USA 2017, 1h 20min
The sounds of a crack. A baby crying. The picture appears. The hands holding it are unsteady. The breath reveals despair, before a voice exclaims: ‘Oh my God!’ The premise for the rest of the film is set from the start: We will witness what he sees. With the exception of one image, through subjective angling, the documentary is filmed using a first-person perspective.
Palestinian Mohamed Jabaly has, with Ambulance, documented the 51-day long Gaza bombing during the summer of 2014 from the front: the driver’s seat of an ambulance. From day one, Jabaly instinctively reported everything, without revealing to his own family how he spent his days. They would not have allowed him to continue if they had known. Ambulance can be seen as Jabaly’s reason to apply for his Leave to Remain in Norway. The film makes has, ever since his arrival in Norway in 2014, fought to remain, but authorities want differently. Following pressure from the Norwegian film milieu and local environment in Tromsø, Jabaly, who originally was told to leave the country, had his process renewed just before Christmas. This means that he is allowed to remain a little longer, but for how long remains unknown.
The graphics selection formulaically follow the ‘Show, don’t tell’-recipe, and thus Ambulance is efficiently able to evoke our universal emotions.
Vital documentation. Considering how little news on the Gaza conflict that actually emanates from the Palestinian side, and that the vast amount of the sources used by Norwegian media is the Israeli military, there is even greater reason to be interested in Jabaly’s report. Ambulance has also received a lot of international attention. It was screened at Amsterdam’s IDFA festival, where it formed part of the main competition, and was also recently aired on NRK. At a time when NRK’s silence is total, to quote Torstein Dahle, is may now be time to make space for such a subjective submission from the weaker part.
The absurdity of war. In a second, our eyes are in the middle of the war. The graphics selection formulaically follow the ‘Show, don’t tell’-recipe, and thus Ambulance is efficiently able to evoke our universal emotions. The explicitly rhetorical notions create a shock effect whilst the deeply personal characteristics fill the film with pathos. This way, the rhetorical evidence is exploited to the max. The goal is simple: that we as spectators are to acknowledge the same feeling, regardless of where we are – whether in safe Norway or in i godforsaken Gaza. A prolonged flurry of nightmarish images hit our faces. We arrive in the midst of it all, leaving scarce need for a clear classic dramatic development – reality rarely plays out like that anyway.
The many dark parts are sometimes balanced out. As in the depiction a day in the life of ambulance personnel – which in itself is both interesting and at times completely absurd. Their black humour is liberating. Single scenes evoke ambiguous emotions which support the surreal reality. Like the one where the jam-packed ambulance is en route to the hospital, and the ambulance man at the back is ambushed by various people nagging him to give them a check-up. The man on the stretcher pulls down drawers whilst the scene is crosscut to the ambulance driver who constantly shouts into camera about the importance of first picking up those most in need.
The personal and the political. Effectively playing on pathos and a subjective narrative style is the reasoning behind what Jabaly claims is a personal rather than a political story. He is not currying favour with anyone – but if he is doing anyone’s, it would be the ambulance personnel’s. But, when is the personal apolitical? Is not the decision to portray such crisis situations that are explicit measurements of injustice, precisely political? As an audience, we almost automatically expect something fundamentally political whenever the disseminator is Palestinian. Recently, Israel announced that they plan to build further housing on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Simultaneously, a mere 11 days after inauguration, the White House signalled its clear preference to place its embassy inside Jerusalem. This makes Mohamed Jabaly’s delivery of his documentary story not only plausible, but also extremely necessary. At the same time, the film does not provide us with any guidance on how to act on it. There are no talking heads. It is not the film’s implicit political message which most invokes an urge for discussion.
The paradox of the war documentary. We see numerous bodies. Twisted bodies. Bodies that are pulled from the ruins, exposed in the white light, covered by a chalky dust from crushed brick walls. Few of the victims are shielded from the camera. The humans are victims, symbols of war. Thus they are reduced to film objects. At least, they do not have their own voice.
A prolonged flurry of nightmarish images hit our faces
Outside the hospitals are throngs of journalists and photographers, ready to capture what they can with their apparatuses. The unnatural urge to document almost everything that happens, appear as an added dimension in this insistence on what is absurd about war: ‘Look at this, a piece of bone from the man we just carried out on a stretcher!’ And see! A boy on a stretcher.’ ‘Look! Look! Look!’ There are large groups of people both outside and inside of the hospital. Flashbulbs go off constantly, as if on a red carpet. Everything must be captured. All must be recorded. This insistence and absorption in documenting those who are paying the price of war, does not only conjure up ethical problems. It may also ultimately spoil the message. How much of the truth do we need to digest? And, when will individual dignity and privacy be shielded? When is private dignity sacrificed for information and enlightenment?
As an audience, it should be possible to sense when the director has thoroughly considered the dignity of others as part of this discourse. One needs to walk on an ethical knife edge to ensure that the film does not turn into a reality show characterised by sensationalism. Herein lies the paradox of a war documentary. To shield or censor war victims from the picture creates authenticity problems. We need to realise that we are back in the spiral: the personal is political – so it is for the good of the many that the truth comes out as concrete as possible. And the truth is uncomfortable.
Ambulance is available on nrk.no.