2016 IDFA Interview: Tonislav Hristov (Director- The Good Postman)

A tiny village on the Bulgarian border with Turkey fights against humanity’s failure.

“The Great Gate” is a small, Bulgarian village, close to the border with Turkey. In its glorious days, it had hundreds of residents. Nowadays, it counts less than 40, with the majority being elderly. As it is ironically stated by its name, the village has been a gate to Europe for the refugees coming from the Middle East war zone.

What drew Tonislav Hristov‘s attention to the Great Gate is the story of Ivan, the village’s postman and a uniquely kind soul. The Good Postman is a story that will have your faith in humanity restored.

Hristov ‘s son was only a couple of months old when the world was shocked by the picture of a dead baby boy found in the Turkish coast:

It was a really bad moment, it hit me really hard. Not because of the incident itself, but because of the reaction Bulgarian people had- especially the youngest generation. “Why do these people come here?,” they asked. They forget that it was the same with the war in the Balkans, 15 years ago. That was when I moved to Finland and most of my friends there were coming from former Yugoslavian countries. I knew what they went through to get there and that reaction made me angry. I started looking for a story to make a documentary and try and understand this apathy. 

During his research, he came across some exciting material: some old ladies, living in a small village close to the border, were welcoming everyone. As there is no real net, no real border in the territory, the refugee waves coming in are rather big. With the help of friends, he went to that village. The first person he happened to meet was the postman.

I asked Ivan, the postman, to introduce me to those ladies, because I was very interested in what was lying behind their mentality, welcoming unknown refugees. Some of them had similar stories, when during WWII they had to cross the borders under adverse situations. It was something personal to them.I thought there was something there. I started going to the village and noticed how everyone trusted the postman. He was the person they talked to every day, as he was delivering their mail. I learnt that he is running for mayor and I had a plot. I asked him what was the situation, what were his ideas, his chances, and that is how the decreased population came up. He said there is work needed to be done, as nothing worked and the empty houses needed to be fixed, but there was so much land people didn’t take care of. The refugees could come and we could provide them with a safe environment, a home and land. I was surprised by the supporting reaction of the older people. 

Ivan was not running alone, though. His main competitor was a pro-communism candidate, who was using heavy propaganda.

He was always around, drunk and annoying. I asked what was happening and my friend showed me a poster. He was also running for mayor, with the support of the communist party. I developed an interest in him. He is actually very clever and nice, and he had his one motivation, he had his own naive dream of bringing communism back for his own reasons. However, I am surprised by people wanting to bring communism back. Why does Eastern Europe get more and more pro-Russian? None of these people has lived in communism, why are they talking about what a better time it was? We had jobs- that is, to some extend, true, but is also kind of bullshit! People were thrown in jail for making inappropriate jokes! 

Indeed, the western world has been polarizing in the two ends, left and right. There is, without doubt, a rise of the extremes. What happens in that small village is a reflection of what is happening in the world.

When we started, two years ago, we didn’t know what would happen, with the American elections and Trump. It seems that this little village of 40 people is a picture of what is happening all over the world with these divisions. There is so much ‘cheap’ propaganda, but there are so many people who need it. They need to believe that someone will come and fix their problems without having to do anything. Ivan’s rival says that everyone is going to have three cars, well paid jobs, free internet, food. This is what everyone dreams of, but it simply does not happen like this.

Was he then just delusional, or was he just doing a fail attempt of propaganda?

He talks so much about the internet because he has a son living in Ukraine, whom he hasn’t seen in 25 years. That is the only way to connect with his child. His son was getting married and he couldn’t afford going to Ukraine. He has his own motive and I like that about him, I respect it. For the older generation, the internet means nothing… Maybe it means something to some of them, who have kids living far away… To him it meant communication.

Making a documentary on a subject that has become so personal can be tricky. Creators are always prepared to face any kind of challenge: the budget may be little, their aesthetics may be difficult to define or simply the light may not be cooperating.

The whole project took me 2,5 years. I was not sure whether it would be a feature length documentary. I had enough material for a TV film. I went back after the elections, to see what life was like. That is the strong turning point of the film. The budget was not big enough and I did not want to blow it. I have done films for the Finnish television; if it turned out to be a TV documentary, it would be OK. Thankfully, there was so much more when I went back and we made it to a feature length documentary. 

I make documentaries the Scandinavian way: the dramaturgy, the plot points,  the lack of a narrator explaining what we are seeing. I also don’t have a special plan of making them. You never know what will happen so the documentary builds up on its own. It is a good way of telling a story.

People have been reacting positively to The Good Postman. As Hristov says “it is a universal story.” We can all see our cities, countries, continents reflecting in this village.

My intention was to show people’s perception of nowadays’ problems. I tried to put into my perspective. I tried to imagine how would people react if it was me and my boy. We don’t understand that we are on the other side. I felt really welcome when I migrated to Finland 15 years ago, but how would I feel had I done it today, with my child? This is my story, one way or another. It looks like I am doing OK in this profession and I wanted to say that we need to give other people a chance to do their life and have their share.

 As a millennial who tries to thicken her skin against our society’s cruelty, I am pleasantly surprised by Hristov ‘s attitude. Are there still positively driven people in a world where everyone seems like they are ready to fight to the death for what they consider their entitlement?

I do have faith in humanity. This is why in my film the main characters are not really bad persons, they are only people being in complicated situations. That is why also the film is light and open end. Every day we see horrible things happening. It is quite scary. I believe that the good will prevail and that we will learn from the mistakes we have made. It is recent history, we don’t have to go back. It is hard, but I believe that still in Europe good will prevail.

Tonislav Hristov is doing more than OK in his profession. He successfully demonstrated all these emotions in a sweet, touching film. The combination of these amazing human beings, the wonderful score and the beautiful colors put The Good Postman among our favorite IDFA 2016 films. Finally, it is Hristov ‘s kind of mentality that creative industries- and the world- needs right now. Before we oppose to the alien, we should think what would it be like to be on the other side.