Color, 2012, 77m.
Directed by Ilian Metev
Starring Mila Mikhailova, Plamen Slavkov, Krassimir Yordanov
Second Run (DVD) (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Sofia's Last Ambulance

A genuinely unique documentary with an eerie and quietly alarming tone all its Sofia's Last Ambulanceown is this 2012 production assembled from nearly two years' worth of footage captured during the ambulance runs of a doctor, paramedic and driver in Sofia, a Bulgarian city where financial misfortune (both from the outside and from within due to city corruption) have resulted in a mere thirteen ambulances left to serve a population of approximately two million. Not surprisingly, they have to resort to humor as a release valve at times, and in a fascinating choice, filmmaker Ilian Metev stays locked on the trio throughout the film with the patients usually off screen or out of frame.

The very smooth editing here gives the impression of an episodic snapshot of a day in the life of these workers, who tangle with issues like being summoned to the edge of the village where house numbers aren't even visible. It's also guaranteed to keep anyone from complaining about their job, at least for a while, as the pressure here (with minimal pay and recognition under the circumstances) becomes a growing force you can feel throughout the course of the film. The haunting final moments don't explicitly spell anything out, but it leaves a palpable sense of a continuing story well beyond the borders of the film, a wise choice all around given the subject matter.

Second Run's UK DVD of the film, its English-language video Sofia's Last Ambulancedebut, sports a new HD transfer of the film, which looks great considering the variable conditions under which the film was shot. Lighting conditions veer all over the place at times, but it's a satisfying and presumably very accurate presentation. The liner notes offer some particularly helpful context here, with editor Betina Ip doing sort of an essay Q&A explaining why we see none of the team's life outside of the ambulance runs and how a memorable moment is comparable to a Manet painting. A shorter Q&A with Metev from the Cannes Film Festival addresses a few more issues, such as the subjects' adaptation to the dash camera mounted in their vehicle. A 21-minute video discussion between Metev and sound recordist Tom Kirk sheds even more light as they go more into working with each of the three and explain how they created a streamlined, coherent narrative out of so much footage and created the illusion of a single, wearying day in their lives. Finally an earlier Metev short film, the 9-minute "Goleshovo" from 2008, paints an effective portrait of the titular town where the aging population is left more and more to its own devices as the younger generations have fled for greener pastures. Very highly recommended for both foreign film and documentary fans and another solid discovery from one of the most unpredictable, rewarding labels out there.

Reviewed on November 21, 2014.