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As liberal voters on either side of the Atlantic reel from the vocal resurgence of aggressive far-right nationalism, it’s hardly a comfort to know that this political discord extends far beyond their borders — though seeing it reflected in unfamiliar regions does provide valuable insight into the human root of the division. For this reason, quite aside from its substantial aesthetic value, Tonislav Hristov’s remarkable documentary “The Good Postman” arrives at a time when it may well be called essential. A sad, searing and profoundly empathetic study of electoral process in a minute Bulgarian village split by opposing responses to the Syrian refugee crisis, Hristov’s richly lensed fifth feature is keenly and compassionately observed at a magnified grassroots level — but also functions as a disturbing microcosm of tensions simmering across its subjects’ country, and indeed continent. A competition standout at IDFA, this “Postman” should prepare for an extensive round of festival appointments.

The present-day influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa into Europe has understandably already proven a major point of interest to documentarians, with Gianfranco Rosi’s Berlinale winner “Fire at Sea” a justly celebrated standard-bearer for cinematic discussion of the issue. “The Good Postman” deserves to be considered alongside Rosi’s film, both for its artistry and for its exceptional listening skills. Like “Fire at Sea,” it’s a film that challenges our sympathies by giving voice to the supposedly “invaded” community, uncovering prejudice and generosity in equal measure, and not always in the social pockets you might expect.

Lines of political conflict, after all, can get crossed in a group of just forty-odd people — the total population of Great Dervent, a small, breathtakingly scenic but economically eroded rural settlement near the Turkish border. Short on discernible local activity beyond firewood collection and cemetery maintenance, the village is presided over with shrugging indifference by middle-aged female mayor Vesa — a veritable infant compared to most of her silver-haired constituents, whose children have long since fled for buzzier climes, many of them as migrant workers in Ukraine. (That some of their parents claim to feel threatened by the arrival of foreign settlers on their own turf is a painful irony the film calmly leaves viewers to consider.) “We’re doomed — the village is destroying itself,” one elderly woman observes. “We used to have a cinema, singers came, we danced. Now, I do nothing.”

Acting on such sentiment, progressive-minded local postman Ivan decides to run for mayor in the upcoming regional election — proposing to residents that welcoming refugees and permitting them to settle in the village’s many vacant, decaying homesteads represents their best chance at social and economic rejuvenation. While some of his oldest neighbors support the idea (“There will be children, they will laugh,” one notes with poignant hopefulness), it meets with resistance from others — notably a younger, unemployed hothead who decides to join the mayoral race, running a campaign that vaguely meshes communist doctrine with nationalist, ranks-closing sentiment. (A scene where he delivers an enthusiastic but muddled address with his back to an already meager audience, complete with droning Casio keyboard accompaniment, is the film’s most surreally bizarre, but Hristov never resorts to condescending small-town farce.)

With two wholly opposed male candidates nonetheless united against the barely visible incumbent mayor — who, when pressed, blandly confesses that she “doesn’t care” about the refugee question — “The Good Postman” plays out not just as thoughtful community portraiture, but as a fascinating, genuinely tense political drama. It’s no great stretch to parallel the small but significant faultlines in Great Dervent with ideological conflicts that recently saw Britain collectively vote to leave the European Union, or even with America’s alt-right elevation of Donald Trump.

It’d be stealing the film’s thunder to reveal the outcome, but regardless of the villagers’ fate, Hristov’s film exposes ugly anxieties and biogotry within the larger Bulgarian population. Excerpted newscasts on Ivan’s boxy, antiquated television set — the village has no internet, also deemed unimportant by the current mayor — reveal a wave of hostile “Bulgaria for Bulgarians” riots across the country, activated by media bias against refugees and Romani travelers. “I heard on the news that they’re bad people who kill Bulgarians,” one young girl confesses on camera, before expressing her own skepticism. “But maybe not everyone is bad.” Sensibly free of narration or audible questioning, “The Good Postman” doesn’t belabor any of its points, but the suggestion that it may take a generation or two to turn the tide hangs glumly in the air.

Elegantly structured in the mold of a narrative feature, the film aids the immersiveness of its storytelling with immaculate craftsmanship on all fronts. Orlin Ruevski’s painstakingly composed, often ravishing widescreen cinematography scrutinizes the storied, creviced faces of its human subjects as lovingly as it does their home’s enduring, dew-licked natural beauty: Far from needlessly prettifying this stern material, the camera offers a canny sense of why this hard-up region may still seem a land of plenty to those even less fortunate. Petar Dundakov’s solemnly lovely score, meanwhile, blends striking indigenous instrumentation with more universally familiar string-quartet sounds to appropriately border-blurring effect.

IDFA Film Review: ‘The Good Postman’

Reviewed at IDFA (competing), Nov. 22, 2016. Running time: 82 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary — Bulgaria-Finland) A Making Movies, Soul Food production in association with YLE, Avek, Bulgarian National Film Center, Finnish Film Foundation, BNT. (International sales: CAT&Docs, Paris.) Produced by Kaarle Aho, Kai Nordberg. Co-producers, Andrea Stanoeva, Tonislav Hristov.
  • Crew: Directed by Tonislav Hristov. Written by Hristov, Lubomir Tsvetkov. Camera (color, widescreen), Orlin Ruevski. Editors, Hristov, Nikolai Hartmann.
  • With: Ivan Fransunov. (Bulgarian dialogue)