Ivan Fransuzov, the postman of Great Dervent, stamps papers in an office.
The postman in Great Dervent makes a bid for mayor, running on a platform of embracing refugees. The Good Postman/Tonislav Hristov

A new documentary, The Good Postman, dives into local electoral politics and reflects back a much larger, more global dialogue around the refugee crisis.

Earlier this week, a minibus smuggling migrants crashed in southern Bulgaria, leaving several dead and others injured. The collision occurred on a motorway close to the Greek and Turkish borders of the country, which serves as a major port of entry for asylum seekers and is currently struggling to accommodate rising nationalistic politics.

A quick scan over headlines in the country paints a chaotic picture of political protest and opposition over the acceptance of refugees, even though the latest data from the Interior Ministry suggests a sharp decline in the number of migrants crossing Bulgarian borders. As Europe continues to grapple with the issue, a new documentary by filmmaker Tonislav Hristov taps into how the refugee crisis plays out on a local level. The lens is focused on a small border town in the hilly countryside of Bulgaria, where a local mayoral election ignites differing attitudes to Middle Eastern asylum-seekers among its 40 or so residents.

Hristov’s film, The Good Postman, is a timely and intimate study of what it means to be a border town at a time of immense political conflict. The rural town, Great Dervent, sealed off from Turkey by a barbed wire fence, is an aesthetically beautiful but economically declining place whose residents bemoan its current state. There’s a growing need to somehow revive the village. “We used to have a cinema, singers came, we danced. Now, I do nothing,” observes one elderly woman early on in the film. “We’re doomed—the village is destroying itself,” remarks another.

“The first thing I noticed when I went to the village were so many empty houses,” says Hristov. “The population used to be somewhere around 2,000, but now the town’s school is completely empty—and used as a shelter for refugees passing by.” The decaying infrastructure is a focal point in the film, and it is the catalyst for Ivan Fransuzov, the local postman, who hopes to rejuvenate his town by running for mayor in the upcoming regional election. His platform, which he pitches to the residents while he delivers their mail, is a proposal to welcome the refugees. “I will bring people from Syria,” he says to one elderly woman, “and we will create a good environment for living here in the village.” For Ivan, the only way to prosper is to “save it [the village] together with the refugees.” His bid is both welcomed and resisted by the increasingly greying constituents—most visibly by another resident who joins the mayoral race and directly opposes Ivan’s view.

The argument that opening up neighborhoods to refugees will be an economic and cultural benefit is one that cities and countries across the world have debated. In 2014, my colleague Mark Byrnes wrote about a small town in southern Italy, Riace, that had welcomed over 200 refugees into the village— a move that was largely credited to the town’s mayor. Previously set back by decades of economic decline, the influx of new residents played a role in restarting the village—a school reopened, for example, and once-vacant buildings became small cultural hubs like craft workshops.

Ultimately, the film resonates widely, even as its scope is distilled down to the small-town electoral process— it’s strikingly easy to follow the political rhetoric of this village out into the larger European main stage, and further into America’s own ideological conflicts over immigration. And yet, while exposing Bulgaria’s own anxieties over the refugee crisis, Hristov’s film serves as a hopeful suggestion of change. “I was surprised by the negativity towards asylum seekers in the country and in Bulgarian media,” says Hristov, who started to look through news footage on refugees when he came across a story profiling a group of old women in Great Dervert. “The story was about how these residents on the border were welcoming the refugees with food and clothes—I was drawn towards their empathy,” he says, “and I was inspired.”

The Good Postman will screen at the 2017 Human Rights Film Festival in New York’s IFC theater on June 11.

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