'Sofia's Last Ambulance' and 'No Man's Land': Smart Storytelling
A lack of certainty pervades both these films, both concerned with the difficulties of life amid chaos, especially chaos incited by oppressive regimes and perpetual poverty.
"In your opinion, what is the purpose of this film?" The question, asked by filmmaker Salomé Lamas, is laid over helicopter noise and a shot of trees, thick and green and viewed from above. The answer offered by Paulo de Figueiredo fits that shot, elusive, generic, without context. "To tell you the truth," he says, "I don’t know for sure. I know I wanted to tell the story of my life. And then everyone can think what they like."
That story, you soon learn in Terra de ninguém (No Man's Land), concerns Figueiredo's career as a mercenary killer, which he recounts in some detail while seated in a room somewhere in or around Lisbon, along the Rua do Século. He wears a mustache and blue jeans, the room around him so dimly lit that his background is as black as his sweater. At several points he leans toward the camera, his elbows on his knees, and once he smokes a cigarette. The interview takes place over several days, numbered in the film, along with the bits of story Figueiredo tells, bits that might be chronological but also sound random, responses to unheard questions -- about wars and contracts, the 66-year-old killer's childhood memories and bodies never found.
A lack of certainty pervades Terra de ninguém. Screening at MoMA's Documentary Fortnight in February, Terra de ninguém forms a kind of counterpoint to another film in the program, Sofia's Last Ambulance (Poslednata lineika na Sofia). Both concern the difficulties of life amid chaos, especially chaos incited by oppressive regimes and perpetual poverty. The difference is the seeming representation of "the truth," as Figueiredo phrases it. While he offers up his memories without documentation or visual corroboration, speaking to the camera in a room alone, Sofia's Last Ambulance offers very little in the way of narration. Three members of a paramedic crew in Sofia, Bulgaria conduct their business (filmed over the course of two years), the cameras in the ambulance close on their faces, and at each call, framing them so their patients remain unseen. They speak to one another, not to the camera.
The film opens on a view from the ambulance, rolling past a gate into a factory parking lot, a couple of workers waving directions, the ride bumpy and noisy. At the office where the patient lies inside, the camera observes two doctors, Mila Mikhailova and Krassimir Yordanov, as they exit and cross in front of the ambulance to reach their patient inside. Here the shot keeps tight on their faces and upper bodies as they bend over their work, encouraging the unseen man with a brain hemorrhage, to breathe, asking for background from the coworkers around him (also off-screen). The patient gurgles, gets hoisted onto a gurney, and rides away in the ambulance, Mila leaning over him, performing her calm for him, instructing and soothing. "Hold on for a bit longer, my dear," she says.
Such is the daily business of this crew, whose ambulance is among the last in Sofia. Winner of the France 4 Visionary Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Ilian Metev's film observes the team's emotional interactions, efforts, and frustrations -- as when the radio goes out and the emergency dispatcher stops processing calls, or they're sent to wrong addresses, or they're left waiting for information while patients suffer and even die. Mila distracts a frightened child in the ambulance, wrestles with drunk whose leg is broken, smiles when Krassi scampers from the ambulance to pick fruit from a tree, as they're on their way back from a call out in the "middle of nowhere."
Sofia's Last Ambulance constructs a narrative out of this chaos, in the sense that it follows the team from one episode to another, the frame rocking as driver Plamen Slavkov navigates difficult traffic and potholes, lurching when a cab slams into the ambulance at an intersection. The stories here are necessarily partial: Mila notes the difficulty of getting abortions in Bulgaria, but also laments what seems an attempt by a girl to have the emergency crew perform the procedure for her, after swallowing "unknown medication," then waiting in her car for the paramedics to arrive. Krassi's face fills the frame as Mila sounds off, off-screen: "Idiots like that can make you hate mankind," she worries, "and not feel compassion for anybody, I mean, nobody, and treat everyone with disgust."
It's plain in watching Mila and her fellows work against impossible odds that they struggle with this idea of compassion, how to maintain it and how to mete it out (she's on the phone with her child, blowing kisses and encouraging her to have "sweet dreams" even as she's pitching about in the ambulance, en route to a next call, an addict whose repeated near-deaths are exasperating his mother. The documentary doesn't draw conclusions, only shows effects, specifically effects on the medics. And these are devastating, visible in their increasingly exhausted faces as again and again their best efforts are thwarted, not by malice but by incompetence and impoverishment, the hospital's slashed funding and Sofia citizens' vexations. When the cab driver who hits them claims he's done it on purpose, the looks on Mila and Krassi's faces suggest their horror but also their understanding. Endless anger and misery can make you "hate mankind."
Sofia's Last Ambulance makes its case quietly, and also overwhelmingly. The close, ever moving, sometimes harrowing images make a compelling case, whether you're looking at expressive faces or empty seats. Such an innovative route through a daunting political analysis seems directly opposite of the choices made by Terra de ninguém. But they do similar work, revealing the damage done by what's unseen or even incomprehensible, exemplifying the awful power of stories, as these make sense of experience or not.
And so, as Figueiredo remembers -- or embellishes or makes up -- his past, the monstrous acts he was paid to commit, he attends repeatedly to his listeners' responses. Trained as an electrical engineer in school, he spent time in the army before he became a mercenary. Known as "Ensign Grenades," he says, because he preferred this explosive, sure mode of mayhem, he notes that he and his fellow mercenaries worked in Portugal, El Salvador France, and Spain (where he was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison, he says) and for local governments or rebel forces, as well as the CIA. They sometimes took trophies, because, he reasons, ears or noses flapping from vehicle doors or someone's belt might inspire terror. "Elimination was always the American goal," he says, "with or without motives."
Describing an assassination completed in a restaurant, he says he never worries about witnesses, because they invariably panic: "They just heard a noise and it was over," he explains "There was no time for them to concentrate and see who it was or wasn’t, if someone was dead or wasn’t." Yet, he goes on, he might have heard something as he was leaving the scene, screams. "But," he adds, slyly, "Not from the dead, from the people, the dead don’t scream."
It's one of many odd moments in the documentary, as his heavily lined face hovers in darkness or his hands gesture to indicate a size or a movement. Figueiredo is a terrific performer, engaging, persuasive, unbelievable. Like the narco assassin in El Sicario, Room 164, his details are daunting, certainly alarming. Even if, unlike the masked sicario, Figueiredo shows himself, you find yourself unable to read him, may be unable to guess what's the truth and what's not. This is, of course, his job, as he proposes it, a combination of trick and commerce, brutality and morality. He claims that he only eliminated "those who are no good," a number that would include himself. Still, he says, "It doesn’t matter that whoever hires me is better or worse than [the targets]. On the contrary, those who hired me, knowing I'm going to kill, are worse than them and me."
Likewise, it may not matter whether the stories Figueiredo tells are the truth. For the film is less about what he may have done than the context for such atrocities, a context the film makes clear, in its attention to the numbers -- of days, of crimes, or story bits, of Lamas' narrated "notes," questioning the veracity of her subject, but not his motives, at least not outright. The film is, at last, less Figueiredo than his audience, including Lamas and you as well. How can you know the truth in a documentary -- or any other context -- as you guess at causes or intentions? Stories have to work at this, making sense, drawing conclusions, imposing or imagining justice. "No one has the right to take someone else's life," Figueiredo reasons, "But it's like this: if we don’t shoot, justice doesn’t stop the killings and the murders either." That sounds like the truth. But how can you know?