My weekend UK Arts supplement would have me believe that in the cinema world, Romania is the next Brazil. Three hard hitting films on life before and after the downfall of Communism have suddenly put Eastern Europe back on the must-see movie map.
Winner at last year's Cannes film festival, Cristi Puiu's Death of Mr Lazarescu follows a man's protracted death as he is ferried by ambulance from uncaring hospital to uncaring hospital.
All appeals on his behalf are rejected by a series of cynical doctors and their arrogant staff. I suspect that Bulgarians would recognise much that was similar in their own health service. Attracted by the description of the film as “comic masterpiece” the average Western viewer will no doubt feel a mixture of awe at the harsh otherness of Eastern Europe, alongside a smug feeling that in their own country things would be different. But under the differences in outward shows of style and presentation, the realities remain the same whatever the country.
The film has driven this writer to consider whether it is better for the truth to be muffled by a warm blanket, or for it to hit you in the face like a wet flannel. Below the outward differences of style and presentation, the realities remain the same whatever the country.
In her hospital ward in the UK, my mother lies - a prisoner in her bed. Everyday a bewildering array of medical and ancillary staff assume enormous smiles, greet her with “Good morning Mrs Buxton!” and “How are you today?”, but do not wait to hear her negative response. These very British routines of politically correct concern are quickly learned by the cosmopolitan staff from Polish cleaners and Latvian coffee ladies to Zimbabwean nurses and Chinese doctors. “In a minute” is the smiling response to every request and patients learn to wait and feel appropriate guilt in disturbing the obviously busy personnel who are so nice.
Whether or not they have seen Carry on Nurse, everyone understands neatly ordered beds, regular servings of tasteless meals and patients whose resistance has long been worn down by enforced cheerfulness. These are all important cloaks to hide the unpalatable fact that while there is no cure, there are plenty of drugs and routines for enforcing passive acceptance of a long drawn out fate.
Often as helpless are the British bobbies who fail to solve community murders, but are always ready to show their caring side. “I think you'd better sit down.” “Shall I make you a cup of tea?” “Can we arrange some counselling for you?” All these kindnesses cloak the truth that where powerful local interests prevail, investigations can be stalled for years: as in the murder of a 10-year-old child by gangs in Liverpool.
And within British public services, showing a caring face can simply become a routine for everyone to escape the truth, that often there is nothing that can be done beyond the uttering of meaningless reassurances. Oh for the invigorating brusqueness of the nonpolitically correct Bulgarian public services!
Here the professional's concern for status and fear of wasted effort often outweigh instincts of kindness. However, when you experience that kindness it flares like a beacon on a dark night.
In Bulgaria human tragedy can evoke a no-nonsense response that saves needless expenditure of nervous energy. A Black Sea police chief's response to distraught parents demanding a search for their kidnapped daughter was laudably pragmatic. “No need for helicopters! Some village shepherd will find her body.”
In the event of a road death, a common sense approach means that eventually someone will inform those closest to the deceased. Near Stara Zagora the traffic cop picked up the victim's phone at the crash scene, dialled the first number on the contacts list, and left the rest to networking. The victim's wife was the last to know and there was no one in uniform to make sure she was sitting down with a cup of tea when she received the news.
In Plovdiv, a friend with suspected breast cancer recently paid for an appointment and waited a whole day to be seen. There was a long queue of women frowning in anticipation outside the doctor's door and weeping as they left. My friend was the last to be seen. Before her examination the doctor took time to roundly scold her for not being more assertive. She should have pushed ahead of her weeping fellows, who had not paid and therefore could expect less consideration. In Bulgaria it is patients who owe a duty of care to doctors. And the brutality of the eventual examination and diagnosis made her realise that even money does not necessarily purchase an attempt at kindness. However she was left in no doubt as to the truth of her situation.
Kindness is seen as an essential element in the human interface with catastrophe, but once that kindness is institutionalised it can quickly become routine and hypocritical. Perhaps it is because Bulgarians recognise the human inadequacies of their public services that they are so ready to show sympathy and offer help to total strangers in a way that happens more rarely in the UK. There, with its politically correct institutions, there is a tendency for people to cross to the opposite pavement when they see a fellow human in need of help.
The one positive element in The Death of Mr Lazarescu is the behaviour of the paramedic and the ambulance driver. Scorned and driven away from each hospital, they spend the whole night fighting for a dignified final resting place for their doomed patient - not through following politically correct routines, but miraculously discovering humanity in a harsh world.
A SHOULDER TO LEAN ON?
In Bulgaria, there is often nothing more traumatising than surviving an accident. Conventional wisdom holds that if you were lucky enough to live, then you don't need any further assistance. After a fire tore through the Sofia-Kardam night train, for example, passengers stood for hours during the night at the Cherven Bryag station half-naked - wearing only what they had on when they jumped from the burning train. Railway officials practically had to force the owners of the station's café to take in survivors and give them warm food and drinks.
Owners of nearby clothing stores, however, refused to get out of bed in the middle of the night to provide clothing to those in need. Taxi drivers arrived
at the station uninvited and offered to drive stranded travellers to Pleven or Sofia - for 90 leva per person. However, the passengers themselves can hardly be called “Good Samaritans”. One fireman reported that some survivors stood around the burning train commenting on the blaze and taking pictures of it with their mobile phones as he struggled to put it out - only a dozen or so men thought to help him.
Top photo© Christi Ruiu, directing the Romanian film The Death of Mr Lazarescu