There’s a “China Syndrome” coincidence greeting the arrival of “Fear” in North American cinemas this weekend.
All those news reports about an outpouring of support for refugees fleeing Ukraine for points West have come with one seriously ugly sidebar. African students attending college in Ukraine have been badly misused and abused at the border.
“Fear” isn’t about that Russian invasion or about Ukraine. But this biting parable about an African fleeing violence in Mali, trapped in a Bulgarian town near the Turkish border, still resonates. The part of the world that perfected anti-Semitism and hardwired hatred of Gypsies into its various cultures isn’t exactly famous for its liberality and tolerance when it comes to people with darker skin, as “Fear” reminds us.
Svetla, played by the Bulgarian Frances McDormand, Svetlana Yancheva, has just lost her job at a school that closed. The village where she lives isn’t dying. It’s all but dead. A half-finished Iron Curtain era resort stands stark guard over this section of the coast. And even the winter-stripped trees, shorn and so ashen as to make one question if life will ever return there, underscore the death and emptiness there.
Svetla will stay on, job or no job, to tend to her husband’s grave and carry on one-sided conversations with him. Luckily, she’s handy with a shotgun and there are hares to be had. So at least she won’t starve.
The local border guard garrison, commanded by the bearishly uncuddly Bochev (Stoyan Bochev) may drag a fear-mongering TV reporter out for a “NoSir” hunt — “We yell, ‘Are you armed?’ at the immigrants,” a subordinate jokes. “NOsir!” And all the spit-flinging xenophobic talk on TV and among her neighbors should harden Svetla’s attitudes towards “foreigners,” too.
But damned if she doesn’t roust one up while out hunting hares.
The language barrier between them is complete. He speaks English, tells her he’s from Mali, begs her not to shoot. She sputters in Bulgarian and rages and marches him, at gunpoint, to that garrison. It’s empty. Everybody’s out hunting up immigrants trying to cross in groups.
She asks the mayor where to take him and gets the runaround. Even reaching the guards earns a gruff, racist dismissal from folks who still make simian insults when they see a Black face. They have no room for him.
There’s nothing for it but to take him home, try to communicate just enough to keep him in line, and sleep with her shotgun as she keeps the stranger locked in her cellar.
“I have human rights!” he protests in vain. “Don’t cry, you African man,” she pleads, also in vain.
Actor turned writer-director Ivaylo Hristov paints this village in compact, subtle strokes of intolerance. They’re bigots to a one, irate at the cornucopia of refugees from Afghanistan and Syria and elsewhere, all trying to get to “Germany” by way of their dying, flat-broke community.
“No dirty Gypsies in my hotel,” growls Ivan (Ivan Savov), a council member and local shaker and mover who crudely flirted with Svetla right up to the moment she took in an African stranger, who turns out to be named Bamba (Michael Flemming).
Bamba smiles, speaks English to all he meets and tries to placate fears. He’d also like to move to Germany. Anything’s got to be better than this racist rathole, right?
But he is rebuffed at every turn. Only Svetla warms to his plight, and that seems to be as much the result of local harassment as any milk of human kindness coursing through her heart. Threats, vandalism and worse face them, and in the manner of a hundred movies about people making a journey to interracial understanding, Svetla gets her back up.
The film’s grim black and white cinematography rules out much in the way of cute. But Bamba’s pluck and Svetla’s softening have an upbeat quality. The village is so bereft of cosmopolitanism that they need a schoolboy to translate their instructions to their detained migrants into fractured English, always good for a laugh.
“Fear” can’t help but cover familiar immigrant narrative ground. But Hristov and his characters maintain a deadpan drollery that makes this grimmer take on the migrant’s plight and Eastern Europe’s often hateful backwardness play as lighter than it really is.
Rating: unrated, violence, racial slurs, profanity
Cast: Svetlana Yancheva, Michael Flemming, Stoyan Bochev, Ivan Savov, Miroslava Gogovska and Krassimir Dokov
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ivaylo Hristov. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:40