• Film

Filmmaker Tonislav Hristov Mixing Documentary Style with Fiction in His First Feature Movie

Miscalculating one situation can lead to a chain reaction of unfortunate events that eventually destroys everything that matters. Filmmaker Tonislav Hristov’s drama The Good Driver is based on a true story about a man who gets involved in smuggling illegal immigrants. Hristov got familiar with the dark business of human trafficking when he was filming his documentary The Good Postman (2016). The Sundance-selected film followed Ivan, a postman who wanted to help refugee families from Syria in a small Bulgarian village located near the Turkish border.

During the production, Hristov got to know another Ivan. His first dramatic feature film, The Good Driver, is based on Ivan’s life. He is a taxi driver living at the Golden Sands tourist resort and trying to save money so that he can go from Bulgaria to Finland to meet his wife and son.

He gets in trouble with local criminals and is forced to move back to his late mother’s house in his childhood village by the Turkish border. Ivan ends up working for the local mayor in a line of business he’s been trying to avoid. Hristov told us, via Zoom, why he decided to make The Good Driver a work of fiction instead of a documentary.


Tonislav, you were born in the small city Vratsa in northwest Bulgaria. Can you tell us a bit more about your background?

I went to a local Art High School and studied music. After that, I studied engineering at Technical University in Rousse. At the end of my education, I met a Finnish girl. Later, I moved to Finland and we got married. She’s an actress and through her I got to know film industry people like director Pirjo Honkasalo. I became a technical assistant to her and worked with her on her movie The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, a documentary about the toll that the war had taken on the children of Chechnya and Russia. I’ve never seen documentaries made that way and I got really interested in making them. So, I started to study documentary filmmaking. In the beginning, when I was filming my shorts, I made a deal with more seasoned directors: I fixed their gear and editing rooms in exchange for using their camera and advice on storytelling and editing. I got to know filmmaking on a practical level. My final schoolwork was about my family, Family Fortune. Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE promised to co-produce it if I found a real producer outside of the university. One of the names they gave to me was Kaarle Aho.

Kaarle Aho is a co-owner of a successful Finish production company Making Movies, together with Kai Nordberg. How was it to be mentored by Kaarle?

We met over coffee. I told him about my idea of my family in Bulgaria and the changes that were going on when Bulgaria joined the European Union. He promised to produce it. We were still missing money. At the same time, I was going through a divorce. I returned to Bulgaria. I remember saying to Kaarle: “If we don’t get funding I might not come back to Finland”. One day he called me and let me know that the church fund decided to give money to our project. I returned to Finland and finished my school and the movie. Kaarle was already an established documentary filmmaker. He was listening calmly to my crazy ideas and then told me what we can do. He was very realistic. He surrounded me with professionals and that was very important. I had the energy but I didn’t have the knowledge yet. Over the last 15 years, we have done seven feature-length documentaries and this fiction, The Good Driver. We also became friends. 

How important is it to you to tell Bulgarian stories and be a voice of your culture?

I don’t see myself as the Bulgarian voice. But, definitely, my foreign background influences my work. That’s something I cannot change. And I don’t want to. It’s my perception of storytelling. It’s who I am and how I see the stories. That’s why I tell them. The main question is: “Am I the right person to tell that story”? That’s the question I always ask myself. It doesn’t matter what the film is about. That’s why they are very personal to me. And I always try to tell it from a personal point of view. Before this fiction film my last documentary, called The Magic Life of V, was about a young Finnish woman who was abused by her father when she was small. It’s a very tough story again but, through that, I found this whole lost childhood link to my life somehow.

Bulgaria is at a political crossroads, caught between different countries. How much responsibility do you feel to bring up the current geopolitical situation and events in your home country and neighboring countries?

I don’t feel responsible, but I feel it’s something I want to do because I think it’s right. I guess I’m doing them because the territory of Eastern Europe is very interesting at the moment. Many things are happening there, now with the war, and everything. It’s a very controversial place, easily going in crazy directions. That’s why it’s interesting territory for me at the moment. For example, my parents have grown up with a pro-Russian culture; food, music, literature, everything. Now, to tell them that what is happening is a terrible crime is something that they cannot take so easily. I mean, they understand it. Everyone, all the pro-Russian parties at the moment are for peace and understanding. But it’s not easy at the moment. I understand them but, because I’ve lived in Finland over 15 years, I can have a foreign point of view on the problems. For the people who live in Bulgaria, they don’t have distance enough to realize what’s happening. For me, spending that much time abroad, I can see things that are not okay.

Can you talk about the style of your films?

My documentaries are really story driven. They look like fiction films. I’ve never crossed the line but I’ve been interested in playing on the line. Like, what’s fiction and what’s documentary? I’ve always wanted to do fiction that is more documentary. When I heard the story about this driver, which was based on a real character, we couldn’t make a documentary about him because we couldn’t film him doing these crimes. Then, Kaarle started to write fiction based on him, mixing my personal experiences in Finland, stories about family identity and migration. There are also a lot of documentary elements. For example, all the refugees you see in the car are real refugees. They are singing the songs they were singing when they were crossing the borders. You can see in their eyes that they have gone through horrible things.

Can you talk about one of the moral dilemmas of The Good Driver? Can money solve all the problems?

This is going back to the mixture between Eastern and Western Europe. After the Iron Curtain fell, Eastern Europeans felt the freedom of going to the West and making money, making a living and stuff. In this process, quite many of us lost a bit of our souls because many people left their families and children in Bulgaria. They went to work abroad to bring money back. Time passed. Then, in a moment, they realized they actually have lost the one thing that matters most: love and family.

In The Good Driver, Ivan left his wife and kid in Finland because of money problems, and returned to Bulgaria. He had this idea that if he makes enough money he can come back and the money would buy the love and the time that was lost. But Finns are very principled and straightforward people. When you break their trust, it’s really hard to get it back. On the other hand, East Europeans are always trying to find a way of dealing with things. It’s also a big macho culture. Men want to take care of everything. It was important for me to show cultural clashes.

You are also telling Finnish stories. How would you compare Finnish culture to Bulgarian?

I have to say I feel quite fluent in both cultures. Spending so much time in Finland has made me really understand and get to know the culture very well. I feel comfortable in both places. And that’s why I think that even if my films have Eastern topics, they still have Finnish influence. Most of my film influence comes from Finland. I like the slow storytelling and that small things matter.

After The Good Postman and The Good Driver you made a documentary called The Last Seagull that is also taking place on the seaside of Bulgaria. Would you tell us more?

After The Good Postman we found, in the same region, this other story about the guy who was the trafficker. It was about a guy whose name is also Ivan. All the main characters in the three films are Ivan, which I think is super funny because we never planned it. In Bulgaria, a male gigolo is called a seagull. They go to the beach and they hook up with foreign women. This happened mainly in the 60s and 70s, when the only places where Westerners could go to were the beach resorts. Many relationships started there. Many people also got married, moved abroad. One of the seagulls tells his story of how he fell in love with the Swedish lady. He was supposed to move to Sweden but, then, the government didn’t allow that. Now he has been doing this for 40 years.

Are there any other similarities between these three stories? 

All three movies are about lost middle-aged men. They got lost while they were reaching their dreams. They all have failed family life. They all were so concerned about having a great family but they failed in doing that. It’s a very interesting subject, where and how they failed. They failed in different ways.


They couldn’t deliver and they couldn’t be good fathers. I was doing these stories because I have two boys and I want to be as good a father as possible. I’m challenging myself with these three fell fathers. I’m not going to be one of them. I’m trying to be the opposite.

What are you doing next?

Now I’m doing a documentary about fake news. It’s really, really strong at the moment. There is a very strong Russian wave in Bulgaria due to the history. But there is also a strong American wave because we are part of NATO,  because of Serbia and Croatia conflicts; and we are a member of the European Union. It’s a very interesting position, all these political waves. And that’s why it’s also a very strong place for fake news.