But none of this politics is recorded in Ambulance. People in the film refer to the two sides in the conflict as ‘the parties’, expressing their hopes that they will negotiate a ceasefire. As homes are bombed and people are crushed beneath concrete rubble, nowhere in the film do we see Hamas or anyone else bearing arms. Come to that, we don’t see the IDF either, only the grim aftermath of their missiles attacks. Civilian bodies coated in cement dust and blood-stained may be the defining image of conflict in Gaza and, indeed, in urban areas beyond Palestine this century, and this awful familiar repeats and repeats throughout Ambulance. Here are desperate people, sometimes listening intently for the sound of survivors in the rubble, sometimes howling over the loss of a loved one. Ambulance is like watching a TV news clip on a loop but without the stock warning from the anchor person: ‘You may find these images upsetting’. Or you may have seen it all before so often that you have become immunised and so are prone to actually nodding off. Destruction and carnage seem, after all, to be the norm for Palestinians over a generation as a nation is relentlessly strangled out of existence while the world mostly whistles tunelessly and averts its still vaguely embarrassed gaze.
At first Mohamed Jabaly appears to foist himself and his camera onto the ambulance crew. They decline to respond when he asks them to comment on film about the destroyed homes that they are called to. They look away from the camera and mumble. Later, we are told that the driver, a respected veteran of the service, rings Jabaly to ask him to return to the crew. At that point, Jabaly had returned to his family, from whom he conceals his filming and the danger he puts himself in. On its next tour of duty the ambulance serves as a rescue vehicle, evacuating people from danger areas and delivering them to relative safety. The crew manage to pack an extraordinary number of people into their minibus-sized ambulance. At this point in the conflict the border with Egypt is closed. Jabaly films the Egyptians and Palestinians with Egtyptian residence permits who are stuck at the checkpoint: ‘Smile, you’re in Gaza,’ says one young woman, exhibiting the stoicism and irony that are vital survival strategies for Arabs in this place.
The people who appear in Ambulance make very frequent reference to Allah, praising their God and thanking him. Here, they do not appear to be employing irony, however. A Christian experiencing what these people are going through might be expected to lament: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Bombed, crushed and bleeding, Palestinians Muslims hail Allah as their Guardian. For me this was hard to fathom, as was the dry humour in the ambulance, particularly in some baffling dialogues between Jabaly and his heroic friend the driver. For the crew of the ambulance are all commonplace heroes, ordinary men just getting on with doing their impossible job. There is little cinematic artifice in Ambulance and it is not the methodological feat of Emad Burnat’s staggering Five Broken Cameras wherein art becomes political resistance. At one point as the ambulance crew check out a building for injured people or bodies, the camera settles on a rabbit hunkered in the debris. The visual incongruity is lacerating. In the final scene, a time-lapse shot over a shattered neighbourhood fading to black in the twilight, all we have witnessed in frenetic video footage is placed in a slightly wider, temporarily calmer geography. And, just for a moment, the audience finally has time to reflect. Filming as a personal coping strategy, Mohamed Jabaly tells the audience: ‘I want to wake up to a new day without panicking.’ If Ambulance doesn’t shock us, we might ask ourselves how that new day will ever dawn.