OW doc Sofia’s Last Ambulance captures dedication of medics in face of failing system

The award-winning film Sofia’s Last Ambulance, which is now screening at the One World festival of human rights documentaries, records the experiences of an ambulance crew in the Bulgarian capital over two years, capturing moments of high human drama against the backdrop of a barely functioning system. Travelling with the medics were two filmmakers, director Ilian Melev and soundman Tom Kirk. The latter, who is a guest at the festival, told me it had often been an intense experience.

'Sofia’s Last Ambulance', photo: archive of the One World festival'Sofia’s Last Ambulance', photo: archive of the One World festival “Inevitably we encountered a lot of intense situations on a regular basis, due to the lack of ambulance crews available. Sometimes there were as few as eight or six crews for a city of two million.

“So inevitably they’re constantly up against it and exhausted, and arriving late at cases, which is no fault of their own. They’re just given cases and already it’s several hours late. They arrive and have to anticipate people who are deeply upset because they’re in very stressful situations.”

Is it the case that the crews can pick up patients and then not be able to get them into a hospital?

“Yeah – you see it in the film. There are occasions when they would go one hospital and there’d be no spaces, they go to another hospital and you’ll hear on the radio, there are no beds in this hospital, this hospital, this hospital.

“They just throw their hands in the air and go, where the hell are we going to go? Then you have to explain that to patients and relatives, that we can’t take you anywhere. It’s just an exasperating situation.”

Throughout the film we only really see the faces of Dr. Yordanov, the leader of the crew, Mila the nurse and Plamen the driver. Was that an aesthetic decision, or was it to do with issues of privacy?

Tom Kirk, photo: archive of the One World festivalTom Kirk, photo: archive of the One World festival “Ilian made that decision very early on, that we wouldn’t see the patients in the film. Not only to avoid issues of people’s involvement and willingness. It wouldn’t feel right to do that anyway in this context.

“He wanted to make this film about these people and their specific commitment to their work, and to show their strength and their good qualities – up against this broken infrastructure, in this difficult situation.

“That’s the story. We watch their faces and see their work. It’s not even the specifics of the equipment that they use, it’s their commitment to their profession and the passion they have for it is the significant part of the film.

“Anything else would have been a sensationalist diversion and that wasn’t the point of the film. He wanted to make a film that really paid tribute to these characters and really did them justice.”

The film has won many awards outside Bulgaria [including at the Karlovy Vary IFF], it’s got a lot international press attention – why do you think it has struck such a chord, internationally?

“I think because you see these characters, these very strong characters, who have a genuine commitment and passion for their work – which can be universally appreciated, regardless of the specific details of Bulgaria’s, or Sofia’s, broken health service.

“I think also there may be an element of people from abroad being more shocked by the details of that. When we watched it with the audience in Sofia, people obviously see it in a different way, they anticipate what they’re going to see, that they’ll see the typical scenarios.

'Sofia’s Last Ambulance''Sofia’s Last Ambulance' “But many people came and spoke to us after the screenings in Sofia and said, you’ve done a great thing. You’ve actually brought people closer to those who work within the medical service.

“It’s an important film in that regard, that people understand what the circumstances are, what [the medics] are up against, that they have a real commitment to this and that they’re trying to do their best for people.

“And [to understand] where the fault lies. Which is why there are all these stirrings and protests in Bulgaria at the moment. It’s widespread corruption that’s to blame. It’s not individuals, you know, trying to struggle against it.”

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