Belene, a sleepy northern Bulgarian town that lies on the southern bank of the Danube, has a human population of only 9,826 but a seemingly infinite population of mosquitoes. The epidemic affects every town resident, so naturally the Bulgarian filmmaker Andrey Paounov has given his 2007 documentary on Belene the title of The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories. And appropriately enough, Paounov’s second feature starts with a scene of exterminators in a truck getting ready as anxious children watch and wait.
Pauonov provides a rather snide commentary on Belene’s recent history in a prologue: “Not so long ago, communism vanished from the map of Eastern Europe. Equipped with newfound freedom and dreams of economic prosperity, people embarked on the journey of democracy. In the haunted lands of the former East, a small town blinded by a capitalist future and dusting off the ghosts of an unsettling past is taking a chance at the present.” As the truck starts making its peripatetic trip around town blowing miniature clouds of insecticide, we understand that the “mosquito problem” is a metaphor for a town on the cusp of a future shrouded in a thick haze of uncertainty.
The prologue may hint at the film being another rather heavy-handed, humorless, and pedantic documentary. Instead, Pauonov deftly eases the audience into sympathizing and empathizing with the town’s quirky yet likable residents. There is the jack-of-all-trades pianist who tunes pianos, moonlights as a keyboardist at the local tavern, and fancies himself an artistic kindred spirit of Chopin. An unassuming middle-aged couple swings a vacuum cleaner hose around in the air to suck up mosquitoes in order to be able to sleep. Belene even has its own Jonas Mekas, an elderly man who has obsessively filmed odd characters and interesting sights around town on his 8mm camera since 1971.
However, the film turns decidedly bleaker when we meet Fernando Almaralis Diaz, the sole Cuban worker at the town’s aborted nuclear power plant project. An ambitious project that began in 1981 with 7,000 guest workers from the various nations of the communist bloc has been on hold since 1990. Now the unfinished plant’s last remaining guest worker makes ends meet by creating animal sculptures from pieces of driftwood. Fernando himself has become a piece of driftwood himself, and one cannot help but worry that Belene itself may suffer a similar fate, pummeled by the relentless tidal waves of an unforgiving global economy.
Yet the residents of the town remain optimistic about the completion of the power plant and the new jobs that it will supposedly bring. The middle-aged husband says with a straight face, “Belene is a pretty little town on the Danube. We all hope it will become the Pearl of the Danube when the nuclear power plant opens. We are lucky to be walking towards the nuclear future.” As the world currently still deals with the possibly devastating fallout from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, the unintentional irony of the man’s statement registers an even more desperate and deadly tone.
All of the naive characters and unintentional comedy are reminiscent of the American documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s earlier works. In Roger and Me, Moore captured the devastation of Flint, Michigan, a town victimized by the laissez-faire capitalist practices of General Motors. At the very least though, the auto industry initially brought financial windfall to Flint for a few decades. Will the nuclear power plant and the promises of capitalism result in any positive consequences for Belene? Even if the nuclear power plant does eventually get built, one doubts that it would avoid the fate that befell the GM plants in Flint.
Pretty cheerleaders at the Marie Curie Nuclear Energy High School practice typical cheer squad routines. A large restaurant serves food on dishes with Belene nuclear plant logos, left over from the heydays of the power plant cafeteria. The small town charms abound in this film, and they allows the viewers—most of whom could not point to Bulgaria on a map–to relate to the universal nature of the town’s “other stories.” The ultimate story is a tragedy, that of those who are slowly but surely suffocating in the smog of globalization and capitalism.
Intermittently infused into the deceptively lighthearted examination of Belene’s bleak future are allusions to a dark chapter in its past. When the exact nature of this troubling event is revealed towards the denouement, the effect is not to neatly tie up the loose ends but to actually confuse the audience even more. What one all along believed was a charming little town with likable if unsophisticated individuals is quietly but relentlessly doing all it can to exorcise the demons of an evil that once consumed it. Belene, to everyone’s surprise, is a microcosm of all things—good, bad, and the ugly—that define human nature.
The film ends with the extermination truck leaving a thick fog of insecticide in its trail, with gleeful children following and playing in the haze, either simply ignoring or not realizing the health hazards. In a touch of bittersweet irony, one of the most life-affirming pieces of music ever composed–Shostakovich’s Waltz Number 2—accompanies the scene. In the obfuscating haze of the insecticide spray lies the greatest strength of the human spirit—youthful hope. Laissez-faire capitalism and a nuclear power plant just might release a Pandora’s Box of ills to this sleepy little town, but undying hope resides in the hearts of the guileless children who run and play in the haze.