Directed by: Tonislav Hristov
Written by: Tonislav Hristov, Lubomir Tsvetkov
Produced by: Kaarle Aho, Kai Nordberg, Andrea Stanoeva, Tonislav Hristov
Cinematography by: Orlin Ruevski
Editing by: Nikolai Hartmann
Music by: Petar Doundakov
Official Selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival
When filmmaker Tonislav Hristov began shooting his new documentary, The Good Postman, he could hardly have guessed the powerful fear that international viewers would feel when one of his characters vows to handle a micro-crisis “in a Putin way.” The film had its world premiere at IDFA last November, a week after the election of the big new boss in America. Yet this co-production from acclaimed Finnish company Making Movies – whose The Look of Silence is among the most accomplished and complicated films of my lifetime – and Hristov’s Soul Food (with Andrea Stanoeva) is destined to become more impactful for domestic audiences with each passing day in the coming era. No surprise, then, that it was awarded a North American premiere berth at the Sundance Film Festival on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration.
Its topicality for our country draws from the conflict between Ivan, the titular postman, and his neighbors on the brink of their village’s mayoral election. Known as “The Great Gate,” the town has a voting population of 38 Bulgarian elders, some living without basic human services on fifty Euro a month. We first see Ivan campaigning door-to-door on a controversial, progressive concept: he plans to buoy the failing local economy by allowing international refugees to stay in abandoned Soviet homes nearby. Ivan is certain that if the Syrians and Turkish (who, in stunning footage, we see crossing Turkey’s border in small groups each night) are encouraged to raise their families in the village, they will help rebuild the once-vibrant community. But his competitors, including the notoriously lazy current mayor and a megalomaniacal, race-baiting Communist consider the refugees parasitic and dangerous to the culture. The latter promises to eject them and to make the village into “the way things used to be.” Stop me if something sounds familiar to you.
On the heels of Gianfranco Rosi’s revered but overstimulating Mediterranean migrant doc Fire at Sea, the story crafted by Hristov and editor Nikolai Hartmann here feels more measured and politically economical – that is to say, it does not try to raise the viewer’s hackles on the subject of the immigration crisis. More pronounced tonally is the creepy stench of expiration that pervades The Good Postman: it is a coffin of a film, shepherding a historic microculture to its imminent death. Try as Ivan might to suggest cures for the cancer of aging that he sees in his community, few of his lifelong friends seem amenable to his pleas. And in Hartmann’s swift, painfully good editing, we are able to feel the postman fading into himself with resignation. The mayoral race is both subject and distraction, a Trojan Horse story that allows the filmmakers to pit passion against power-hungriness, honesty against bureaucracy. Eventually, as with the best nonfiction films, Hristov and his crew’s presence fades away completely by the time Ivan’s rival hosts a barbecue-and-karaoke campaign stop (though only his mother promises to vote for him.)
Along the way, cinematographer Orlin Ruevski maintains a careful distance from the goings-on, only stepping into the light when Swiss border patrol block the desperate migrants. These sequences recall the border crossings in Matthew Heinemann’s Oscar-nominated Cartel Land, if only because the behavior of the Swiss guards is the equal-opposite of American Minutemen: calm, resolute, patient, and forgiving. Such is the attitude of the filmmakers, too, who don’t shy away from moments of irresolution for their protagonist. Ivan is a good listener and a friendly face, much more so than the distant current mayor; in choosing the innocuous postman as their subject, the director and producers were clever.
A Bulgarian filmmaker from Finland whose work includes the TriBeCa selection Love & Engineering and Karlovy Vary documentary Once Upon a Dream – A Journey to the Last Spaghetti Western, Hristov’s partnership with the Making Movies team suggests his talent, but the title of this film is a big mistake. Before The Good Postman, it was called The Mayor of Nowhere, a phrase which lampooned the situation in the village as a race for jack-shit. What good is political power in a village of 38 feeble residents? Rather than use lens flares, hypervisual landscape photography, and a baroque score to portray the migrant situation in all its hellishness – a feat that Rosi’s film accomplished masterfully enough – Hristov and Hartmann, with help from composer Petar Doundakov, allow the inherent comedy of the village’s collapse to come through. Ivan’s intentions are serious, but his competitors are humorous extremes, one power-starved and the other offensively lazy. Truly, to be the Mayor of the Great Gate would be like leading a deserted island. The best solution out of Sundance would be for Hristov and his team to return to their first title, a more courageous and more accurate suggestion of this film’s real strength: its funniness.
Hristov, who also directs fiction, seems capable of taking on wider-ranging material should the right script be involved (he wrote this one with Lubomir Tsvetkov). Given that and the Making Movies banner, one might assume that The Good Postman is guaranteed a wide-ranging festival tour, and will perhaps shoot some much-needed juice into the burgeoning Finnish and Bulgarian film industries. But regardless of whether or not viewers will be riveted by the prospect of a tragically funny immigrant crisis documentary shot in small-town Bulgaria is up for debate, this is a project with unexpectedly powerful resonance on the very day this review is published. Any citizen of the so-called Western World would do well to be as patient with Hristov as he was with his subjects.