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By Jessica Baxter | May 2, 2013

The title is a bit of an exaggeration. The team we follow in “Sofia’s Last Ambulance” is one of 13 ambulances in the financially-crippled health service of Sofia, Bulgaria, a city that’s home to about 2 million people. You wouldn’t take odds like that in Vegas, so it’s even more dispiriting when you consider that lives are literally at stake. Ilian Metev’s debut documentary is a grimly gripping condensed version of the professional lives of three paramedics who spend every shift attempting to save as many lives as possible and not always succeeding.

The narrative is a little loosey goosey, but it lends itself to the feeling of incessant horror that these people endure. The footage was filmed over a two-year period and is constructed into one long hellish night for seasoned doctor Krassimir Yordanov, driver Plamen Slavkov and nurse Mila Mikhailova who’s chipper loquaciousness anchors everyone to the tolerable side of things.

The dashboard mounted cameras get in the action without getting in the way. The fixed fly-on-the-wall motif places the audience in a unique position of reverse point-of-view, allowing us to study their reactions to every moment. It’s a one-sided conversation, but we have all the information we need. Anything more would feel exploitative. Besides, if it was worth calling an ambulance under these conditions, you know it’s probably pretty bad. Frequently, the camera cuts to the faces of those listening rather than talking, forming a continuous reaction shot. Their expressions serve as silent voiceover. They are strong because they have to be, but they also seem one bad night away from snapping.

Theirs is not the last ambulance, but may as well be. They go anywhere they are needed, whether it’s the far end of town or out of town entirely. A couple of times, they have trouble finding their destination, knowing full well that with every passing moment, their patient’s chance of survival diminishes. These are people who constantly exist in the worst-case scenario of their jobs. Nurse Mikhailova does her best to keep spirits high, and yet you can see the same weariness in her eyes. Her mothering skills come in handy not just with injured children in their ambulance but also with her colleagues.

“Sofia’s Last Ambulance” has a unique structure. It’s deliberately one-sided but in a lot of ways, it’s the only side to be on. It’s hard to recommend a film like this, because it’s not exactly a good time watching people who deal exclusively in life and death. But it’s an important film. It’s one of those films that serve to remind us Westerners how good we actually have it. These are real life superheroes that have chosen the difficult path because it’s the right thing to do.

But they have families of their own to care for and are clearly torn. Nurse Mikhailova must say goodnight to her daughter over the phone. Dr. Yordanov is the only resuscitator in Sofia. How can he ever quit? They’re cops, guidance counselors, benefactors and problem solvers. They do everything they can to help people because no one else will. They make being Batman look easy. Spider-man’s problems seem trivial in comparison. Hell, they make a lot of careers seem trivial; film criticism, for instance… Their job is the epitome of thankless. You owe it to them to see the world through their eyes.

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