Film Reviews

The Waiting Room Peter Nicks

Rating - 8/10

The Waiting Room is a new cinéma vérité documentary outside of traditional news coverage and human interest stories that occurs over the course of a twenty-four hour period at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California.  (The tense tagline reads "24 hours. 241 patients. One stretched ER").  Plagued with an unruly number of patients waiting for emergency and primary care services, the hospital is forced to treat people like they're customers in a delicatessen by employing a 'take a number' system.  The documentary features no talking heads, no titles, no narration, no statistical intertitles, minimal music and political diversion; this compelling first-person approach allows viewers to step into the disorienting daily life of the hospital while curbing emotional and political manipulations.  The Waiting Room is intensely focused on its human subjects, naturally relaying their circumstances without juxtaposing them with extrapolated numbers and authoritative advice.  The filmmakers' dialogue begins and ends in the editing room, simply segmenting the film through various stages of the treatment process.  Director Peter Nicks decided to tackle this project not just as a film but an entire "storytelling project," as described on the official website, which allows other patients to share their stories on the site via Vimeo.  Nicks' wife, who also works for Highland Hospital, provided motivation and his access to the facility.  In an interview with PBS this past July, he also reveals a need for the film in a time where "policies being made are going to affect individuals and communities for possibly generations..." and that "people's voices, particularly in public hospitals like this one... were not being heard and represented in that conversation."
As it is well-known, the United States is the only industrialized country that does not have universal healthcare.  President Obama once campaigned on the promise of providing it and eventually drafted the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (informally known to many critics as "Obamacare") to limit the number of uninsured Americans and reduce costs.  This political implication is not introduced in The Waiting Room, but it certainly looms over it as a prerequisite for properly understanding its urgency.  Utilizing the most literal and apt title, the almost exclusive focus inside the hospital transforms the waiting room beyond its function into a character itself, a sanctuary and a temporary residence for those anticipating the next available doctor.  The film opens with a number of profiles in the preliminary examination process with certified nursing assistant Cynthia Johnson.  Among those who seek care are a young girl with a possible tonsil infection, a partly employed mid-twenties man with a testicular tumor, and a middle-aged carpenter who has developed painful bone spurs.  With her distinctive, sassy sense of humor and desire for civility, Ms. Johnson eases patients by engaging them in droll conversation.  After the patients are vetted, they are carefully examined by one of the resilient on-site doctors.  Douglas White, the most prominent among them, calmly talks about the act of juggling patients and frequent moral dilemmas.  With Highland's chronic shortage of beds and the fact that some admitted do not have homes or necessary resources, Dr. White chooses to retain them until he can identify a city refuge for them.  He expresses concern about releasing someone into the streets when it's clear that it will exacerbate their condition.  This is further complicated by the film's potent dichotomy – the fact that several of those anticipating treatment are not in the ER for traumatic emergencies but rather primary care that a standard physician would normally administer.  The immense anxiety builds as uninsured people flood into the ER for basic health care assistance.  These patients are additionally competing with those in life-or-death situations, as the trauma unit is forced to divert attention from other patients and tasks at hand, repeatedly delaying some men and women in need of aid.  In one instance, a nurse even shockingly reports that a man has been waiting seven hours for a prescription of acetaminophen.
While The Waiting Room portrays the inner world of a hospital, its aspirations and issues obviously reach beyond the walls.  In a late scene, a fifteen-year-old boy arrives in the ER with a gunshot wound, and the trauma team attempts to revive him in vain.  Perhaps this is one case of many that troubles the team each and every week; the documentary does not link statistics or occurrences, but the presence of the fatally wounded boy elicits a sense of urban violence afflicting the current healthcare system.  The indirect way in which the topic is introduced immediately places it in the context of others waiting for care rather than the necessity of broader reform; there are not recurring bullet points on an agenda.  There is tremendous strain beyond the control of anyone involved at the hospital, but the fact remains that the doctors are devoted to saving lives regardless of the scenario.  It speaks to the dedication of those in the medical profession and the desire to restore human life at any cost.  Once a regional project, the theatrical release for The Waiting Room was generously funded by a Kickstarter campaign recently.  Peter Nicks and crew successfully raised $75,000 in late July.  Since then, the film screened in Madison, WI, on the last day of August as part of the seasonal premiere showcase in Cinematheque programming.  In late September, it will be shown in New York City, and Los Angeles dates will be announced thereafter.  What began as a personal consensus of America's healthcare has grown into a large and pivotal project in American documentary filmmaking.  Nicks has continued to develop it into a multimedia project by requesting the public's active participation online.  At just 81 minutes, The Waiting Room captures an urgency to reform the system without one spoken word from the director over the course of the film.  However, Nicks' message is explicit, and the real stories he captures are not easily shaken from memory.  He has allowed ordinary Americans to be seen and heard, and hopefully they will not be eternally waiting for a reformation.