affair burns bright over the next seven years, causing Rade to leave his wife and Nevena’s understanding, but proud husband Lyubomir to request that she choose between them. In the end, Nevena’s sense of duty wins out, while the whirlwind affair comes to a close.

By the end of the 60’s, Kokanova is the most prolific Bulgarian film actress and a fashion icon. She’s offered four roles in East Germany and accepts a terrific role in Italian director Liliana Cavani’s “Galileo” in 1969. Her participation in a Western film further incurs the wrath of the Communist Party, and she is faced with the option of defecting and establishing a career for herself beyond the Iron Curtain. However, faced with the prospect of resetting her life and losing contact with everyone she loves back home, she decides to stay in Bulgaria.

Nevena in “The Weddings of King Ioan Asen”

The next decade, spent on stage and on screen, is a happy one for Kokanova, resulting in some of her best work. She appears in films such as “Момчето си отива” (“The Boy Turns Man”) (1972) opposite Filip Trifonov, “Сватбите на Иван Асен” (“The Weddings of King Ioan Asen”) (1975), the last film appearance of Apostol Karamitev and “Дами канят” (“Ladies’ Choice”) (1980), an ensemble comedy alongside Stefan Danailov, Tsvetana Maneva, Dorotea Toncheva and Maria Statulova. However, this decade ends with a crushing blow. In July of 1979, while directing “Трите смъртни гряха” (“Three Deadly Sins”), her husband Lubomir dies of a heart attack. Devastated, she occupies herself with caring for their daughter Teodora and completes the film in his stead. A few months later, in March of 1980, her good friend and beloved actor Grigor Vachkov also passes away, sending her into an emotional tailspin and an artistic drought that lasts into the mid-80’s.

With Filip Trifonov in “The Boy Turns Man”

A chance at a comeback in a 1986 Satirical theatre production gives her hope. But the artistic directors of the production take issue with her, discouraging her in rehearsal and eventually replacing her on opening night despite a tremendous dress-rehearsal performance, disappointing thousands of theatre-goers and leading to a mass refund of tickets. Regardless of their motives, this rejection hurts Nevena deeply.

In the stagnation and standstill that descends on the arts after the fall of Communism in 1989, and without any work prospects, she retreats to a village in the Balkan mountains, rebuilding a small cottage and claiming sanctuary there. The first lady of Bulgarian cinema tends to her garden, milks her goats, cooks, cleans and entertains in her Balkan retreat. It is there she transitions from the passions of her life to that moment to the serenity of the spiritual. A serenity she will have to face before her time.

Snubbed by the big theatres, Kokanova continues to act, marking a belated 60th birthday in 1999 with a performance in the tiny 200-seat theatre of theatre “Revival”. A gigantic cake awaits her at the end of the show, with Bulgarian president Petar Stoyanov, a slew of actor friends such as Stoyanka Mutafova, Maria Statulova, Kosta Conev, Filip Trifonov, and 600 fans crowding into the small space. Days later, she is honoured in the Hall of Cinema by a concert in her honour. Highlight reels of her great movie roles are shown and toasts are made to her health. Unbeknownst to everyone except her, these toasts are futile.

Nevena with legendary actor Georgi Kaloyanchev

She has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer several years earlier. By the end of 1999, she is a shadow of her former self, but ready to face her final challenge, her ultimate role, with grace and resolve. Nevena Kokanova, the radiant, lovely, loved, irreplaceable first lady of Bulgarian cinema, died on June 3, 2000 at the age of 62, immortalized on the silver screen and in the heart of a nation.


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