DVD Review: Sofia’s Last Ambulance

Shot primarily using three dashboard mounted cameras, Ilian Metev’s award winning documentary Sofia’s Last Ambulance captures the unaffected focus and inherent compassion of two medics and their driver, as they navigate gruelling shifts providing service to a turbulent society. Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia is the setting for this beguiling film where a population of over one million is served by only thirteen ambulances. Dr Krassi Yordanov, Nurse Mila Mikhailova and driver Plamen Slavkov are each framed head on, creating a portrait of their gaze through the ambulance windshield, where Metev’s camera captures the anxiety and determination of the team in attempting to maintain communication with the base, and patience in traversing the pot-hole riddled roads on the way to their next emergency. Between patients, shots are held long enough to capture moments of interior thought expressed aloud, such as Krassi’s absent-minded assertion of his preference for gardening during his day off. Such an approach gives primacy to the team’s humanity, providing an insight into how Krassi, Mila and Plamen see the world and going some way to explain how they manage to operate under such difficult circumstances.


Sofia’s Last Ambulance was filmed over three years, which allowed Metev and the small crew a large catalogue of footage from which to edit. It’s testament to the fluidity and coherence of the editing by Metev and Betina Ip that they managed to wrangle hundreds of hours down to a trim 77 minutes.  It’s also apparent in imagining what footage wasn’t used, how in tune with his protagonists Metev is – their frustration at the failing support infrastructure, which appears to leave them adrift from reasonable communication for long periods of time, their anger at the inconsideration of other drivers on the road, and their calm handling of patients that are understandably apprehensive of the broken health care system. Out of a moral instinct to protect the anonymity of the patients the team attend to, Metev keeps them out of frame, focusing instead solely on Plamen, Krassi and Mila, which allows an engagement with their perspective and their reactions, perhaps much deeper than if the patient’s presence was more heavily featured. Which is not to say the patients are absent, rather they are simply heard but not seen, Tom Kirk’s sound work picking up the essential heightened emotions and nuances of muted verbal exchanges to create a highly effective aural atmosphere.


Metev also forgoes direct interviews with the team, instead allowing their feelings and opinions about their work to be revealed in their actions. Krassi doesn’t hold back his frustration when remonstrating his colleagues at the switchboard for keeping them in the dark for thirty minutes with no information, and in a quieter moment, we learn something of the way Mila perceives herself and others as she is seen watching a woman in the street, imagining another life – a life perhaps very different to her own. This way of observing is strikingly effective, as despite the mounted cameras being presumably hard to miss, the team appear unaware of being filmed – something that Metev has attributed in interview to their work simply demanding all their attention. Amongst scenes of Mila attempting to calm wounded patients in the back of the ambulance, as it drills along pot-holed roads, humour emerges as the common factor both in the way we observe Krassi, Mila and Plamen relate to each other, and eventually in the warmth of feeling Metev creates around them, through the repetition of certain behavioural traits. Almost constant chatter about the next cup of coffee, and the incongruity of seeing three health care professionals chain smoking between calls, presents a vision of three friends supporting each other, bringing a humility to their extraordinary working conditions that is overwhelmingly poignant.fn078389_pic_02

Also included in Second Run DVD’s release of Sofia’s Last Ambulance, is Metev’s 2008 short film, Goleshovo, an incredible portrait of the titular Bulgarian town, whose elderly population totals less than sixty, and each of the inhabitants face a daily struggle for survival. Again, by unobtrusively observing the town’s people, Metev demonstrates an acute sensitivity towards their subtlety of expression, slowly developing a bond with his protagonists that is eventually deeply moving.

To preserve the reel, Celluloid Man reviewed

“I understood the world and the people much better, through my long journey with cinema”

So P.K. Nair describes his relationship with cinema at the beginning of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s marvellous film, Celluloid Man (2012). Three years in the making, Dungarpur’s portrait of the legendary film archivist brings together stories from colleagues, filmmakers, students, friends and family, alongside the many hours spent interviewing Nair himself at home in Pune and at the National Film Archive of India, where he dedicated his life to preserving the prints that comprised India’s film heritage. Countless contributions from those influenced and inspired by Nair, assert his importance as a figure that worked tirelessly to ensure that cinema in India and the world would be preserved and that a passion and knowledge of filmmaking would be passed on to each new generation.

Dungarpur is himself the founder of the Film Heritage Foundation, which exists to support the conservation, preservation and restoration of the moving image, and having studied at the Film and Television Institute of India, he recognised Nair’s vital position at the centre of preserving film in India. The result of the director’s persistence in creating a portrait of Nair, is a film overflowing with insight, wit and enthusiasm for cinema, not just as a form of storytelling or art, but in its very physicality, as reels and cans are shown and discussed with enduring reverence.

film-cans-storage-at-nfai-pune_Perhaps what is most fascinating – and poignant considering the digital age of exchange and sharing via download and streaming – are the stories relating to Nair’s acquisition of prints for the archive. Nair recalls that dozens of Russian films were donated, among them Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky, with no request for payment made; there’s also a story that he exchanged Pather Panchali for The Battle of Algiers and later Sant Tukaram for Hitchcock’s Blackmail with the British Film Institute. To hear of the exchange these films, told casually as though such traffic of prints is effortless, gives the impression that the creation of an archive is much like any process of collecting – where a community of enthusiasts survey their acquisitions for trading much like records, or marbles or cards. Yet Nair’s archive of prints were not kept hidden away – though it might be assumed that their preciousness would make them inaccessible to the public or students – instead we hear of how they were seen and used by everyone from eminent filmmakers to the villagers of Pune, as a nut farmer and a retired school teacher each recall fondly the pleasure of seeing Rashomon and Pather Panchali.

Dungarpur also interviewed Nair’s daughter, Beena, and it’s her recollection of childhood that is the most revealing aspect of Celluloid Man. To have dedicated so much of his life to cinema – complying with requests to view films even at 3am – it becomes apparent through Beena’s description that her father was not present in the home when she and her siblings were growing up. We hear that he would look forward to work, stay Iong hours and “not show any interest at all” in matters of the family. Beena describes how only when they matured, did they find common ground with their father and become close, developing the friendship that they cherish today. It’s in this testimony of the sacrifice of family life that one understands how dedicated Nair was to his work, confirmed in a later scene in which he describes moving back to Pune from Tivandrum following his wife’s passing because he felt that he must always be close to the film institute, recognising the archive as his true progeny.

“I think a person’s lifetime is too short a period to save all of the world’s film heritage,” so declares Nair, almost regretfully toward the end of Celluloid Man. Nevertheless it becomes apparent that this was his attempt, and in the appreciation of his peers and the audiences of the archive’s screenings, and of course Dungarpur’s own endeavour to document them, is evidence that his efforts have been appreciated, even if there will never be a person with the equivalent drive to continue his work.

Celluloid Man_1A lasting image in Celluloid Man is that of Nair standing in front of the cinema screen quoting Citizen Kane as is its flickering image is projected behind him, framing his ageing stature. Here, Dungarpur presents Nair just as French archivist Henri Langlois is shown in Phantom of the Cinémathèque (Jacques Richard, 2004), standing before the cinema screen, describing how he wanted to show “shadows of the living coexisting with shadows of the dead.” Through Dungarpur’s carefully constructed portrait, this image reveals both men almost as if they have achieved that goal – of being immersed in cinema, of becoming inseparable from that which they love through the relentless activity of preserving its memory.

Celluloid Man is released by Second Run DVD and as ever, the accompanying special features are a treasure in themselves. An appreciation by filmmaker Mark Cousins demonstrates the reverence for P.K. Nair and the act of archiving to international film culture, whilst interviews and extracts from Dungarpur’s production diary are steeped in all the detail of realising the project, of particular pleasure – discovering the efforts made to ensure that the film could be shot on film, not digital – with a document of the ever decreasing stock of 16mm, which thankfully lasted to produce the gorgeous footage that truly does justice to the film’s subject.

Ikarie XB 1: DVD Review

IKARIE_XB1-01In 2163 a crew of intrepid explorers are traveling through space in search of an Earth-like planet. Upon their shoulders rests the hope of the world, a world that will be fifteen years older and wiser by the time they return from deep space. The journey is long, fatigue sets in, but that’s not the only trouble awaiting our heroes in the depths of our solar system.

If the description above sounds familiar, it’s a mark of just how influential director Jindřic Polák’s Ikarie XB 1 (1963) has been, with elements of Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Alien to name just a few iconic films that might spring to mind on first viewing. In fact, the film represents a proliferation of Sci-fi films produced in the late 1950s/early 1960s after the launch of Sputnik by Soviet, East German, Polish and Czech filmmakers, who were unsurprisingly enthusiastic about the genre and its ability to present an optimistic future.
Ikarie-XB1-34519_5Witness the crew emerging from stasis as in Alien, a multicultural, cross generation team as in Star Trek, a ‘friendly’ robot called Patrick much like Forbidden Planet’s Robby (the latter an instance of Ikarie XB 1’s own influences) – but checking off iconic set-pieces and plot points isn’t the only pleasure afforded by this stunning release of a film previously known to western audiences as the overly edited, Voyage to the End of the Universe. There’s much to be enjoyed in the way Polák gives prominence to the quirks of an interstellar lifestyle over the ostensible exploration adventure plot. One scene sees the middle-aged male crew members spy on their younger colleague as he attempts to woo his female counterpart with an artificially grown sunflower, whilst another gives the viewer a rather quaint electro-jazz scored insight to the future of the discotheque, complete with jaunty dance moves.f0094235_4b4c6cf453d00

Shifting to a more contemplative tone when the crew investigate the wreck of another human-inhabited ship, Ikarie XB 1 makes more overt its judgement of 20th century’ explorers (signaled as Western by the presence of English signs and labels on board the damaged ship) and their ultimately destructive investment in nuclear weapons. This sombre discovery prompts discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of their human, and therefore vulnerable crew – better able to navigate the idiosyncrasies of space travel than their robot alternates but exposed to biological dangers.

As usual Second Run have provided some unique features to accompany the DVD; Michael Brooke’s essay details the historical and cultural context surrounding the film’s theatrical release and subsequent censorship by its US distributor, whilst Kim Newman’s video appreciation takes further delight in the aesthetic preoccupations of Czech cinema and Sci-fi of the time.