SFIFF 2013 Review: ‘Sofia’s Last Ambulance’ Is Compelling Civic Art

By  · Published on April 28th, 2013

Sofia’s Last Ambulance opens with the camera advancing toward an open door. Men in work clothes stare through the fourth wall and step aside as the screen moves past them. It takes a second to realize that the steady camerawork is not there to be ignored, as is normally the case in a well-produced feature film; instead, the camera’s point of view is the premise of the whole movie. With lenses affixed to the titular ambulance, we roll ahead on four wheels – we see what the mechanical infrastructure sees.

The film is all about infrastructure. In particular, it follows the bumpy circuits of a troika of EMS workers in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. It’s a formally dispassionate but loving portrait of three admirable people, tired to the bone, who over the course of two years go about their impossible task of tending to the sick and the injured with an equally broken emergency response system.

The title overstates things, but only slightly. Theirs isn’t the last ambulance servicing Sofia, but it’s one of only 13 in a metropolis of over 1.2 million. That means our heroes are responsible for approximately 92,668 potential patients on any given night. The three, doctor Krassimir Yordanov, nurse Mila Mikhailova, and driver Plamen Slavkov, all go about their rounds with quiet competence, undeterred by these superhuman odds. They’re good at their job, and they like each other; it’s clear they’re doing the best they can. This isn’t a sensationalist expose of medical malpractice, nor is it an exercise in post-Soviet worker hagiography. But the sober view this documentary takes of its subjects allows the everyday goodness of professionals just doing their jobs to take on nuanced moral overtones.

First-time director Ilian Metev is lucky to have a topic with frequent, serial crises built in. Each scene presents a new life-or-death situation to be handled. Metev also has the good taste to keep the patients uniformly off screen, which is all the better for the focus this allows him to bestow on his subjects. Nurse Mikhailova comes off as the most appealing character, and not simply because she’s the most voluble of the trio. Her wide, handsome face engages with each person in front of her, co-worker, patient, or pedestrian. She addresses the world kindly and with a reassuring forthrightness. She is equally giving with a young charge in the back of the ambulance who had a wardrobe fall on top of her as she is with her own child on the phone, calling to say goodnight.

The two men are more taciturn, but no less compassionate. Plamen takes his role as a ferryman seriously, though it’s not his only job. When the ambulance gets in an accident of its own with a taxi that cuts them off, Plamen harangues its driver for delaying the doctor and nurse on their way to save someone’s life. “You make me embarrassed to be a taxi driver,” he says, somehow avoiding an accusatory tone. Doctor Krassi, as Mila calls him, shows his strength by treating all his patients with equally forceful decency, as when he tries to get through to a young junkie shooting up “trash,” some kind of low-grade opiate with horse tranquilizer and fiberglass mixed in. His kind eyes turn wistful when considering colleagues who’ve moved on to other jobs or other countries. It’s a question of miserably low pay for long, exhausting shifts, but there’s barely a note of disapproval when he remarks, “we’ve lost almost all our squad.” For him, the ambulance is a moral, not a fiscal commitment.

Most of the time, the dashboard-mounted cameras are up in our heroes’ faces, giving us time if not space to become familiar with their rhythms, their subtle shifts in mood, and their humanity. It’s rare to get such a close look at working-class life in Bulgaria, and doubly so to see it so unadorned of any local or exoticizing drama. The mundane trials of the residents of Sofia reflect onto the trio’s faces like light from a streetlamp. You recognize yourself or your neighbors in it. These three could come to your door if your own partner had a heart attack. They might not have the latest in medical equipment, but they seem to do fine with what they’ve got.

The tight framing and close quarters we keep with the three means there’s barely any exposition, visually or narratively. But an image of where they’re working and what they’re working with gradually comes into view. We see them drive down potholed roads and towards the outskirts of town, where a deep green mountain envelops new-ish subdivisions of the same cheap cinderblock-stucco-and-steel construction that rings cities everywhere. Plamen marvels at the kind of riches someone would need to be able to waste it on a house with a built-in snow machine. Mila gazes at a woman crossing in front of the ambulance and announces, “that’s somebody who knows what she wants in life.” She can tell from the way she dresses and accessorizes. Does that mean Mila, too, knows what she wants and dresses for it? She doesn’t seem too bothered either way.

Circulating in the city they’ll presumably die in, the ambulance crew has the same sort of thankless task as municipal plumbers or electricians. They get paid about the same rate, at least. But their work deals with more precious nodes in the infrastructure of the city: its inhabitants. So their gentler touch raises them up above their surroundings, as does the cinema-vérité focus director Metev bestows on them.

His own camera crew had to make itself as unobtrusive as possible, in order to extract the unique lives that this ambulance carried around the capital city. Relying on both mechanical solutions (dashboard- or grille-mounted cameras) and deft physical maneuvering, Metev ended up mimicking the subtle ways the doctor, the nurse, and the driver weave through the complex mechanico-human system that makes Sofia run. And in attempting to let others’ lives flow through his work, Metev matches his subjects’ abilities in pulling off admirable, compassionate, civic art.

The Upside: Metev matches his subjects’ abilities in pulling off admirable, compassionate, civic art

The Downside: Those looking for a patient-driven episodic reality style doc this is not for you

On the Side: Co-produced by Franco-German cable channel Arte. I have come to seek out their productions which represent some of the best in cinema and documentary being made today.