‘A Provincial Hospital’: Karlovy Vary Review | Reviews
Directed by: Ilian Metev, Ivan Chertov, Zlatina Teneva. Bulgaria. 2022. 112 minutes.
A decade after his feature film debut Sofia’s last ambulanceBulgarian director Ilian Metev returns to his country’s healthcare system with another empathetic, observational documentary. A provincial hospitalthis time created with Ivan Chertov and Zlatina Teneva, depicts what appears to be a couple of weeks in the eponymous establishment, mainly focusing on the pulmonary ward – this is late in 2020, the ward is almost completely occupied by Covid-19 patients .
The film never feels anything but a convincingly accurate evocation of its chosen time and place
A completed coronavirus-themed documentary, this simple yet sensitively-treated film – which premieres in the main Crystal Globe competition at Karlovy Vary and will later prove to be a popular choice for festivals and small screen formats – sets a fairly high standard for those who will follow inevitably.
Stuck in the London lockdown in London during the filming, Metev (whose fictional feature in 2017 debuted 3/4 won a top prize at Locarno) monitored from afar while Chertov and Teneva collected material at the hospital in Kyustendil in the rural west of Bulgaria and edited their recordings solo. Kyustendil is located about 30 km from the borders of northern Macedonia and Serbia, less than 100 km from Sofia; the hospital – neither immaculate state-of-the-art nor particularly dilapidated – is probably a reasonably representative microcosm of how healthcare professionals handled the worst pandemic in Europe and beyond.
As in Sofia’s last ambulance, the emphasis is more on the frontline staff than on the patients, but unlike Metev’s previous documentary – which carefully concealed the identities of those treated – the latter is shown and named here. They gradually emerge as protagonists, with attitudes ranging from the unhappy helpless to the cooperative to the directly stubborn. The credits show 13 members of the lead role with another 35 people having more fleeting screen time; If there’s a first among equals here, it’s the middle-aged, flint-like Dr. Popov. Popov is able to make such an impact in part because we often see him in his office with the mask off; most of the rest of the staff are hidden behind layers of protective gear including double masking.
The logistical difficulties of running a business like A provincial hospital are obvious; editor Metev sensibly leaves for a number of moments when the subjects of the photo chat and interact with Chertov and Teneva, even though the couple remains out of the camera almost all the way. There is no fly-on-the-wall pretension here; the fact of the filming is often mentioned: “Do not let him fall on the camera!” a security guard warns a colleague when he transports a recently deceased person down a corridor.
And although the presence in the credits of a “foley editor” (Tsvetan Kadiyski) indicates that what we experience is not exactly unvarnished reporting, the film never feels anything other than a convincingly accurate evocation of its chosen time and place. The vast majority of the driving time, punctured in segments with a black screen, takes place within the framework of the building; a few fleeting glimpses of the bosky world outside in the final stages act as gently transcendent tones of grace.
As usual in the subgenre health documentary (of which Sofia’s last ambulance was also a solid example), we wonder about the hard work and (mostly) cheerful attitude of the staff in the face of circumstances that are often tough and sometimes tragic. And as usual, the staff uses hard-knock humor to get along; a trait shared by those patients who retain enough oxygen in their lungs to create laughter.
Production companies: Agitprop Ltd., Chaconna FIlms
International sales: Agitprop Ltd., [email protected]
Producer: Martichka Bozhilova
Cinematography: Ivan Chertov, Zlatina Teneva
Editing: Ilian Metev