Posts Tagged 'bulgaria'

Bulgarian postman with a noble message

The Good Postman

By Harry van Versendaal

Ivan, the postman of a mostly deserted Bulgarian village on the border with Turkey, is running for mayor on a rather unconventional message: If he wins the election, he will welcome Syrian refugees, who now creep silently through the rural terrain, so they can settle in the village’s many vacant, dilapidated properties and breathe new life into the settlement.

Golyam Dervent (pop. 38) – known as as the “great gate” due to its location – is the setting of Tonislav Hristov latest documentary “The Good Postman,” which is screening at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and resembles a microcosm of the drama that has been unfolding in Europe since the outbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis. Bulgaria has joined other nations in the Balkan region in taking a hardline response to the influx of migrants and asylum seekers into the continent. Less than two decades since removing a massive border fence designed to keep people in, authorities in the former Soviet satellite have built a new one along the border with Turkey – this time to keep people out.

Shot over the course of a regional election campaign, the camera follows Ivan, a gentle-mannered, silver-haired man who lives alone, pitting his inclusive, progressive vision against the xenophobic, we-had-it-better-under-communism alternative put forward by his rival, who resembles a washed-up Hollywood has-been. (In what is probably the film’s most funnily surreal moment, the latter delivers a confused speech from the village cafe patio overlooking a vacant field to the futuristic sounds of a vintage Casio keyboard synthesizer). The elderly villagers’ reactions are mixed.

“The Good Postman” premiered in 2016 at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), where it was nominated for Best Feature-Length Documentary, before screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Beautifully crafted, with stunning wide-screen cinematography and a wonderful score by Petar Dundakov, Hristov’s documentary, his fifth, exposes the strange world of small-town politics, the estrangement of the political elites, the stinging poverty in the EU’s backyard, the harrowing misinformation surrounding the migration debate, and the nuances of the human character.

“I heard on the news that they’re bad people who kill Bulgarians,” a young girl is heard saying on a TV news bulletin playing in the background. “But maybe not everyone is bad,” she adds.

One thing bound to draw protests from purists is that the Bulgarian filmmaker, and writer Lubomir Tsvetkov, appear to have staged at least some of the scenes. “Minimal interference doesn’t mean maximum reality. It can actually be the total opposite. Sometimes you have to interfere to get as close to the truth as possible,” Tsvetkov said in a recent interview.

The election result (spoiler alert) is not what any of them would have hoped for. Although it’s hard to see how things could change in Golyam Dervent. Ten years after joining the European Union, Bulgaria remains one of the bloc’s poorest and most corrupt members. Meanwhile, public opposition to immigration is strong. In a recent survey, 73 percent of Bulgarians said they would back a total ban on citizens of Muslim-majority nations entering their country. The same poll found that 77 percent view immigration as a threat to the country, up from 47 percent in 2015.

The Swiss guards of EU border agency Frontex seen patrolling for migrants traipsing through the rural terrain are unlikely to move out anytime soon.

Skin trade exposed

Harry van Versendaal

Shortly after communism came crashing to the ground in Eastern Europe, Mimi Chakarova, then 13 years old, left her small Bulgarian village to start a new life in the United States with her mother.

As she found out during a visit back to the place a few years later, other girls from her village had been less fortunate. Lured by promises of well-paying jobs abroad, many disappeared into the dark world of sex slavery as they were actually sold to gangs who confiscated their passports and held them captive in brothels and nightclubs, forcing them to work as prostitutes.

A teacher of visual storytelling at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Chakarova’s curiosity surrounding the circumstances of the girls’ emigration prompted her to embark on a photo-reportage project in 2003. The venture culminated in a well-crafted and deeply disturbing 73-minute documentary feature which combines still images with video footage.

In her award-winning film, “The Price of Sex,” showing at this month’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Chakarova follows in the footsteps of Eastern European women forced into sex trafficking and abused by their captors. Along the way, she conducts interviews in Bulgaria, Moldova, Greece, Turkey and Dubai.

Chakarova interviews recruiters, pimps, police officials and a couple of sex-starved clients. She does not hesitate to pose as a prostitute, using hidden cameras to film inside a Turkish sex club — a feat that is unfortunately not as cinematically revealing as it is bold. And she has no qualms about occasionally drifting away from unemotional objectivity, cherished among doc traditionalists, to step into more activist territory.

One of the women describes how she jumped out of a three-story-high window to escape her captors. The attempt left her partially paralyzed but she was still brought back to continue working until a replacement was found. As Charakova puts it in the film, “one kilo of cocaine, one AK-47 or one Moldovan girl — it’s all the same.”

An estimated 2 million women and children are sold into the sex trade every year, according to the United Nations. A large number come from the countries of the former communist bloc.

“If you want to fight sex trafficking, you first have to combat the discrepancy between rich and poor countries, rampant corruption and poor access to justice,” a NGO worker tells Chakarova. Too tall an order for a documentary maker, perhaps, but if knowledge is power, then this doc can provide some of the necessary spark to get things moving in the right direction.

The 35-year-old Chakarova spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about her experience and hopes for the future.

What made you decide to make this particular documentary?

What motivated me to make “The Price of Sex” changed over time. Initially, I wanted to see if what I was reading and seeing in the press was fairly reported. The sensationalism surrounding this issue really troubled me. So I challenged myself to see if I could do a better job of understanding why women were sold into sexual slavery after the collapse of communism. Over the years, no matter how difficult this journey got, I felt a sense of obligation to carry on. I grew up in a village in Bulgaria. I migrated abroad as well, and my family struggled with some of the same challenges of poverty that others faced. I knew I had to return and expose something that many chose to ignore or were too afraid to acknowledge as a post-communist plague in our society.

What were the main obstacles you had to overcome in making the film? Do you still run into trouble because of it?

I often think about some of the situations I put myself in and I realize it was absolutely insane. I didn’t have security. I was shooting with hidden cameras in environments where you are constantly watched and you can’t show fear. This type of work gets to you over time. Even when you come home and it’s “safe,” you can’t turn it off. But at the same time, it’s impossible not to find yourself in dangerous situations, no matter how prepared you think you are. You’re dealing with criminal networks that don’t want their operations exposed. There are too many variables beyond your control when you enter high-risk situations. I always tell my students that staying alive in this line of work is a combination of common sense based on experience, instinct, your powers of observation and the rest is really luck. Once it runs out, you’re done.

It must have been difficult to win the trust of these women. How did you go about it?

I gained their trust over time. I photographed one of the women in “The Price of Sex” over a four-year period before she agreed to a video interview. Every story has its own life and requires patience and care. And in every place you document, you leave a piece of yourself. It’s an exchange. You are not only reporting, taking a photo or shooting video; you are giving your attention and concern. Sometimes you don’t even do the work. You sit and observe and help, if you can. When someone opens their home to you, shares the little bit of food they have and offers you their bed because sleeping on the floor is out of the question, you are a guest, not a journalist. And you treat people with the respect your mother taught you. I am fortunate to say I have a wonderful mother who instilled that in me. And I can return to the places I’ve visited over the years without ever feeling unwelcome. The people we make films about should never be referred to as “subjects.” And the dynamic is way too complicated to ever pretend that we can be objective with the work we do.

Do you feel you kept the necessary distance from the women while shooting the film? Or did you perhaps find yourself getting more engaged than you should have?

I don’t think it’s possible to keep a distance when working on a subject matter like sex slavery for almost a decade. This work affects you profoundly.

Did you help any of the victims in any way, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

Yes, I’ve been able to help some of the women through the work I’ve produced, but my bigger challenge is how to ensure long-term change and, most importantly, how to prevent this from happening to other young girls. One positive outcome is that the US State Department will use the film to train its employees at embassies throughout the world. But there is still a lot more to be done.

Did opening up to you have a cathartic effect on the women?

There were many times when I would ask, “Why are you telling me all this?” — especially when a woman would disclose really graphic or gruesome details of what she went through. And the answer was consistently: “Because you won’t judge me. I have no one else to tell.” So, yes, I think many of these conversations were painful but also cathartic.

You only mention a few numbers in your documentary. Is it because you feel the personal stories you present are more powerful than figures?

The numbers vary so greatly depending on the source that I was wary of focusing on estimates. For example, the US State Department estimates the number of trafficking victims at 800,000 per year. But the UN’s estimate goes up to nearly 2 million. These numbers also include labor trafficking, so rather than focus on data which is very difficult to substantiate, I decided to make a film that tells the women’s stories and also reveals the widespread, systematic corruption across borders.

What do you hope to achieve with this documentary?

I hope that people who see it can leave informed but also with the urgent desire to do something. If you’re not informed, you are living in darkness. The more you know, the more responsible you become about changing. And once you know what happens to others, it is your duty as a human being to take a position. Pretending that what’s right in front of you doesn’t exist just because it disrupts your comfort zone is unacceptable. I would like to encourage people to visit http://priceofsex.org and learn more about the film and the multimedia series. I would also urge them to react and post their comments. It’s through this global discourse and sharing of ideas and experiences that we truly bring such issues to the surface. And that’s always an important first step before taking action.

Are you working on a new project?

I am currently traveling with the film and speaking about “The Price of Sex” to as many people as I can. Once I feel that the film has a life of its own and no longer requires my presence, I will start working on my second film, which takes place in the US.

Unwanted masses on the move

 

Photo by Natalia Tsoukala

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”


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