Docutopia #34: The Eastern Bloc Doc New Wave

While the American documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival by and large lacked artistic vision and innovation, there’s an emerging wave of exciting boundary-breaking nonfiction cinema coming from some unlikely places in Eastern Europe. On view at the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Documentary Fortnight series (opening this Friday in New York), a handful of docs from countries like Bulgaria and Georgia display a refreshing formal inventiveness coupled with a searing sense of post-Communist malaise.

Though a Cannes 2012 premiere, this week Ilian Metev’s Sofia’s Last Ambulance is finally making its way to North America, where it should be celebrated as one of the nonfiction highlights of the year. A uniquely observed, highly visceral portrait of three paramedics on duty in Bulgaria’s capital city, the movie is equal parts urgent verité chronicle and meditative long-take art cinema. Imagine Fredrick Wiseman directing The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the Romanian prize-winner that similarly portrayed the sad state of healthcare in post-Communist Eastern Europe. And like Cristi Puiu’s celebrated long night’s journey into medical dysfunction, Sofia’s Last Ambulance suggests a similarly overburdened, under-funded system in which chain-smoking EMTs are struggling to do their job against all odds; even cab drivers, apparently, are out to sabotage them.

In Sofia’s Last Ambulance, filmmaker Ilian Metev exclusively focuses on the caregivers; their patients always appear just off-screen. Hence we only hear the sickly heavy wheezing of a man dying from a brain hemorrhage, the pleas of a mother trying to help her bedridden 28-year-old junkie son who shoots powdered brick instead of heroine, and, in one of the most stunning moments in the film (or any film this year), a young girl’s yelps of pain from inside the back of an ambulance as it bounces agonizingly over the pot-holed streets (“it’s shaking,” she whimpers), while a female paramedic distracts her by sticking out her tongue.

The effect is disconcerting to say the least. Rather than see the full picture of these mini tragedies, we experience the events strictly through the film’s protagonists: Doctors “Krassi” Yordanov, a white-haired veteran, Mila Mikhailova, a sympathetic yet harried woman, and their younger driver Plamen Slavkov. Much of the film is composed of close-up shots of the three paramedics recorded by small cameras mounted on the dashboard that capture every grimace, joke and macabre conversation. Watching Mila’s terrified, contorting face as their vehicle speeds through the streets is as funny as it is tense: “We’re going to crash,” she says. And indeed, they do.

Like the unstable ambulance itself, Sofia’s Last Ambulance careens back and forth between dark, cynical humor and grisly, social commentary. At one point, they arrive at a house outside of the city only to find a woman lying on the floor. The hard-edged Krassi examines the body, which has been languishing for some time, and quickly offers a diagnosis: she’s long dead, with worms having eaten away half her brain. The moment encapsulates their whole Sisyphean enterprise, and their sardonic, regrettable acceptance of it.

A no less penetrating look into Bulgaria’s psyche, and proof that everyone has a story worth telling, Tzvetanka explores the history of a nation through the life of one of its citizens. First-time director Youlian Tabakov employs a range of cinematic devices—time-lapse photography, stop-motion live-action animation, dreamlike sets—to tell the story of his grandmother, Tzvetanka Gosheva, who was born in 1926 and survived three political regimes, from monarchy to socialism to post-Communist limbo. Tabakov fills his documentary with poetic visual metaphors, such as impressionistic images of bloody raindrops to suggest Russia’s invasion, or falling red carnations to accompany a moment of triumph. At several points we even see the octogenarian Tzvetanka prancing around a surrealist room in which long stalked-flowers seem to grow from the floor.

While the filmmaker’s tone may be occasionally playful, the film exudes melancholy, fueled by the sorrowful musical compositions of Arvo Part and a vision of Bulgaria that is anything but rosy. As Tzvetanka says towards the end of the film, accompanied by bleak images of falling snow and tired elderly faces, “Bulgaria has fallen apart. Young people run away abroad. I don’t know what will become of us in the end. It has all turned into a very pitiful affair. A big nothing.”

This same sense of despair is evident in The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, debuting filmmaker Tinatin Gurchiani’s profound and mournful look at the younger generation in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. After posting an ad inviting young people to audition for her film, Gurchiani makes these interviews the substance of her documentary, accompanied by a number of scenes that capture their everyday lives, some of which appear about as hopeless as Sofia’s ambulance drivers.

A 25-year-old governor attempts to leave his dying village, whose elderly residents stand in helpless tableau; a depressed kohl-eyed beauty complains “everything is tiresome”; an unemployed young man struggles with his obsession with online poker; and in one of the best, most affecting portraits, a young woman searches for the mother who abandoned her as a child. With a single, powerful edit, the film captures the mother-daughter confrontation with a brute emotional force. Like Sofia’s Last Ambulance and Tzvetanka, The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear depicts a people’s pain and confusion as they try to grapple with their tremulous present, as well as an equally unsteady future.

Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.

 

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