The Mosquito Problem and other stories, directed by Andrey Paounov, was this year’s surprise winner of the Human Rights Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival. In a field of documentaries that included many films which directly addressed the difficult social and political problems that have sprung up in the post-Yugoslavian Balkans, such a seemingly lighthearted satire was definitely a dark horse. But on closer inspection, the subtleties and significance of this playfully subversive film become apparent, and the prize quite reasonable.
It is the story of an impoverished small town in Bulgaria that does its best to celebrate the little that it has: an unfinished nuclear power plant, an overgrown island in the Danube River, the ruins of a communist concentration camp for political dissidents, and above all, the billions of mosquitoes that plague this riverside town. Various townsfolk speak into the camera, giving their quirky take on things, their sometimes laughably naïve judgments invariably buoyed by their innate good humor and love of life. There’s the laid off construction worker from Cuba who occupies himself by collecting found art in the forest, the raggedy man in workclothes who ceremoniously introduces his piano works before pounding them out on a badly tuned piano, the caretaker at the former prison camp who dreams of turning the crumbling ruin, the scraggly marshland and the enormous annoyance of the swarming mosquitoes into a unique agro-tourist experience.
The past is omnipresent, and the enigmatic story of a woman who, in the 1960s, worked as a guard in the political camp acknowledges the political ambiguity and the impossibility of true reconciliation in the present Balkan conjuncture. She has recently died of Parkinson’s Disease, and her story is told from the daughter’s point of view, a sort of everywoman who represents the present generation, heirs of a whole Pandora’s Box of conflicting traditions and responsibilities. Her acceptance of her mother’s conflicting histories is at once deeply personal and symbolic of the instinctive goodwill of the townspeople. The film’s framing images, coming at the beginning and the end, show young kids on bicycles and on foot following in the poisonous path of a truck spewing beautiful white clouds of insecticide. The sight of these children running in and out of the billowing poison joyfully jumping around and coughing unselfconsciously, while the exterminators watch impassively from the truck, is a fitting image of the irony and sadness of the situation… and the reckless, irrepressible joy.
The Bosnian audience at Sarajevo was highly entertained, laughing often, sometimes at the idiotic squalor of life among the detritus of socialist central planning, something the Bosnians know first hand, though never to the same degree of absurdity. And sometimes at the goofiness of the citizens. Bosnians have never experienced the absolute abysmal economic and political system that Bulgarians lived with during socialism, so they can afford to laugh at this town which seems to have inherited only artifacts worthy of a junkheap. But I believe that their laughter was informed by a true respect for these people, and for their talent to turn lemons into lemonade.
It must have been with admiration and envy that they watched these people who, without the resources to turn guns into ploughshares, did at least have the good sense and respect for human life to let the guns rust away into obsolescence. It has given them a great luxury that Bosnians were forced to forget about: the luxury of passing from Communist oppression to the long dreamed of western liberal society in peace. In this way, this hopeless little Bulgarian hicktown looks a little bit like paradise on the Danube.
The Mosquito Problem and other stories. Bulgaria, 2007. Directed by Andrey Paounov, written by Lilia Topouzova and Paounov and produced by M. Bozhilov for Agitprop.