Kay Hannahan, “Altimir” (2016)
Since 1989 when they left the sphere of Soviet political / economic / cultural influence, and particularly since 2004 when they joined the European Union, the post-Communist / post-Soviet nations of central and eastern Europe have seen their economies shrink and die for lack of investment (public or private, local or foreign) in industry and agriculture. Correspondingly jobs have also been disappearing, unemployment is rising and more people need social welfare at a time when taxation revenue is shrinking and governments (some of which are dominated by diaspora politicians connected to the US government directly or indirectly through marriage and the US State Department) refuse to increase public spending because … public spending is socialist! The result in many of these nations, from Bulgaria in southeast Europe to Latvia and Lithuania in the northern Baltic Sea region, is the phenomenon of young people voting with their feet to wealthier parts of the European Union to find work, never to return.
In this documentary, Kay Hannahan travels to Altimir, a tiny village in northwest Bulgaria near the Danube River border with Romania, where she stays with an elderly couple, Yordan and Malinka, their daughter Iva and granddaughter Ioana. The family makes do with the few possessions it has in its ramshackle house where clothes are put out to dry on a dryer next to the heater in the tiny kitchen. Yordan takes Kay on a bicycle trip around the village, showing her various deserted buildings including a church whose grounds are now overrun with foraging chickens, a derelict schoolhouse and several factory buildings where (during Communist rule) upwards of 20 or 50 people used to be busy working at machines and equipment that have since disappeared or degenerated into scrap. They pass by the town hall and the village government building and Yordan tells Kay to film away (the implication is that under Communist rule when the building was in use, people were forbidden to film or take photos of it). While pay cheques were not great, workers were still able to take holidays in mountain areas or go down to the beaches on the Bulgarian coast. Yordan remarks that under capitalism, pay is better but pay cheques fewer and nearly all young people have left the village in search of work and money.
They visit some friends of Yordan’s, Gosho and his wife, and the three of them reminisce about the old Communist-era times when Gosho could visit Cuba and bring back gifts, and when people could make their own brandy at home. In present-day Bulgaria, people can no longer make brandy or other wines at home due to European Union restrictions. Despite their poverty, Gosho and his wife are generous hosts, making enough brandy to feed a football team, along with lunch made from whatever they can afford from their small fridge.
Everywhere they travel in the village, Kay and Yordan come across quiet and empty streets, overgrown parks, abandoned buildings in various states of decay, and few signs of life. Kay’s skilful use of cinematography, relying heavily on static or slowly moving hand camera, portrays the stillness of an emptying village. The villagers talk about their lives and the life of Altimir under Communism, how there was plenty of factory work to support a population of some 3,500 people, and how things have now changed dramatically under the EU and capitalism. There is no sense of despair or hopelessness however; the elderly folk shrug their shoulders, talk of things as they used to be under Communism, complain about the EU strictures and get on with business as usual. Where the money comes from to buy food for themselves and their animals – Kay’s hosts keep pigs and some cows – is not said in the documentary, but it’s likely that Yordan and Malinka get meagre pension cheques from the Bulgarian government, and their children working in the cities or overseas may send regular remittances as well.
In spite of the village’s dereliction, Kay’s hosts and their neighbours are proud representatives of Altimir, detailing the life that used to exist and showing off its history and war-time monuments. It seems a great tragedy that eventually when the elderly go, the entire village will become a ghost town ripe for the wrecking ball and a politician’s ambition to build a superhighway or a mine for foreign corporations to exploit.
The sense of the villagers’ attachment to Altimir and its past history and identity is strong and the villagers’ hospitality to a stranger whose intentions and background they do not know is very touching. Viewers are left with the sour feeling that life under Communism, while restricted and lacking in freedom, was better for the villagers than what they now have under the EU and neoliberal capitalism.