Thursday, May 01, 2014

SFIFF ’14: Soul Food Stories

It is not about collard greens or any of the staples Americans typically consider Soul Food. It is about the local cuisine that transcends religious and ethnic differences in a provincial Bulgarian hamlet, as well as the spiritual fuel that sustains the Muslim population during fasts. The villagers’ customs, foibles, prejudices, and culinary arts are quietly captured in Tonislav Hristov’s Soul Food Stories, which screens during the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival.

The population of tiny Satovcha barely tops two thousand, but it is far from homogenous. Pomacs (long-established Bulgarian Muslims), Orthodox Christians, increasingly Evangelical Roma, and unreconstructed atheist Marxists all make up a considerable percentage of the village. Despite religious and ideological differences, Satovcha remains peaceful (so far), held together by shared meals (and arguably a common sexism).

If you like savory pastries than Bulgarian cuisine will look delicious. The women of Satovcha seem to spend all their days cooking, so they have had time to hone their skills. In contrast, the men specialize in looking so rustic and eccentric we almost overlook how appalling some of their assertions truly are. The local Communist Party hack is a case in point. He takes great pains to explain religion was not oppressed during the old regime, but it would get you fired if you were caught attending a house of worship. Okay, thanks for clearing that up.

Sadly, the Roma are (once again) the only demographic group not given a real chance to speak for themselves in Food. Instead, Hristov shows them looking understandably confused as the local Korean missionary gives a sermon in halting English that his translator only occasionally bothers to interpret for the flock. You start to wonder who is kidding whom.

Yet, by and large, Food is a hopeful film. Satovcha stands in marked contrast to experience of the former Yugoslavia. Notwithstanding the frustrations of minor apparatchiks, the fall of Communism also comes across as a good thing on balance, allowing our kind-of, sort-of POV couple to return to their traditional Pomac names and to freely practice their religion.

The productive Hristov (whose subsequent doc just premiered at Tribeca) catches some telling moments, but he is too content to amble through the bucolic town rather than setting a rigorous agenda. Wry but slight, Soul Food Stories will narrowly appeal to those who appreciate quietly quirky slice-of-life documentaries when it screens again Saturday (5/3) and Tuesday (5/6) as part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.