Global Cinema 26: Bulgaria – Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012)

The Eastern European country of Bulgaria has a rather smaller film culture than some of its neighbours, though it still can boast a number of prominent international features, most notably The Lesson (2014) along with other films by its directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. The film I’m focusing on here is a documentary, which suggests the Bulgarian economy is still in a period of post-Soviet recovery.


Bulgarian flagRepublic of Bulgaria (България)
population 6,951,000 | capital Sofia (София) (1.2m) | largest cities Sofia, Plovdiv (Пловдив) (338k), Varna (Варна) (335k), Burgas (Бургас) (200k), Ruse (Русе) (150k) | area 110,994 km2 | religion Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity (60%), none (9%), Islam (8%) | official language Bulgarian (български) | major ethnicity Bulgarian (85%), Turk (9%) | currency Lev лев (лв.) [BGN] | internet .bg

A country in southeast Europe that lies on the Black Sea, and is bordered by Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. The name derives from the Bulgars, a Turkic tribe which founded the country, and which itself may be derived from a proto-Turkic word for “revolt” (bulgak), suggesting a troublemaking people. Neanderthal remains date back to the Middle Paleolithic period, and the Neolithic society of the Karanovo arose around 6500 BCE, succeeded by the Varna culture, known for their gold metallurgy. Thracians arrived in the 12th century BCE, conquered in turn by the Persian Achaemenids in the 6th century BCE; a resurgence of Thracian unity was put paid to by first the Celts and then the Romans, who made it a province in 45 CE, and were succeeded by the Byzantines and then nomadic Slavic tribes. The First Bulgarian Empire was proclaimed in 681 CE, bringing in a written code of law and then Christianity in the mid-9th century (it had been around the region for a few centuries by that point). The Byzantines took back control in 1014, but an uprising formed the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185. It disintegrated a few centuries later, to be conquered by the Ottomans in the 14th century, waning until the point of an uprising in 1876. With Russian help, an autonomous Bulgarian principality was signed into existence on 3 March 1878 (though this was rejected by the other Great Powers, and a subsequent treaty in July set out a smaller state); independence was proclaimed in 1908. A tumultuous political period saw it pulled between German and Russian influence, eventually falling under the Soviets after World War II, led by Todor Zhivkov for much of this period. The first free elections came in 1990, and the country is now led by a Prime Minister with a weaker Presidential role.

The first Bulgarian film dates back to 1910, and although there was some production early on, it was severely curtailed by World War II. There has been a bit of resurgence in Bulgarian film production, with a number of feature films and documentaries produced each year, and around 226 cinemas in the country. Sofia also hosts an international film festival.


Последната линейка на София Poslednata lineika na Sofia (Sofia’s Last Ambulance, 2012)

There’s a creeping sense of inevitable doom to this documentary about a single Bulgarian ambulance crew, dealing as it does with a medical system at the end of its tether, chronic underinvestment meaning this is one of the only ambulances left servicing the city. Without leaving the vehicle very much (we see the crew attend to a few cases, but never see those they’re helping, and there are few enough shots even from the front window), we get a picture of the many frustrations they face — faulty equipment, operators unwilling or unable to take their calls or give instructions, potholed roads, police who pull them out to the middle of nowhere to attend a long-dead woman, drivers who crash stupidly into them. It’d be funny if it weren’t life-or-death, but the crew have a grumbling sense of humour, while putting away plenty of cigarettes. Don’t get sick in Sofia.

Sofia's Last Ambulance film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ilian Metev Илиян Метев; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 12 December 2016.

Global Cinema 8: Armenia – Armenian Rhapsody (2012)

For all its diminutive size, Armenia has a fairly active film industry, albeit on a smaller scale, perhaps one of the legacies of its Soviet past. Sergei Parajanov was Armenian (albeit born in Georgia) and it has had a number of at least locally well-known filmmakers since. One of my favourite films of recent decades was The Lighthouse (2006) by Maria Saakyan, who sadly died too young at the age of 38. The film I present below isn’t technically Armenian but is a fine introduction to the country, and available on YouTube


Armenian flagRepublic of Armenia (Հայաստան)
population 2,957,000 | capital Yerevan (Երևան) (1.1m) | largest cities Yerevan, Gyumri (122k), Vanadzor (86k), Vagharshapat (47k), Abovyan (43k) | area 29,743 km2 | religion Christianity (Armenian Apostolic Church) | official language Armenian (հայերէն Hayeren) | major ethnicity Armenians (98%) | currency Dram (֏) [AMD] | internet .am

A mostly mountainous, landlocked country, bordering Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. The original name Hayk’ (Հայք) traditionally derives from a legendary patriarch who settled in the area of Ararat, but the modern name Hayastan dates back to the Middle Ages, with the Persian suffix -stan. Evidence of human habitation dates back to the Bronze Age (c4000 BCE), including the earliest-dated wine-producing facility. The earliest Armenian geographic entity was established by the Orontid Dynasty (Achaemenid Empire) in the 6th century BCE, and became a kingdom within the Seleucid Empire, then Persian Empire. It went through various dynasties during the Middle Ages, until being conquered by the Mongols, and then divided by the Ottomans. Conflict during and after World War I resulted in the ‘Armenian Genocide’ by Ottoman Turks. Armenia was annexed with its neighbours by the Soviet Union in 1922, becoming its own SSR in 1936, eventually declaring independence on 21 September 1991. There was a conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan, ending in 1994 but resulting in the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. It now has a market economy, led by an elected President and Prime Minister.

Cinema in the country was established by the Soviets in 1923, though there are earlier films with an Armenian subject. The Armenfilm studio was established shortly after in 1924. In modern times, two or three feature films and a number of documentaries are produced each year, with the most notable director being Sergei Parajanov (who worked during the Soviet era, most famously on The Colour of Pomegranates). The most famous international director of Armenian ethnicity is Atom Egoyan (although he was born in Cairo and lives and works in Canada).


Rapsódia Armênia (Armenian Rhapsody aka Հայկական ռապսոդիա, 2012)

This film, which calls itself an “Armenian Rhapsody” isn’t actually Armenian it turns out, but rather a Brazilian film made by a trio of people with Armenian ancestry (or so I’m guessing from their surnames). However, given that I imagine most people don’t know very much about Armenia, it’s a fairly pleasant ride. Images of people flash up over the credits, and we get to see a few of their lives in a bit more detail: a likeable young couple getting married; an old man talking about the pitfalls of Communism in front of a victorious statue; another chap at home talking about the Armenian Genocide (which is officially recognised by Uruguay, he exclaims); and a chap with a glorious moustache he grows in recognition of tradition (for facial hair looms large). It’s not a revelatory work, but a pleasant stroll through various parts of Armenia, and a likeable introduction to the country.

Armenian Rhapsody film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Cassiana Der Haroutiounian, Cesar Gananian and Gary Gananian; Cinematographers Der Haroutiounian and Gary Gananian; Length 63 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 1 July 2020.

The Guilt Trip (2012)

Another day of Amazon Prime films, and what do you know, today is the first day of the Jewish holiday of Passover, so pesach sameach to those celebrating it, albeit in rather unusual circumstances this year, which somewhat torpedo the tradition of eating a meal together. Anyway, to celebrate this occasion, I’ve selected a movie with Jewish themes… broadly — look, it’s a comedy and it stars Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, so I think that’s probably qualification enough.


I’m not Jewish, and perhaps Barbra Streisand’s over-fussy mother might be grating if I were, but the family dynamic is still pretty familiar all the same. Seth Rogen plays a scientist and entrepreneur who’s trying to sell his ecologically-friendly cleaning product, and he takes his mother with him on his sales trip in order to reunite her with her college sweetheart. It’s a slender excuse really to get these two people in close confines with each other, and the road movie is a venerable format for two disparate characters to learn about each other, open up emotionally, and — in theory — grow. All that happens of course, and it skirts closely at times to being treacly, but there’s something in both Rogen (whom I’ve always found to be an engaging screen presence, though apparently he has his detractors) and Streisand which keeps it pretty level. I found this film likeable.

The Guilt Trip film posterCREDITS
Director Anne Fletcher; Writer Dan Fogelman; Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton; Starring Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand, Adam Scott; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 7 August 2019.

Holy Motors (2012)

Much of my week themed around films I’ve seen on Mubi will be films, like this one, which are no longer watchable there because of their 30 day turnaround on everything (a new film every day, with only 30 films on the platform at any one time). However, I believe they give a sense of what’s available; at the end of last year for example they did a month of the decade’s classics, which is where I caught up with today’s film.


So, undoubtedly, I slept on this one. Despite making many best-of lists (for the year and now the decade), it sounded from what I heard initially like some kind of oneiric puzzle box of a film, a state-of-the-nation type disquisition perhaps, or some kind of grand folly (in which, after all, Carax has form), but I loved Pola X (1999) so I’m surprised I put this off. It does indeed follow its own strange logic, suggesting both every filmmaker’s favourite topic — a film reflecting on its own creation and the creative impulses of art itself — and something more intangible perhaps: a sense of the world and of shifting identities within it. On a single viewing at home, I can’t really hope to make sense of it all, but it’s a film that clearly contains many readings within it, a dense allusory text (not just to Eyes Without a Face but the presence of Édith Scob and that mask is certainly the clearest of all the film’s tips of the hat) and a magisterial visual style. It could of course be empty — and there are undoubtedly flourishes in there just for he hell of it, for pure fun — but this doesn’t feel like cinematic magic for its own sake, and Denis Lavant in himself has such an expressive register that you can’t imagine the film made with anyone else.

Holy Motors film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Leos Carax; Cinematographers Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape; Starring Denis Lavant, Édith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 3 January 2020.

The Central Park Five (2012)

The end of this week sees the release of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is directed by a white man but deals with the African-American experience in the United States (and reminds me of Barry Jenkins’ debut Medicine for Melancholy, also set in that city and grappling with gentrification and how it displaces longstanding communities). Given that racism has defined a large swath of American history, I thought it would be good to devote a themed week to films that deal with the African-American experience, whether from within the community or looking from outside. The first film I’m featuring is a documentary about a particularly racist incident in recent NYC history, dramatised this year by Ava DuVernay on Netflix.


The Central Park Five is a persuasive documentary that tracks the case of the rape and beating of a young woman running through NYC’s Central Park in 1989, and the subsequent arrest and trial of five boys which rested entirely on the evidence of their video-recorded testimony after days of interrogation, without any circumstantial evidence. Modern-day interviews are accompanied by archival clips from the era, and the vast holes in the prosecution’s case, not to mention the frequent corners cut by those involved, adds up to a fine entry in one of the most enduring genres of American documentary: an account of a wrongful conviction. It’s also very much a statement about the operation of race and class in American public and media life, about the way that certain facts about a case can conspire to increase or limit the audience, and the way the media reported on this particular case becomes as much a part of the context of the trial as anything said in court — to the extent that even now people still believe in the suspects’ guilt, against all persuasive evidence.

The Central Park Five film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon; Cinematographers Anthony Savini and Buddy Squires; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 May 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir

I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir”

Women Filmmakers: Sólveig Anspach

I’ve not been having the greatest success at keeping my ‘Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday’ strand going, so I’ve decided to change it up a bit to be more film-focused. I recently watched two films by French-Icelandic director Sólveig Anspach, and they each struck me as interesting works. Digging into her biography, she was born in 1960 of an Icelandic architect mother and a German-Romanian father who had fled Nazi Germany. She studied psychology in Paris, and then filmmaking at FÉMIS, and lived much of her life in France. She sadly died of cancer not so long ago (2015) at the age of only 54. She has a number of documentary works to her name, as well as these feature films below (two of six features she made in total, or seven if you include her TV film) — for some reason each of them having an English language title, even in France. Needless to say, I believe she deserves to be better known.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Sólveig Anspach”

Women Filmmakers: Lynne Ramsay

As I write this, Lynne Ramsay is poised to sweep the boards at all major awards shows for her most recent film You Were Never Really Here (2017, although it was given wider release in 2018) — except, of course, no she’s not, for various systemic reasons which are all far too obvious and have been written about widely. Indeed, aside from a single BAFTA nomination, she is not even nominated, which is absurd given how much more directorial flair she has than most other living British directors. Of course, I don’t imagine my keenly amateurish post here will change much, and she’s already well regarded in the critical community, but it’s always worth paying her films some attention. Many other talented women haven’t had the career trajectory of Ramsay, and she’s still only managed to make a film every 6-8 years or so, which is a real shame, but at least it means when they do come they are mostly exquisite. Certainly that most recent film has a taut focus that’s lacking in too much filmmaking, coming in under 90 minutes and with a narrative economy that elides as uninteresting many of the generic conventions she’s working within, instead going straight for a character portrait of a comprehensively broken man.

William Eadie in Ratcatcher
William Eadie in ‘Ratcatcher’ (1999)

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Lynne Ramsay”

Bachelorette (2012)

Like Bridesmaids before it, and the more recent film Sisters, Bachelorette is a comedy about adults misbehaving which is written by and primarily stars women, and which if written by and starring men would probably be atrocious. (These scenarios have almost certainly already been made in that guise. They probably star Vince Vaughn.)

Sadly, Bachelorette doesn’t quite attain the hilarity of those other films, but it’s also fascinating in a quite different way, because all the central characters are uniformly awful, unlikeable people. Sure, there’s a move towards softening some of these characteristics by the end (which, for a film about marriage and strained friendships, is of course a wedding), but that’s really just the very final scene (it’s a bit soppy). For the most part the film doesn’t spare these characters, and yet despite that, the film mostly kinda works.

As for the storyline, it’s Rebel Wilson’s Becky who’s getting married (Wilson sounding weird doing an American accent), but the film is most interested in her closest friends, Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Caplan), none of whom are particularly happy, and who manifest this in various ways. When they accidentally ruin the bride’s dress (for the benefit of a particularly nasty joke at Becky’s expense), they end up having to call in favours and run around figuring out how to fix it, and it’s this almost-slapstick set-up which is probably the weakest part of the film. However, there are plenty of observant moments for each of these characters, and the acting is of a high calibre, such that it’s never quite as bad as it feels it should be. It’s even a little bit refreshing.

Bachelorette (2012)CREDITS
Director/Writer Leslye Headland (based on her play); Cinematographer Doug Emmett; Starring Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 5 January 2016.

Lore (2012)

We’ve all seen a hundred films set amongst the European ruins and detritus of World War II, but this film from Australian director Cate Shortland has an interesting angle to it, as it tracks the travails of Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl), a young woman living out in the Black Forest, who finds herself as head of the family when her apparently fairly senior Nazi parents are taken into custody by the Allies. However, it’s filmed from her point-of-view, so the war itself is a spectral background presence and her parents’ fates are mysterious and elliptically presented. The film settles down to being a sort of fractured road movie, as this new family unit moves across the country towards Hamburg and the home of their grandmother. The abiding quality of these (blonde and blue-eyed) children making their way through the contested space of post-war Germany is akin to that of The Road or other similar apocalyptic visions, as every space seems to be suffused by the constant fear of death, or worse. It’s interesting that despite its Australian genesis, the film is shot in German and acted by German actors, which would usually be the kind of weirdly international co-production that should act as a red flag to potential viewers, and yet it’s all done very well and with plenty of emotional power, as Lore finally comes to get a sense of the new reality from which she and her family had until then been so isolated.

Lore film posterCREDITS
Director Cate Shortland; Writers Robin Mukherjee and Cate (based on the novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert); Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw; Starring Saskia Rosendahl; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 24 August 2015.