Documentaries can usually be rated according to the sophistication of their technique. They might have a flashy style or an impressive array of interviewees; they might illustrate a point with diverting animated segments or create mood with an impressive soundtrack.
This is where Ambulance confounds. As straightforward as its title, it’s about as stripped-back and unadorned as a film can be while still remaining a film: Ambulance is just one man, one camera, and a sparse declarative voice-over. What strikes you about the filmmaking isn’t editorial slickness or cleverness of conceit, but the sheer bravery of the filmmaker.
Step forward Mohamed Jabaly, a 23-year-old who rides into the heart of his fears with only a camera for psychological and talismanic protection.
Ambulance was filmed during the 2014 Israeli offensive when Gaza was being bombarded. A resident of Gaza, Jabaly decided he’d rather not sit around waiting to be hit by a missile, and instead chose to ride shotgun with a crew of insanely courageous medics. Ambulance is ‘simply’ the edited footage he shot during this time. It is also astonishing.
What becomes apparent while watching Ambulance – and what the film goes some way towards remedying – is how one’s perspective of a distant conflict ends up being chiefly informed by news clips. We get used to those safe aerial shots, wide-angle city-scape panoramas that show the skyline thick with orange smoke – terrible, but beautiful and distanced, like a John Martin apocalypse painting.
For most of Ambulance, Jabaly is right in the thick of it. One extraordinary sequence shows the ambulance crew called to a building that then explodes right next to them. The crew’s captain – the indomitable Abu Marzouq – is struck by flying rubble and rushed to hospital, from which he emerges with stitches in his head and a determination to finish his shift.
To come up with an equivalently immediate and unfiltered portrayal of war-time valour, you have to reach back to books like All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms, stories that have a simplicity and directness that comes from sheer proximity to danger.
It seems dismissive to harp on about the simplicity of Ambulance, as if Jabaly was somehow less of a filmmaker, just an ingénue in the place at the right time: it’s worth mentioning that the film is seamlessly edited, not one minute too long, and would be nothing without Jabaly’s eye for the fascinating and the absurd. But the simplicity is his film’s great strength. Ambulance goes right to the root of the word ‘documentary’ – it is an invaluable document of a time and a place and the heroism of those who live there.
An incredible achievement, Ambulance raises the bar for war-zone documentaries, and introduces Jabaly as a formidable talent and dedicated artist.
|What||Ambulance film review|
|Where||Bertha Dochouse, The Brunswick, London, WC1N 1AW | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
26 Aug 16 – 26 Oct 16, Times vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here for more details|