Documentaries are often seen as the poor cousin of narrative films. They are often overlooked in the main selection at film festivals and seldom win any of the main awards. Take Cannes Film Festival for instance. In 2012 Sophia’s Last Ambulance was only the second documentary to feature in its International Critics Week. It went on to win the inaugural France 4 Visionary Award.
The Bulgarian capital Sophia is home to over one million people. However, it only has thirteen working ambulances (and ‘working’ is an exaggeration). Ilian Metev’s film follows the daily lives of Krassi, Mila and Plamen – doctor, nurse and driver respectively. Overworked and underpaid, the trio heroically face adversity after adversity amidst the country’s crumbling healthcare system. They go about their work with good humour and positivity, even when faced with circumstances almost beyond belief.
Metev made the decision to focus on the three healthcare workers, and the camera rarely strays from their faces. Travelling around in the back of the ambulance with the team and a soundman, the Bulgarian director illustrates the porous state of his country’s disintegrating health infrastructure. The choice to focus solely on the medical workers adds a fresh dimension; neatly side-stepping any temptation to show the shocking result of the failures on the patients themselves. We can hear them but we can’t see them. It turns out to be an inspired one. Never before has such a subtle film painted such a stark warning of how a society is going dangerously wrong.
Sophia’s Last Ambulance is released on DVD by Second Run on October 13th.