Accessibility links

Breaking News

Was Mom A Communist Informer? How A Film Tore A Bulgarian Family Apart

A still from I See Red People shows the filmmaker Bojina Panayotova (left) with her mother, Milena Makarius.
A still from I See Red People shows the filmmaker Bojina Panayotova (left) with her mother, Milena Makarius.

SOFIA -- At the end of I See Red People, a 2018 documentary that follows a young Bulgarian woman's search into her family's communist past, the mother of the filmmaker reprimands her daughter: "My truth," she says, "does not belong to you."

By that point, relations between director Bojina Panayotova and her mother, Milena Makarius, are at rock bottom following the discovery, over the course of filming, that her mother was listed in the state archives as a collaborator of the communist-era secret police.

The cover of The Janna Dossier.
The cover of The Janna Dossier.

Now, four years after the movie was released, Makarius is telling her side of the story with the publication of a book, The Janna Dossier, a reference to the code name given to her by her handler in Bulgaria's State Security (DS), the country's notorious and powerful secret police.

"The book is not just a response to the film, it is provoked by the film," Makarius told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

In the book, Makarius, a scholar of medieval French literature who teaches at the University of Limoges in France, writes that she is searching for answers to questions she didn't ask herself before her daughter's film -- both about herself and the people around her.

Eight years old when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Panayotova moved to France shortly afterward with her academic mother and painter father. Returning to Bulgaria several times in the 2010s, the film documents Panayotova's relentless questioning of her family's past under communism, which culminates in the discovery of her mother's file.

A highly sensitive topic in the former communist country, Bulgaria's secret police archives were not opened until 2006, much later than many of its Central and Eastern European neighbors. While the opening of the state archives was welcomed by many as a tool to unearth crimes committed under the communist regime, others feared that too many people could be falsely implicated, largely due to the secret police's habit of inflating the number of collaborators and informers.

As a student in the late 1970s in Sofia, Makarius worked as a translator, regularly meeting with foreigners, in particular at the French Embassy. Her handler, a man Makarius says she thought was just a friend who she would have coffee with once a month, had registered her as a collaborator with the code name Janna. When confronted in the film, the former secret policeman said it was normal for them to "invent agents" to pad out their collaborator networks, at least on paper.

"Disgusting," Makarius said in the documentary as she was shown her file.

The record does not contain anything else -- no details or times or things that Makarius was supposed to have done. It just stated that she was a collaborator, recruited on the grounds of patriotism.

It wasn't just the startling revelation that her mother might be a spy that led to tensions within the family, but Panayotova's unsparing desire to capture everything on film, even when the truth was unpalatable.

"Since these discoveries were made by the two of us together, making the film, within the film, I was very aware that if I withdrew [from the film] it would be…self-incriminating. It would be as if I was holding up a sign advertising my guilt," Makarius says.

WATCH: The trailer for I See Red People:

Both mother and daughter agreed that they would not meet without the camera on until the film was complete. But by the end of the movie, Makarius was upset, her patience worn thin, not wanting to talk to her daughter on Skype because she feared she would be recorded. The filmmaker's father, who is divorced from Makarius, accused his daughter of being fanatical and judgmental, likening her to a legendary communist pioneer who denounced his father to the KGB.

"There was no opportunity to pause -- this is where the movie stops and this is where life will now flow. There was no such possibility in practice," Makarius says.

Since these discoveries were made by the two of us together, making the film, within the film, I was very aware that if I withdrew [from the film] it would be…self-incriminating."
-- Milena Makarius

By taking part in her daughter's film, Makarius says she was forced to confront issues she had previously avoided.

"At the time when I lived, during socialism, I didn't think about it because I was young and I was busy with other things. I was living my youth," she says.

After she moved to France, she quickly forgot her life in Bulgaria.

"I turned my back on these things," she says. "This film made me go back into the past, already fully conscious…and somehow rethink everything."

For Makarius, a key theme that emerged during the making of the movie, and later when she was writing the book, was fear.

"I didn't know that I lived in fear," she says. "For the first time, I realized that I lived in a society where fear was part of the air that we breathed. It's so present that it is just taken for granted. You don't see it, it's inside you, not in front of your eyes."

In addition to the State Security file, Makarius also discovered the stories of relatives who suffered at the hands of the communist regime, details which she had never previously known.

To move forward, my generation has to confront this past, even if that makes us imperfect children and offended parents."
-- Bojina Panayotova

"For a reader, it is not only interesting to read another story of another victim of a totalitarian regime, but they will have the opportunity to see how someone faces these stories today, how they resonate in the consciousness of a woman like me," she says.

The film -- and by extension, Makarius's book -- sheds light on the generational differences in how Bulgarians regard the communist past.

"I know that your file is a trace of this time of submission and lies," Panayotova writes to her mother at the end of the film. "But to move forward, my generation has to confront this past, even if that makes us imperfect children and offended parents."

"I was surprised to see how well [the film] was received in France. One of the reasons was not so much that people didn't know about this country and totalitarianism, but exactly this [human] dimension, the dialogue between generations. [It questions whether this dialogue] is possible, how difficult and ambiguous it can be," says Makarius. "You can't say the mother is right or the daughter is right. This has always existed. It is perhaps universal."

At various points in the book, Makarius is critical of what she sees as her daughter's extreme approach to filmmaking. She is still undecided about her daughter's questions. On the one hand, nothing should be hidden, because then the next generations will be left in the dark.

"One cannot interrupt the transmission of memory and history," she says.

However, if one "just throws the truth around," it can be a very heavy burden, Makarius says. She recalls the thesis of Tsvetan Todorov, a Bulgarian historian, philosopher, and literary critic, who said that if the people who suffered the worst consequences of totalitarianism had told their children what happened to them, their children would not have been able to live their own lives.

"I don't think there's a single answer, but the question is interesting and asking it is important," says Makarius.