"Minimal interference doesn't mean maximum reality."
In the course of making documentaries over the last decade, director Tonislav Hristov and writer Lubomir Tsvetkov have embraced a controversial idea: just letting the camera roll is not the best way to bring out the truth. Instead, by taking on the difficult task of staging reality, Hristov believes you can get much closer to the essence of the story.
The results are stunning in The Good Postman, which follows a postman's mayoral run on a platform of welcoming refugees into his Bulgarian border town of 38 elderly residents. Hristov and Tsvetkov sat down with No Film School at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival to talk about their refreshingly unorthodox style of documentary filmmaking.
"When it comes down to it, I stage situations that work because I know the people so well."
NFS: The Good Postman feels like a narrative because there is beautiful coverage (including reverse shots and establishing shots) that you just don’t see in traditional vérité documentary. How were you able to make the film this way?
Tonislav Hristov: Experience. The way I like to work is to find out as much beforehand about what’s going to happen in the scene. More or less, I know where the conversation is going. When there's a conversation on screen, people often ask me if I’m using two cameras. I'm like, no, no, no. First, I film the reactions of the people. And then I go on the other side with my camera and crew and ask the guy to repeat his questions.
That doesn't mean that we shoot a two minute scene exactly as it appears in the film. For example, there are many walking scenes in the film where we shoot the Postman from the behind. It’s actually a one-hour walk around the village that we followed him on. Because you don't see the lips, we then edit the conversation into two and a half minutes. These are many tricks that we learned over the years that are natural now. I knew pretty much where the film was going. I didn't know what the results of the election would be, you can’t really know that, but we knew the gist. We have scriptwriters who we talk to about the story and we just brainstorm. When it comes down to it, I stage situations that work because I know the people so well.
NFS: There’s this concept in documentary that there should be minimal interference from the crew. So I guess the question is, does your interference change reality? What is your philosophy on this?
Tsvetkov: The thing is, 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.
Hristov: That's what we hope to accomplish. We think when you get the people in one situation and you just throw a ball their way, their world comes into view, the real person. I won’t follow you with a camera for three years and hope that at some moment you get tired of me, and then become the real you. I don't believe that this is the best way to do it. But of course, there are different ways of making documentaries.
NFS: So knowing the people really well is a big part of pulling this off. How did you come to know the people in this village?
Hristov: I first saw the old ladies from the village in some news footage, where I saw these the old ladies welcoming refugees with some sweets and food. I had to see who these ladies were in person. When I went there, I learned the older ladies had all lived through a war. They knew what it was like to run from a war, and what is it like to need help. That’s how the idea started. Then we got to know the Postman, who is my school friends' father's friend.
"Sometimes you have to interfere to get as close to the truth as possible."
We spent quite a lot of time with the people beforehand. When production came around, we shot for just 15 days. Seven days were just before the election, and then I think seven more a few months later. So it was shot like a fiction film.
Lubomir Tsvetkov: It was a very eventful 15 days. We have the election, post-election, and the refugee crisis, which is ongoing the whole time. So we were sure to get something from all of this.
Hristov: We used quite a big crew. I like to use big cameras and lights, because I really care about the image. Because of that, it’s important to warm up the people with conversation, though I never talk about the important subjects before the camera is ready. So I talk about my family and my child, something to make people feel comfortable despite the five or six guys behind the camera. We use big camera!
NFS: What camera are we talking about?
Hristov: For this film, we used the Sony F55 with cinema lenses. We used LED panels and shot it in 2:35, so you can imagine it’s very cinematic. The old film lenses are very beautiful with this really nice picture.
"We used quite a big crew. I like to use big cameras and lights, because I really care about the image."
NFS: How long would you talk to people before you started filming?
Hristov: Well, I used the time when the crew was setting up the cameras and the lights. So I would imagine about 40-50 minutes is spent warming the person up. You should never go straight to the thing you want to talk about, because it never works like that. It takes like 40-50 minutes, plus the time spent months before getting to know the people. Then we pretty much had three questions that was always the goal in each conversation: about the refugees, about the elections, and about the past.
NFS: I think for a lot of documentary filmmakers it would be incredibly scary to shoot this way because you run a huge risk of things feeling fake. How do you prevent it from feeling fake?
Hristov: I would pull the experience card here again. I've been doing this for 10 years, this is my sixth feature length documentary. And all of them are the same style. So I've learned these tricks in the process and how to make people feel comfortable. The most important thing is when you sense fakeness, stop right away. You should never continue pushing something that feels fake. I think I have very good sense for when something crosses the line.
"You should never go straight to the thing you want to talk about, because it never works like that."
NFS: People start performing?
Hristov: Yes, performing. People get excited about the camera. And as I say, it's not a small pocket camera. It's a big camera and lights. If they start acting, this is when you have to stop right away and leave. It's scary, of course, especially the first shooting day, if you feel that your main character is acting. You may have to abandon everything.
NFS: What would you say is sort of the biggest challenge that you had on this production and how did you overcome it?
Tsvetkov: Not interfering in the process is difficult, because you have an election. You have refugees. Everything you do, there is a bit interference on the real process. So we tried to show it but not interfere, which was a bit hard because you're also talking with the people who are also voting. I can also say, drinking with those guys was really a challenge as well. You can't keep up with how this village drinks!
Hristov: I would often have to send Lubo off to drink on my behalf!
"I don't think that anyone should think to much about the form. It’s just a tool that you use to tell your story."
NFS: What would be your best piece of advice to other documentary filmmakers?
Hristov: I don't think that anyone should think to much about the form. It’s just a tool that you use to tell your story. My advice would be to be really aware, really well prepared before you come with your camera. It doesn't matter if it's a handheld camera or a huge crew, know exactly what you want. Spend time with the people without cameras. Earn their trust. I think trust is something that you see in the film, especially in documentaries. If these people don't trust you, then you sense it right away.
Tsvetkov: If you know what you want to tell, the form doesn't matter.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.