The Pit, directed by Hristiana Rykova, will be screened on 18 October as part of The Calvert Journal Film Festival: 7 days of New East cinema online. Check out the programme and get your free tickets here.
In the Bulgarian city of Varna, by the shores of Black Sea, a column of mist conceals the silhouettes of men and women in their bathing suits. They sit by the edge of a swimming pool overlooking the water which, at a distance, blends with the horizon. This concrete square of thermal water, lovingly nicknamed “the pit” by locals, is the main character in the homonymous debut documentary by Bulgarian director Hristiana Raykova, screening at The Calvert Journal Film Festival on 18 October.
“One day, I was walking around Varna, and I came across the pit. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, but it was the first time I looked at it with different eyes,” Raykova, who is herself from Varna, tells The Calvert Journal. “I thought it looked quite cinematic, and I wondered if there was more to it. When I went there, and I started talking to people, I knew right away that I had found a story. The pit is more than a swimming pool; it is a place of gathering.”
The pit is a thermal water pool by Varna’s seaside. It is free to use, and it is mostly frequented by pensioners. Rain or shine, the pit is always full, and acts as a social hub: people swim, play cards, and talk about politics, their past, and their families. An entire microcosm of Bulgarian society floats between the pool’s four concrete walls.
Raykova’s documentary unveils the human side of the pool through three of its unlikely frequenters: Alexander, a retired musician who hires out bedrooms in his house to tourists, Genadi, a Siberian man who owns a petting zoo in Varna, and Dimtscho, a divorced taxi driver with a new Russian girlfriend. Through intimate, honest conversations, the documentary slowly unveils the individual worlds that converge at the pit, blending them together to create a touching picture of the day-to-day issues of Varna’s elders.
“We wanted to set the scene of the pit as not just a place, but a place with people. The pit only works because of the people, it lives because of them, the whole energy comes from the people,” Raykova explains.
The Pit also ventures into the pool at night time. Bobby, a young man who is mostly homeless, hangs out there in the dark to meet other men to sleep with: sometimes for money, sometimes for pleasure. Away from the daytime taboos of Varna’s conservative society, Bobby opens up about his sexuality to the camera.
This kaleidoscope of characters are united not only by the pit itself but also by their desire to preserve it. Halfway through the documentary, the characters discover that the local council is talking about closing the pit, or at least starting to charge for its use. Outraged at the thought of losing their free slice of paradise, some pool users start to gather signatures. Here, once more, the politics of the pit mirror those of Bulgarian society, says Raykova. “People didn’t know what was going to happen to their swimming pool, and they didn’t trust the city council or the mayor. This absence of trust in politicians is very common in Bulgaria.”
Yet ultimately, it is moments of happiness that give the film its heart. “At the pit, we don’t know each other’s names, just the faces. Here you see lots of different faces. Then I meet them in town, and I say ‘hello, I know you from the pit!’,” one of the bath-goers says laughingly at the start of the documentary.
Unhurried, with touches of sadness but full of joy and sympathy, The Pit is a must-watch to understand the intricacies of Bulgarian society from a humane, hopeful perspective.