‘The Last Seagull’ Explores an Over-the-Hill Escort’s Passion for Life and Love in a Bulgarian Beach Town
When he began working on his latest documentary, “The Last Seagull,” acclaimed Bulgarian filmmaker Tonislav Hristov (“The Good Postman”) set himself a seemingly simple task: to follow the last of the dying breed of male escorts who, since the communist era, have spent their summers seducing foreign women in resort towns along the Black Sea.
That plan went astray, however, when real-world events intervened: first the coronavirus pandemic, which grounded flights and shuttered the very resorts where those escorts plied their trade; then the war in Ukraine, which impacted “The Last Seagull” in unexpected ways.
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“This is what’s nice, but also scary, about documentaries,” Hristov told Variety. “You never know what’s going to happen next.”
“The Last Seagull” is the director’s eighth documentary feature, following films such as Sundance and Berlinale selection “The Magic Life of V” (2019) and “The Good Postman,” which premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2016, before playing at Sundance.
It was while making that film, which Variety’s Guy Lodge described as “a sad, searing and profoundly empathetic study of electoral process in a minute Bulgarian village split by opposing responses to the Syrian refugee crisis,” that Hristov met the protagonist of “The Last Seagull,” one of the 40 or so residents of the hamlet where “The Good Postman” is set.
Ivan is a former lifeguard who in the fresh bloom of youth used his beach bod and bedroom eyes to make ends meet as a boyfriend-for-hire — the sort of aimless, effortless, seasonal work that would tide him over through the lean winter months. Now using his shaggy hair and shaggier charms to bed women of a certain age and uncertain immigration prospects, he is reflecting on a life that didn’t go according to plan, and ready to take a last-gasp stab at finding happiness by falling in love and settling down.
Using footage from Hristo Kovachev’s short documentary “Seagulls” (1977), Hristov paints a portrait of a bygone time in Bulgarian history, when nimble, multi-lingual paramours like Ivan — who earned the nickname “seagulls” for both their scavenging ways and their persistence — were emblematic of an era in which foreign goods were scarce and a Black Sea resort town like the one featured in his film “was the only place where you could touch Western culture.”
Young men from the countryside flocked to resorts like Sunny Beach, lured by the prospect of meeting German or Scandinavian tourists who might pay them for sexual favors, shower them with illicit Western gifts like Toblerone chocolates and Nivea skin cream, or perhaps even whisk them away from a life of deprivation behind the Iron Curtain. “Some found love, some found something else they were looking for,” said Hristov. “It was the most exotic place you could go during the communist time.”
After some four decades of such fleeting, transactional relationships, Ivan finally seems ready to turn a new page, hoping to make amends with his estranged son from a disastrous failed marriage, and even going so far as to propose to the Ukrainian woman he’s been courting over the course of several summers. “He was a very tragic character, but at the same time, he still had passion for life and love,” said Hristov. But Ivan’s plans were interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered Bulgaria’s beach resorts and upended a time-tested way of life for the few seagulls left.
It also threw a monkey-wrench into the director’s plans. “When COVID hit, I was like, ‘Is this the end of the film? Is there going to be a next act?,’” said Hristov. Life and production eventually resumed, but “The Last Seagull” took another unexpected turn when Russia invaded Ukraine last year, and Ivan suddenly became distraught over the fate of his estranged son, who lives with his Ukrainian wife and their newborn son in Kyiv.
Hristov, who was in post-production on the film, received his producers’ blessing and support to add a war-time coda. “This is the thing about life and documentary filmmaking. You can never plan how the story is going to go,” he said. Even in the midst of tragedy, “you keep going and life continues.”
“The Last Seagull” is produced by Kaarle Aho and Kai Nordberg for Making Movies, and co-produced by Torstein Parelius, Ingrid Galadriel Aune Falch and Christian Aune Falch (UpNorth Film) and Andrea Stanoeva (Soul Food). CAT&Docs is handling world sales.
After premiering at Thessaloniki Intl. Documentary Festival, the film screens next at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, where Hristov will also be pitching his next feature, “Truth.com,” a documentary that follows a female journalist in the Balkans who takes on Russian trolls and the scourge of fake news.
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