The Bulgarian documentary movement has another small gem to flaunt with Tonislav Hristov’s warm, witty exploration of gender, tradition and togetherness, “Soul Food Stories.” Shot in the southwestern village of Satovcha, population c. 2,000, “Stories” interpolates scenes of food preparation with more masculine activities (like sitting around) to dryly comment on the male-female divide, also showing how Orthodox Christians, Muslims and evangelical Roma can live side by side, united by a shared past and good cooking. Hristov’s gently ironic eye and uncondescending feel for the ridiculous will play well at fests awakening to the abundant pleasures of new Bulgarian nonfiction.
“Everything bad comes from TV and the capital, Sofia” is the message of a village elder, decrying the pernicious effect of the boob tube on womenfolk ostensibly taught to argue with their husbands. Feminism, if the word even exists, is an evil concept in Satovcha, a place almost out of time where women seem largely relegated to kitchenwork. The way the men talk of women’s place is so outrageous it’s almost cute in its fossilized patriarchy, yet as always, there’s more going on than the stronger sex cares to admit.
The village’s multiethnic makeup allows Hristov to address complex issues of past and present, politics, race and religion observationally, without extraneous summation, although the docu’s origins lie in the helmer’s collaboration with a Finnish couple who have come to observe the town’s ethnographic identity. The two are seen talking via a translator with women as they make the savory pastry banitsa, a labor-intensive ritual apparently designed to keep them in the kitchen for as long as possible.
Despite the miniscule population, the village plays host to an Orthodox church a mosque, and an evangelical church proselytizing to a largely uninterested Roma community; perhaps the congregants appear bored because the Korean pastor speaks to them in broken English, only fitfully translated. Why the minister and his wife chose missionary work in Satovcha isn’t clear (auds familiar with Andrey Paounov’s “The Boy Who Was a King” may remember another Korean couple in the Bulgarian stix), though their presence adds a touch of the absurd to an already amusing panorama.
Beneath the geniality lie more serious reflections on Bulgaria’s communist past, its difficult transition to democracy after 1989, and the isolation of rural communities with a phenomenal rate of attrition by young people seeking a future. That these ethno-religious groups live side by side with apparently little friction is encouraging, yet the Roma don’t appear well integrated, and the only rumbles from the women seem to be a push to expand their weekly use of the village clubhouse. Hristov has no problem getting the men to talk, especially seniors from across the political spectrum, hashing out government policy, religion, tolerance and even homosexuality; the women, however, rarely venture opinions oncamera. But then again, they barely leave the hearth.
Hristov shows all the essentials in vignette shots, maximizing atmosphere in each beautifully composed frame without overdoing it. Much of his oblique commentary comes from the counterpoint of his expert editing, such as the juxtaposition of jovial banitsa making with the village imam explaining that women’s tears make them unfit to enter a mosque during a funeral, or women chopping cucumbers edited with a Communist Party leader expounding on the superiority of atheism. Tempests in teacups often sweep onto national stages, yet the comforting necessity of food preparation and its communal adjunct, eating, weather every man-made storm.