The sea has always provided the last refuge (or final resting place) for those who can see no future for themselves on dry land. Always in flux, but more permanent than anything that has ever dared to poke its head or jagged peak out of the primordial waters, this rolling region beyond the 12-mile limit of kinship and commitment still laps at the human imagination like the phantom waves within a conch shell. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s Ishmael describes the crew of the Pequod as a collection of “isolatoes”, each living, working, and dreaming on a continent of his own. The Last Black Sea Pirates tells the story of another such group of lost and frowned upon souls – one that never makes it off the continental shelf.
The crew in question is led by treasure map holder/interpreter “Captain Jack” – a burly, weather-beaten patriarch whose meager monthly allowance checks allow him to furnish his “pirates” with enough booze, cigarettes, dynamite and metal detectors to keep afloat their hopes of finding 19th century corsair Vulchan’s misplaced golden hoard. The charismatic Captain makes it a point of honour to do no digging or blasting himself, explaining that the best leaders leave no work for themselves. He does, however, take reasonably good care of his ragtag flock of humans, dogs and cats – pulling huge numbers of fish and crustaceans out of the sustaining sea. This living plunder is the only treasure these beach-bound buccaneers are ever likely to discover, and the film’s expressive camera remains melancholically mindful of the slowly spasming buckets full of air-drowning animals haphazardly strewn around the Captain’s crumbling porch. Perhaps these flailing, gasping creatures are intended to remind us of the people who eat them? And yet, the men are hardy individuals, used to living without creature comforts – or vegetables. In fact, this precarious and singularly impecunious pirate raid upon the Bulgarian coast had been going on for many years before director Svetoslav Stoyanov and writer Vanya Rainova decided to document its progress, or lack thereof.
By the time we meet Captain Jack’s crew, frustration and a terrible lack of proper nutrition has begun to tear the men apart. Every day, the leader’s golden commands seem less able to elicit the belief necessary to sustain their collective dream. Before our eyes, these “isolatoes” begin to withdraw to the separate continents of loss, hopelessness and sheer drunken apathy they had carried within them since they first cut themselves adrift from all inherited or imposed responsibility. This process is exacerbated by news that the Bulgarian government is planning to develop luxury properties and tourist attractions on the supposedly “protected” land inhabited by the pirates. Now, even the faint chance of discovering pirate treasure threatens to be buried under concrete condominiums. It’s a sad story, but one that is shot through with the rough humour of men (and one woman) who have learned not to expect too much from life, but still cannot help wondering what it would be like to have enough money to live the way people do on TV – or in the great legends of the sea.
The Last Black Sea Pirates made its North American premiere at the Scotiabank Theatre on May 1. It will show again at the TIFF Lightbox Theatre on May 2 (4 pm) and on May 4 (9 pm).
Consult the complete Hot Docs Festival schedule here.