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Article 216: An interactive digital experience exloring Bulgaria's queer history

Article 216 is a digital experience that combines film, music and visual art to tell the story of the LGBTQ+ community in Bulgaria.

Love for the homeland and a sentence from the 1896 Penal Law inspired the project's creator Borislav to present Bulgarians with a "different" sexual orientation in a new light. In a modern and dynamic website, images fly across the screen over music written especially for the project. Traditional 19th-century motifs that we are used to seeing in black and white become intersected with color and together offer an alternative view of the queer Bulgarians of that era. On the one hand, Article 216 speaks to heterosexual Bulgarians, some of whom believe that a "different" sexual orientation is something imported from abroad in the new times. The project shows that this is not the case through local examples from antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the late 19th century.

Article 216 also addresses those people who are made to feel less Bulgarian because of who they love. Borislav recreates the images of our gay ancestors, but this time instead of being persecuted and punished, they are free to love each other and be themselves. The author's hope is that the descendants of these people will see that they too are part of the fabric of Bulgaria, and that they too deserve a place on the horo (a traditional dance). Article 216 calls to restore this erased chapter of Bulgaria's history. The sources are out there - the hidden love letters, secret photos, and forgotten files.

Borislav is joined in the journey through time and alternate realities by Kosta Karakashyan (Studio Karakashyan) as producer, Boris Urumov as cinematographer, Dobromir Kisyov, C-Mo, Sirma Kuncheva and Rostislav Schipochky with music and Antonia Kundakova, Ahmet Ismail, and (again) Sirma Kuncheva as actors.

We catch up with Borislav, to find a little more about this incredibly important project.

Why this project? Why now?

I feel most comfortable with expressing myself through art so this is also the direction the project took. It is a personal endeavour, because my young self needed to hear this years ago. Maybe there’s a young Borislav, struggling with his sexuality who’s going to see the project and feel a bit better.

Did you find anything unexpected when discovering Bulgaria's LGBTQ+ history?

Sadly, the historical sources that are available are extremely scarce and it's impossible to paint the full picture of Bulgaria's LGBTQ+ history. Surprising to me was Article 216 itself. I stumbled upon it online and it took me by surprise that it is written black on white that queer people have existed on these lands since long time ago. This fact goes against the notion that other-than-straight orientations are a product of our modern times.

What is the attitude towards queer people in Bulgaria today, and how has this changed from historical perceptions?

As with a lot of other countries in the world, Bulgaria also has a pretty big divide between those who embrace queer people and those who vehemently oppose them. Of course there are those in the middle who don’t have an opinion. My project tries to address all three groups in different ways.

The process of fully accepting LGBTQ+ people in Bulgarian society is not linear—even last year, around the elections, some right-wing politicians tried to win votes by playing on the fear of queer people—but the overall trend is positive, I think. I hope.

There is perception in Eastern European countries that queer people don't exist in their societies. And if there are some queer people, they are a minority. What would you say to this?

I don't think Bulgarians don’t see that queer people exist in the society. Even the homophobes don’t deny that. Their most popular talking points are that homosexuality is a product of "The New World Order" and of The West, and that it has been imported into our country by the media and entertainment industry or non-governmental organisations. To paraphrase some of them: The European Union is trying to break our traditional culture.

All of this is a conspiracy theory that unfortunately sounds believable to many. What I have to say on the issue is inside of the project—the lyrics, the scenes, the drawings. To sum it up for our readers: queer people have existed throughout history all over the world, including in Bulgaria and there are some evidence to prove that. My wish is for more sources to be uncovered so that we can reassemble this erased part of history.

In Bulgaria, is there a desire for a European style future?

Definitely. From where I stand, it seems that the majority is striving to achieve what some European countries already have; to have a tolerant, modern society. But this is another issue that showcases the divide within society. There’s a group of people that romanticises Russia and how the government is running things there.

Do you feel pressure from Russia in Bulgarian society?

There is a common understanding that there are foreign governments that try to influence public opinion through social media bots, paid commenters, and fake news. I’m not competent enough to say where this pressure is coming from, but many would say Russia is one of the main players.

What would you like to tell the world about Bulgarian queer history?

The main takeaway is that Bulgarian queer history exists. That’s not something unique or special, but it’s important to remember, because queer history is world history. Every country, tribe, and community has it, because gay and trans people are born everywhere. Also, the apparent lack of queer history is history in and of itself as it is most certainly a symptom of systematic erasure and oppression against queer people.

What message would you like to portray of queer people and the queer situation in Bulgaria today?

I would like queer people in Bulgaria to feel inspired and continue the good fight. Hopefully the project shows them that they too have ancestors of whom they can be proud.

What are your hopes for the future?

We need to dream of a better tomorrow in which we are all free to live authentically and love freely. Half of the project Article 216 is about that—recreating the image of our queer ancestors and showing them in a positive light. Instead of prosecuted, they are comfortable and free. We need to strive for liberty. For us and for those who were here before.

"Article 216" is also supported by Single Step Foundation, whose accelerator for digital projects on social topics Digital Indie Lab supported the first steps of the project.

Explore Article 216, here.

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