‘The only authentic way you can tell a story from a particular place is to get someone from that place.’
– Taika Waititi
The Pit (Die Grube/Гьолът) is the nickname locals have given to a small thermal pool in Varna, Bulgaria’s largest coastal city. This location also becomes the main character in Hristiana Raykova’s titular feature debut. In what feels like a very Brechtian ouverture, the pit is introduced to us by its regular visitors. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ a contributor commences ceremonially, looking straight into the camera, his speech followed by images of men and women who joyfully perform for our gaze, dancing and speaking to us. The camera reinforces this self-aware aesthetic by including the boom-operator within its frame, confirming the vérité journey the film embarks on. This is how Raykova’s documentary, which is also her graduation project, opens up. By the time the first scene departs, we are already introduced to the film’s playful mood and its vivid characters whose natural self-eccentricity give the film a Herzogian quirk.
The self-reflective theatricality is soon substituted with naturalism. The camera adopts an observational position, and although the characters still speak to its eye, the conversations occur as intimately as between two friends. There’s no boom in sight, no noticeable crew, only Raykova’s questions can be heard sometimes, reinforcing the dialectical feeling of her film.
The pit is a thermal basin completely free of charge and maintained by its devoted volunteers, mainly the taxi driver Dimtscho, retired musician Alexander, and Genadi, a Russian man who now lives in Bulgaria where he has achieved his dream of running a petting zoo. In the daylight, regulars come to the pool to heal, relax and socialise, and we follow them through funny anecdotes that offer a closer look to their personalities and the conditions they live in. This, though, is only one part of the pit’s dual life. At night, the pool becomes a hanging place for Bobby – a young ethnic man who, homeless for most of the time, uses the pool as a place to meet other men to sleep with. Sometimes for money, sometimes for pleasure, as he explains himself, ‘the most important thing is to satisfy my lust.’
The relationships Raykova and her crew establish with the people of the pit offer an intimate window into the individuals and their lives. We meet Dimtscho’s slightly intimidating Russian partner, Alexander relives the memories of his glorious, albeit exaggerated, youth, while trying to rent the rooms of his house to tourists. Boby lets us enter the most private elements of his life, offering a different perspective to the notions of homelessness and freedom. Diving even deeply into the intimacy of getting to know a person, the camera lets us study the characters in fascinating details: their expressive faces, their wrinkles, their cuts. The way Alexander warms his hands when he’s cold, or the plaster on his knee. All those elements tell their own little stories, inviting us into the private lives within a microcosm. The pit is its own world, and its inhabitants constitute a galaxy.
There seems to be a lot of sadness in the stories we encounter, but there’s not a hint of pity in the way the film portrays them. Instead, it leaves us full of love and sympathy for a handful of people who have created a little world around their favourite hanging spot. The almost Utopian collectivity of the pit is threatened when the government decides to privatise the place. For many of its visitors, the pool is a salvation from loneliness and boredom, that, once the government starts to charge an entrance fee, they could never afford with their ridiculously low pensions. Although reflecting on the importance of this issue, and the political metaphor it represents, the film restrains from grey and dramatic portrayals of poverty and loneliness – something contemporary films about Bulgaria tend to often indulge in.
Although The Pit inevitably evokes the reality of Bulgaria and its socio-political issues, the film lets us leave the screening room with a hopeful promise that humanity is beautiful and pure, and that what unites us weights more than the things that divide us. If directors are to create documentaries that reveal humanistic truth instead of poverty porn, then they, like Raykova, should let their contributors narrate their own stories.