As a small-scale encapsulation of the biggest political issue in modern-day Europe, Tonislav Hristov's Bulgaria-Finland co-production The Good Postman has ongoing topicality on its side. Carefully calibrated for wide consumption, this wryly amusing portrait of a sleepy hamlet on the Bulgaria-Turkey border — where a mayoral election revolves around differing attitudes to Middle Eastern refugees — bowed in competition at Amsterdam's IDFA and will vie for the World Documentary prize at Sundance.
Conventional in form and intermittently engaging in content, this fly-on-the-wall examination of human foibles and prejudices does little to stand out in a crowded documentary scene. Despite its widescreen cinematography, the latest outing from prolific Hristov (2011's Rules of Single Life; 2014's Love and Engineering) may play best as a TV proposition after the inevitable bookings at festivals focusing on human rights themes.
The main focus is on middle-aged postman Ivan, a self-effacing but generally popular figure among his neighbors in the small settlement of Golyam Dervent (dubbed "Great Dervent" in the opening titles). Located in spectacular hilly countryside, Golyam Dervent is often the first European Union outpost encountered by those fleeing turmoil in Syria and who traverse Turkey in search of safer political havens.
Keenly aware that his village has become heavily depopulated in the decades since the fall of Bulgarian communism, Ivan's solution is to welcome the Syrians and encourage them to move into the area's many empty properties. He stands in the mayoral election, against seldom-seen incumbent Vesa and a rather more noisily charismatic rival who dresses like a superannuated rock star and expounds a Russophile desire to revive supposedly discredited ideas on a local level. ("Under communism we had everything," bemoans one senior citizen. "Now we have nothing.")
Hristov and co-editor Nikolai Hartmann devote most of the picture's running time to the campaigns mounted by Ivan and his rival — the latter for some reason remains conspicuously nameless until very late in the day, when his moniker is revealed by the returning officer.
The results of the election cast doubt on Hristov and Hartmann's editorial priorities — imagine the bemusement if some documentarian chronicling the U.S. 2016 presidential race spent as much time on Jill Stein and Gary Johnson as Hillary Clinton.
There's the strong suspicion that the "real" stories behind the electoral shenanigans in Golyam Dervent eluded Hristov and company, who struggle to balance doing justice to their transparently decent protagonist and sketching the wider contexts in which he operates.
As a technical package, meanwhile, The Good Postman is slick enough. Orlin Ruevski's visuals find deep, rich colors at every turn; their widescreen format excels at capturing the splendidly rugged countryside but proves not so well suited for more intimate material, when each wobble of the tripod-free camera becomes distractingly magnified. The bittersweet aspects of this drolly mournful tale, meanwhile, are hand-holdingly underlined by Petar Dundakov's woodwind-heavy Middle East-inflected score.
Production companies: Making Movies, Soul Food
Director-screenwriter: Tonislav Hristov
Producer: Kaarle Aho
Cinematographer: Orlin Ruevski
Editors: Nikolai Hartmann, Tonislav Hristov
Composer: Petar Dundakov
Venue: IDFA (feature-length competition)
Sales: CAT&Docs, Paris (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In Bulgarian, Russian
No Rating, 82 minutes