June 28, 2017

The Good Postman at the BFI

It’s interesting to reflect that when the BFI first started doing a Refugee Week programme, more than 10 years ago, there were not all that many films being made about refugees – certainly not about contemporary refugee situations.

How things have changed.

In the last couple of years, in films such as Fire at Sea, The Bride’s Side, Stranger in Paradise, Exodus – to name but a few – have had cinema releases or been shown on television, many to great acclaim.  And among the refugee films due for release shortly is Human Flow, directed by the artist and activist Ai Weiwei on which I was proud to be one of the writers.

All of these films, and many others, have offered penetrating and poignant insights into the refugee crisis – but undoubtedly one of the most interesting perspectives on this multi-faceted and morally complex issue is provided by the film you are about to see: The Good Postman.

The first thing that will strike anyone who sees The Good Postman is that refugees themselves hardly feature in the film at all. They are observed from a distance, seen in TV news reports that the main protagonists of the documentary are watching, and are at one point filmed as border guards question and detain them.

Even in the one scene where they are obviously present, a couple of refugee women and their children sit passively in the back of the car as the ‘stars’ of the film – ‘good’ Ivan – the postman – and the ‘bad’ Ivan – who is one of his rivals for the post of mayor of the Bulgarian border village of Great Dervent – go in for a bit of DIY people smuggling.

So, unusually for a refugee crisis film, there are no refugee ‘characters’ in The Good Postman. We don’t hear their stories or see the world from their view point.

Yet it is this very absence that is one of the most haunting and harrowing – and effective – aspects of this extraordinary film.  The palpably absent or fleetingly glimpsed refugees, for all the horrors they have fled, for all the dangers of the journey they are on, for all the traumas of exile they face ahead, at least have hope of a better future, one feels. They are journeying towards something. Towards new life.

The villagers of Great Dervent have no such hope.

Indeed, what is most pathetic about the pivotal conceit of the film is that ‘good’ Ivan, the postman, could ever have believed that refugees, from Syria or elsewhere, would want to settle in Great Dervent.

True, the countryside around it is green, wooded and rolling; it’s pleasant enough. But the village itself is ramshackle and desolate – pock marked with abandoned houses and rank-weeded yards, empty of amenity and economic activity.

It is a shock to consider that this is a village within the EU – the only sign of EU money is the smart Range Rover that the Swiss Border Guards, deployed as part of Europe’s border force, Frontex, drive around in.

Yet it is this notion – that Great Dervent could reverse years of depopulation and decline by welcoming rather than reporting to the Border Police the refugees who are passing through it – that is the main plank of ‘good’ Ivan’s election campaign.

This Ivan personifies the very real warmth and generosity of spirit that we see among the largely elderly, indeed positively ancient, men and women of the village, including the estimable Angela who has one of those magnificent worn, wrinkled, peasant faces that call to mind WH Auden’s description of his own face – that it ‘looked like a wedding cake left out in the rain’.

I don’t believe we see a single child, by the way, which is doubtless directorially contrived, but is nonetheless indicative of a place where hopeful, vibrant youth is only in evidence in the curling, fading photographs of by-gone days that Ivan lovingly preserves – the by-gone, apparently happier, more prosperous days of communism, it should be said – which comes as a bit of a shock to the West European sensibility.

And it is on a crackpot Putinesque ‘communist/slash nationalist’ ticket that ‘bad’ Ivan – all long hair in a pony tale, mirrored shades, leather jackets – stands in the village election.  (Total electorate 38 or so, incidentally. Or ‘perhaps a few more’, as one villager adds plaintively.) This other Ivan is the closest thing Great Dervent has to a hip young dude– though he’s a weather beaten, heavily lined 50, if he’s a day.

His election rally – a smattering of a battered old people on battered old seats, sitting at tables outside the community centre, while Ivan delivers an address through a squealing microphone to a main street void of voters – is one of the punctuating moments of humour in the film.

He’s accompanied throughout by bad karaoke synth and ends his oration with the memorable pay off. “I have beer, I have meatballs.  Vote for me.  Now let’s have some fun’.

And then he sits down at a table with some bemused ancients.

It’s a scene which proves there is sometimes nothing more heart-breaking than well-observed comedy.

The darker side of this Ivan is that he opposes the other Ivan’s refugee settlement plan, has bigoted views about the local gypsies, and seeks to stir up the fears and prejudices of his fellow villagers.

Yet if anything it is the third candidate in the mayoral election – which is conducted in a way that is both laughably quaint and touchingly scrupulous – who perhaps best represents the air of defeat and hopelessness that hangs heavy over Great Dervent. She is the sitting mayor, a youngish woman, but almost catatonically passive. Nothing will ever change with her in charge.

What does she feel about refugees settling in the village, she’s asked by one of the Ivans in a key scene.

“I don’t care,” she says.

But what does she personally think?


Nothing Ivan wants to, in his own words, ‘save the village’ – which several times we hear villagers describe as ‘dying’.

But will his neighbours vote for that – and more to the point, why would refugees want to stay in Great Dervent, when Germany, Sweden, the UK beckons? They are just passing through, surely

In a scene that tears at the heart, we later see ‘good’ Ivan pour out his personal pain to ‘bad’ Ivan – who is not so bad really, for all his human frailties and vanities; and who, tragically in its own way, counts as his closest friend.

“I feel this emptiness,” Ivan says staring down at the floor. “This loneliness is killing me”

Killing Ivan, but also killing places like Great Dervent, across Europe – including economically excluded, socially marginalised communities here in Britain.

The irony is – as the ‘good’ Ivan recognises – that an injection of new life and vitality through immigration is just what such places need.  And a lesser filmmaker than the director Tonislav Hristov would have rammed the point home. But fortunately for us, Hristov doesn’t go in for glib metropolitan, liberal standpoints.  His film raises the possibility of redemption, but doesn’t romanticise it.  It recognises there are no simple solutions, no moral absolutes, no happy endings. Everything is contingent.

What The Good Postman does highlight however is that if we are going to solve the refugee crisis, and indeed the wider migrant crisis, we do need to think hard, seriously, sympathetically, imaginatively about the Great Dervents of this continent. We need to understand the convulsions that are disrupting long-established patterns of life, to appreciate the disruptive dynamics of today’s large movements of people – and not only through the eyes of those who are moving – as important as that is – but through the eyes of those stay put, who are left behind – in every sense.

The main message of The Good Postman for me is that Europe has lost its way in recent decades, economically, socially and culturally, and that the refugee crisis is not a cause of that, but in our botched response to it, a symptom

Finally, a word about the style of this film.  As you’ll soon see it is ravishingly shot in widescreen cinematography by Orlin Ruevski.

He and the director had a small palette to work with – the film never strays far from Great Dervent which, as I’ve said, is not inherently a beautiful place – but they wash the screen with beauty nonetheless. While at the same time not glossing over harsh realities.

It was filmed, as Hristov explained in interviews with big camera and big lights and that shows.

It is also, the director admits, quite a staged documentary. Scenes are played out by the real-life characters rather than simply observed with direction.  As Hristov’s co-writer put it, “minimal interference doesn’t mean maximum reality”.

But if this film isn’t totally naturalistic, totally realistic, it is totally true to its subject matter, it is honest and heartfelt – and brave and different.

I’ve gone on long enough. Enjoy the film, smile, weep, think….  This is documentary film making of the highest order.