Over the past year, the crucial role that medics and first responders play has been pushed into the spotlight, with their jobs being more important than ever. All too often, the stories and perspectives of these incredibly brave people are side-lined, and we rarely get to see things from their perspective. Sofia’s Last Ambulance (available on DVD) is a 2012 documentary from Bulgarian director Ilian Metev. It follows Krassi, Mila and Plamen, a team of medics who operate one of only 12 ambulances in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. They have to struggle to save lives, fighting against a lack of resources and ineffective communication.
Sofia’s Last Ambulance is discreetly shot, using dashboard cameras to capture the conversations the medics have in the ambulance and following them as they work, keeping the camera firmly fixed on their faces rather than indulging in sensationalism. The moments inside the ambulance are beautiful and intimate, as we get to see the deeply human aspect of working in the medical profession. We can see how the job is affecting them, as well as all the additional problems they have to deal with. Their conversions are honest and illuminating, as we get an insider’s perspective on a system that is slowly collapsing.
When they leave the ambulance, we follow them as they struggle to do their job, working in a city with many issues that are reflected in many different ways through the cases they are called to. Throughout all of these scenes, the camera is firmly fixed on the faces of the medics, even going as far as to use digital stabilisation in some shots. The patients or victims are kept out of frame, keeping the focus of the narrative firmly on the medics. This is incredibly effective, by only showing their reactions to what they are seeing and not what they are actually seeing, we can learn so much more about them and their situation. There are some truly incredible moments, both of skill and compassion from the medics and of some very stressful situations, showcasing the broad range of roles that are expected of them.
There is no overarching narrative in Sofia’s Last Ambulance, other than the consistent obstacles the medics have to face. Instead, the film is spit into a series of short stories, following different calls for a variety of different cases, punctuated by moments of stillness inside the ambulance. The fragmented nature of the film serves to show the chaos surrounding them in Sofia. The film could be five minutes or five hours, with each call telling its own story, culminating to paint a picture of these people and the city they live and work in. By splitting up the film into these separate parts we are taken up in the frantic nature of the job, and partially exposed to the range of roles they have to fill as medics. We see them speaking to the mother of a drug addict, comforting an injured child, and confronting a bad driver, all within the 90-minute run time. This back and forth while maintaining the same frantic, urgent tone excellently conveys the relentless nature of the job, and allows the audience to empathise with the medics.
We learn a lot about the three medics, as we see them in incredibly stressful situations and their various responses to those situations. We see them in moments of anticipation and of action, and are allowed a window into their lives. We are given intimate, yet carefully selected, moments which tell us a lot about each member’s personality, experience and situation. We can see that they are all struggling, weighed down by the responsibilities of an incredibly demanding job as well as fighting uphill against a dysfunctional system. The focus of Sofia’s Last Ambulance is the medical system in the city, and how its degradation is affecting both the workers and the citizens. We are shown time and time again how the breakdown in communication or lack of resources leads to very real consequences, and we are shown these consequences with a heart-breaking beauty.
Sofia’s Last Ambulance is an incredibly important film, not only in 2012 but even more so now as we have been shown the gaps in medical systems across the world, and the dire effects that is having on people’s lives. The world has come to realise the vital importance of medical professionals, and this film excellently brings their struggle to life. It is a heavy watch, but will leave you with a deep sense of gratitude for the men and women working tirelessly across the world to help people.