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Life in the World’s Fastest-Shrinking Country

Mar 15, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Kay Hannahan

Welcome to Altimir, Bulgaria, a village on the verge of extinction in the fastest-shrinking country in the world. Like many rural Bulgarians, Altimir’s residents regard the height of the Soviet Union as the halcyon days, when village life thrived and young people stuck around long enough to start a family. Now, 20 years after the fall of the USSR and a decade after it joined the European Union, Bulgaria is hemorrhaging citizens at a rate of 164 per day. It is at the front lines of population decline.

Kay Hannahan, a filmmaker, spent a summer living among the locals of Altimir. Cognizant of the fact that the story of globalization is often told from the perspective of those who leave, Hannahan told me that she “wanted to know what life was like for those that remained. What is lost when people decide to leave home in pursuit of a better life? What about those who stay?”

Hannahan’s meditative short documentary Altimir sees a crisis of depopulation through the eyes of one elderly couple, Yordan and Malinka. “Look how quiet it is; 3,500 people used to live here,” Yordan says as he leads Hannahan around town on his bicycle.

A confluence of factors have contributed to Bulgaria’s demographic catastrophe, including low birth rates (among the lowest in the world), high death rates, and a massive brain drain. The UN projects that Bulgaria’s population will fall from 7.2 million to 5.2 million by 2050. Currently, more than 1 million Bulgarians live abroad—most of them in the EU.

In Altimir, Hannahan found that the overwhelming sentiment of the villagers is a deep sense of nostalgia. “Their story reflects the challenges faced by many communities around the world that struggle to keep pace with change driven by the global economy.”

While filming, Hannahan began to realize that Yordan was using the camera to create a historical record of what remained in the village. “At this moment, I knew we were working on a project much bigger than the film I had originally conceived,” she said.

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.