Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"We might be laughing at this small town mentality but we'll soon also be feeling a growing fear about what might happen to Sveta and Bamba as things begin to spiral." | Photo: Courtesy of POFF

Despite the writer/director's light touch, there's a depressing familiarity to the themes of Ivaylo Hristov's latest film, which is screening in competition in Tallinn. From In The Heat Of The Night and Blazing Saddles to Li'l Quinquin and Couscous, the list of movies tackling small-town racism is extensive and global. Cleverly, Hristov skewers the worst of this through absurdist humour, while also nudging his audience to think about the, perhaps less overt, ways they make value judgements about those they have never met.

In Bulgaria, somewhere near the Turkish border, the residents of a town have fixated their fears on the refugees who pass by and who are mostly hoping for a better life in Germany. Hristov goes beyond the basics, weaving a character study into this tale, as we meet Sveta (Svetlana Yancheva) a widow whose loneliness has just been made complete by the loss of her job in a school - it's shutting due to too few students, which along with occasional, eloquent shots of  a decaying, sprawling resort hotel indicate the town is ageing and dwindling, closing in on itself.

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While hare hunting in the nearby forest, Sveta stumbles upon a refugee (Michael Flemming), who, in one of Hristov's many challenges to viewers' potentially cliched perceptions, is well-heeled, polite and eloquent, even if Sveta can't understand a word he's saying. But when she bundles him off to the local army chief Bochev (Stoyan Bochev), there's nobody there because his squad are all out following up on a tip-off about a large group of refugees. We see Bochev's men rounding up the group while a reporter attempts to sensationalise the story, hoping Bochev will offer tales of debauched and dangerous incomers. Bochev, who unusually for this type of film is largely portrayed sympathetically, gives polite and non-sexy answers regarding the fact that these people are mostly unarmed families fleeing war, only for the reporter to turn back to the camera and insist: "As you can see, the situation at the border is very tense".

Meanwhile, Sveta finds herself giving the refugee, finally revealed to have the name Bamba, a bed for the night, which marks the beginning of a tentative relationship across the language barrier. While Sveta may be thawing, however, the rest of the town is horrified by this turn of events, hatching increasingly unpleasant ways to try to force her to kick the man out.

Hristov uses humour to give his film broad mainstream appeal. He strikes a careful balance, allowing the absurdity of the situation to shine out in, for example, the way the townsfolk interpret Sveta's boarding up of her windows as sinister, even though she's had to do it in response to someone breaking one as 'a message', while also letting the underlying awfulness of that act sink in. Equally, local lothario Ivan (Ivan Savov), who is trying to win over Sveta, is the butt of comedy initially, but Hristov soon reminds us that his foolishness doesn't stop him being dangerous in the right circumstances. Hristov also avoids the cliche of Bamba suddenly gaining acceptance through dint of being a doctor - the Malian's friendliness perversely only makes the locals even more determined to oust him, Hristov showing just how intractable racism can be.

We might be laughing at this small town mentality but we'll soon also be feeling a growing fear about what might happen to Sveta and Bamba as things begin to spiral, the laughter dying in our throats as the violence escalates. Whether Hristov really needs to lay all this out in literal black and white film stock is debatable given his sublety elsewhere - but Emil Christov's cinematography is as compelling as ever, whether it's the first person point of view of Sveta in the woods or the more lyrical drifting contemplation of the sea that washes the shore of the town. More than all the tension and humour, what sings out in the end is the warmth on a snowy day between Bamba and Sveta, brought home with visual panache in the film's closing frames.

Reviewed on: 27 Nov 2020
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When a woman takes in a Malian refugee, she faces opposition from the local townsfolk.

Director: Ivaylo Hristov

Writer: Ivaylo Hristov

Starring: Svetlana Yancheva, Michael Flemming, Miroslava Gogovska, Ivan Savov, Kristina Yaneva, Stoyan Bochev, Krassimir Dokov,

Year: 2020

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Bulgaria


Black Nights 2020

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