Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sofia's Last Ambulance (2012)

WHO: Dr. Krasimir Yordanov, nurse Mila Mihaylova and ambulance driver Plamen Slavkov are the subjects of this documentary, with one of their faces shown in nearly every shot.

WHAT: The close-up, as one of the elements of cinema that most clearly distinguishes the medium from storytelling forms like the novel or the play, has received quite a bit of scholarly inquiry. I wonder if much attention has been paid to close-ups in documentary work. In this portrait of three members of an ambulance unit in Bulgaria's capital city, close-ups captured both by dashboard-mounted cameras and by director Ilian Metev in scenes in which the team deals directly with patients, seem less an aesthetic strategy than an ethical strategy, allowing patient faces to remain anonymous for privacy's sake. But an ethical strategy becomes an aesthetic one by fiat, allowing these three medical professionals to become the true centers of identification in what becomes a story about their compassion and heroism in the face of a cash-strapped municipal health system.

Watching Plamen Slavkov's face as he maneuvers his vehicle through dangerous city traffic, or Mila Mihaylova's as she tries to console a gurney-bound child who had a wardrobe topple onto her fragile body, or Dr. Yordanov's as he dispenses critical advice to 28-year-old heroin addict and his invisible but obviously distraught mother, illustrates their dedication to providing crucial services to a desperate populace, despite the incredibly low wages that have other members of their profession to seek work in other fields or other countries. These real people may not be human saints along the lines of Joan of Arc, but close-ups become a portal to emotion in a way that recalls Maria Falconetti's portrayal of her in that most famously compassion-eliciting of films, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.

WHERE/WHEN: San Francisco International Film Festival screenings at the Pacific Film Archive tonight at 8:50, and at the Kabuki May 3rd at 3:30.

WHY: The SFIFF press department provides lists of "Special Interest Categories" for festival-accredited journalists who might be daunted by the task of combing through the entire program guide to find the comedies, or the films about seniors, or the films made by women directors (for the record, there are 19, not counting shorts, according to the list provided).

One list is of "Health / Medicine"-related films, and includes, of course, Sofia's Last Ambulance as well as another documentary highlighting medical professionals called After Tiller. There are also four fiction features on this list, each with at least one more festival screening, whose characters must contend with disease: Big Blue Lake, Rosie, Unfinished Song and Youth. At least two more festival films might be sensible additions as well, both of them added screenings announced after the original lists were compiled. Both are also 1990s-era Hollywood thrillers that involve the shadowy, conspiratorially corporatist influence on health and health care. Michael Mann's The Insider is based on the true story of a whistle-blower within the American tobacco industry, and screens in 35mm as part of a May 8th on-stage tribute to its screenwriter Eric Roth. The film to accompany Harrison Ford's May 7th tribute has just been revealed as well: it's the now-twenty-year-old The Fugitive, in which Ford plays a doctor framed for the murder of his own wife, and who must use his physician skills to survive and find the real killer while on the run from Tommy Lee Jones, after fate spectacularly derails his punishment for this crime he did not commit. 

HOW: Sofia's Last Ambulance is a digitally-shot documentary and will screen on DCP.

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