Bulgarian Director Ilian Metev: 'Sofia's Last Ambulance' Can Inspire Change
"Sofia's Last Ambulance", a documentary by Ilian Metev about Bulgaria's capital Sofia and staff at its ambulances struggling to keep up with their workload, recently landed the Critics' Week Visionary award in Cannes.
The movie follows the real lives and professional activities of its three protagonists: Doctor Krassimir ('Krassi') Yordanov, paramedic Mila Mikhailova and ambulance driver Plamen Slavkov.
An exclusive interview for Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) and novinite.bg with director Ilian Metev.
"Sofia's Last Ambulance" introduces the viewer to the everyday life of one of the Bulgarian capital's first-aid teams. Why did you choose this particular team? Is there a special chemistry in it?
When we started researching for the film in 2008, we initially travelled with various teams. What struck us was their solidarity, their sense of humor and the lack of hierarchy. Things have changed since then and many people left the system. There are still enthusiasts in the first-aid system, but they are on the verge of extinction.
When I got acquainted with Doctor Krassi Yordanov, I was intrigued by how humble and industrious he was. Krassi is one of the few physicians that have stayed within the first-aid system for more than 23 years. He loves his job and has risen, more or less, above our country's problems. But we should not base our health care on the good will of people like him.
Nurse Mila is a very warm and selfless person, Plamen is also very conscientious and responsible. There is indeed a strong chemistry between them and that helps them in their difficult job. While the shooting of the film lasted, they were the only reanimation team, which means a team typically meant to deal with the most critical cases in the whole of Sofia.
The work of a team like that is certainly extremely difficult. How difficult is it to catch it on camera?
The main shooting period lasted nearly two years. The shooting crew consisted of just two people: sound engineer Tom Kirk and me as director and cameraman. Gradually, we became a part of the team. In the same time, we had to work as carefully and discreetly as possible. We had to be very patient because of the topic's sensitivity and the responsibility we had towards patients and their relatives.
When we visited addresses, we could often immediately understand whether we are welcome there. That is why we had many non-shooting days, in which we followed the team without shooting. Because of that, and because we wanted to cover all possible aspects of our team's work, the shooting period was long.
The Hollywood Reporter has labeled the film's title as misleading. Similar opinions have emerged in Bulgarian Internet forums, with some users pointing out that Sofia's ambulances are more than 13. How would you respond to such comments?
The title is metaphoric and deliberately provocative. I am even glad that it has triggered reactions. If something does not indeed change drastically, things are going bad in this sector. One of the first-aid system's main problems is not the number of ambulances but the lack of medical teams. Dozens of ambulances remain idle because of the lack of staff.
No one would work under this kind of stress for a token payment. While we were there, there were 10 to 15 teams on average working during each shift. This number is very low for a city like Sofia and it contradicts all norms. These ambulances serve not only the capital, but also the nearby villages.
Bulgarian media have cited Croatian producer Sinisa Juricic who has said he hopes the film can have a positive contribution for the health care systems of the Balkan countries. Can a documentary really achieve that?
Yes, it can, and I really hope so. Our film aims at showing reality, touching people and provoking thoughts. The specific change has to be initiated by the responsible for this sector. Unfortunately, many of them are running away from that responsibility and I do not know how they justify it for themselves. There is always someone else responsible for the problems, another government, another ministry, etc.
But if everyone puts efforts into changing what they can, this could be a step in the right direction. I hope our film can have a positive effect.
The film is a co-production between Bulgaria, Germany and Croatia. Are such international partnerships the future of Bulgarian cinema – and documentaries, in particular?
This is true not only for Bulgarian cinema. A co-production is often the only way to gather enough money for a high-quality film. We had dozens of meetings before we received support from some TV channels and funds for a movie that is not sensationalistic and features three motivated professionals who speak Bulgarian.
Receiving subsidies from foreign countries is difficult for a film whose topic does not directly affect them. But I am very pleased that we found the appropriate partners with whom we created our film, without having to make compromises.
Do you expect the film to have different receptions in Bulgaria and abroad what kind of difference would that be?
There will certainly be a difference, since the film tackles a topic that has been sensitive and pressing in Bulgaria for years now. However, I believe that the film will introduce a new point of view for Bulgarian viewers. It has been shot as a documentary observation, with no reenactments, no interviews and no off-screen narrator voice – we just witness the real everyday life of our first aid team.
Despite all obstacles, they have preserved their positive spirit. I hope their positive energy will inspire the Bulgarian viewers the same way it inspired me and that it would create a well-deserved respect towards first-aid professionals.
The very prestigious Critics' Week Visionary award will surely create many opportunities for your movie. What is in store for it?
We have established contacts with many festivals and TV channels. It will be broadcasted by German, French, Dutch and Israeli TVs. I hope it has its premiere in Bulgaria soon.
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