Sofia's Last Ambulance: Cannes Review

Sofia's Last Ambulance Cannes still 2012
Sutor Kolonko, Nukleus Film, SIA
Award-winning fly-on-the-wall documentary examines front-line medical personnel with laconically elliptical admiration.

Ilian Metev's documentary follows three Bulgarian EMS personnel in a city where just a handful of ambulances serve 2 million people.

Its misleadingly alarmist - and inaccurate - title aside, Sofia's Last Ambulance is an admirably solid slice of old-school cinéma-verité that chronicles and celebrates a team of Bulgarian EMS personnel. Debuting in the International Critics' Week at Cannes, it landed the sidebar's inaugural "Visionary Award" for the Sofia-born London-trained director/camera-operator/co-editor Ilian Metev, and will be a very popular pick for non-fiction festivals and upscale TV networks worldwide.

A Bulgarian-Croatian-German co-production, it was made with support from both German and French television channels (WDR and Arte) and deals with subject-matter that's become a staple of small-screen programming across the globe: The real lives and professional activities of medical personnel in daily crisis situations. But for obvious reasons of practicality and safety, the type of workers foregrounded here have more often featured in fictional treatments than documentary ones.

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There are perhaps some places where equipment-toting film-makers shouldn't be encouraged to go, and the cramped confines of speeding ambulances - carrying patients who may be hovering between life and death - arguably fall into that category. Perhaps because of such considerations, much of Metev's footage comes from three small dashboard-mounted cameras trained on the faces of his protagonists: Stoic, middle-aged Doctor Krassimir ('Krassi') Yordanov, chatterbox paramedic Mila Mikhailova and thirtyish driver Plamen Slavkov. The visages of their patients, however, are tactfully concealed from our view throughout.

Filmed over a period of two years, Sofia's Last Ambulance provides an 80-minute snapshot of the trio's professional activities - including down-time when they can smoke, chat and pass comment on the world as seen through their grimy windscreen. "There's a woman who knows what she wants in life," notes an admiring Mila of an unshown passer-by - the speaker herself evidently uncertain whether attending to the complex needs of Sofia's sick and injured, some of them perhaps less worthy of her compassion than others, should be the limit of her ambitions.

It's tough, demanding labor for sure - but relieved, M*A*S*H-style, by the flinty humor and camaraderie which has built up among what an observer calls a "really nice" team. On one level, Metev's movie is a study of workplace relations and how folk get along in cramped spaces and extreme conditions. But it also provides indirect commentary on the state of the nation - as illustrated by various districts in the city-centre and the run-down surrounding areas - painting as unflattering a portrait as Cristi Puiu's fictional variant The Death of Mr Lazarescu did of Bulgaria's Balkan neighbor Romania.   

While the director's m.o. is to eschew overt editorializing of any kind, a little more basic information - about the ambulance, its staff and the health-care system in general - wouldn't have gone amiss. The Cannes press-notes, for example, describe Sofia as "a city where 13 ambulances struggle to serve 2 million people," thus giving the lie to Metev's inexplicable and hyperbolically apocalyptic choice of (English-language) title. "I am the only resuscitator in the whole of Sofia," remarks Krassi at one stage, but "last resuscitator" and "last ambulance" are very different things.

The final scenes, meanwhile, seem to hint that Mila has finally had enough of the ambulance life and has quit - but it's impossible to know for sure as Metev evidently intends the images to speak for themselves. They do so, up to a point - but the picture's briskly austere directness leaves fundamental questions naggingly unanswered.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (International Critics' Week), May 23
Production companies: Sutor Kolonko, Nukleus Film, SIA
Director: Ilian Metev
Producers: Dimitar Gotchev, Siniša Juri?i?, Ingmar Trost, Ilian Metev
Exective producers: Lora Chenakova, Dan Cogan, Lisa Kleiner Chanoff
Director of photography: Ilian Metev
Editors: Ilian Metev, Betina Ip
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch, Paris
No rating, 80 minutes.