Tonislav Hristov's documentary, selected for the feature-length competition, starts off as a tale of life in the bucolic backwaters of south-eastern Europe, but soon turns into a universal story of human kindness, ambition, frailty and guilt, all served up in equal measure.
In the Bulgarian village of Great Dervent, close to the Turkish border, all the men are called Ivan. There is Black Ivan, aka The String – a hirsute, Aviator-wearing, pro-Russian Communist mayoral candidate. There is elderly Ivan, who rises from his sickbed to paste (none too successfully) election posters onto walls and windows. And then there is the eponymous postman Ivan, a good and gentle man, also a candidate for mayor, his electoral pledge to re-populate the village with Syrian refugees.
The two men are determined that the incumbent Vesa, a woman, will not be re-elected as they believe her to be incompetent and disengaged both from the electorate and the issues that affect them. During the 2016 election, a mere 38 people were registered to vote in Great Dervent, whereas in 1960 it boasted a working population of 500. Hence the postman's desire for a new influx of people to "fill a dying village."
The project came into being in 2014 when director Hristov saw a news item on Bulgarian television about how the elderly women of Dervent had recently welcomed in a large group of Syrian refugees. Some of these women had found themselves in a similar situation during World War II, the news story had claimed, and Hristov was both impressed and intrigued by this demonstration of empathy. The director contacted all his friends on Facebook to see if anybody knew of the place. It transpired that a friend of his from university had grown up there – someone whose best friend was now the village postman.
With this connection secured, Hristov settled in the village. At first he thought his film would focus on 86-year-old Angela who featured in the original news story, a woman who exudes kindness from every pore. But when the director heard about the upcoming village election, that became the focus of his narrative.
Hristov observes and documents the dramatic shifts and reversals in the candidates' behaviour. While the good postman solicits his constituents face-to-face in their homes, The String (ostensibly the postman's friend) hires a tacky public address system and harangues the tiny noncommittal audience with his rhetoric, offering free beer and meatballs. On electionday, the postman remains serene and dignified while The String shouts at the village elders and cries foul of the election process.
Without giving anything away, it is in the last 30 minutes of the film, after the result has been announced, when Hristov's story really takes off, underlining an all-too-human propensity towards moral weakness rendered even more poignant and pitiable when placed within the context of the European migrant crisis. As importantly, his camera also records the sense of profound regret that follows, and the subsequent desire for redemption.