The Waiting Room (Nicks, 2012)

Peter Nicks’s The Waiting Room is the sort of documentary that advocates on either side of the American health care debate could end up pointing at to bolster their ideological claims. Perhaps that is not a good thing. At the very least it may not be perceived as such by all viewers. As compassion fatigue becomes a constant, documentaries that highlight problems without offering solutions risk alienating audiences who that may already feel overwhelmed by problems of their own.

In my mind, though, there was something genuinely humble (and hence, a little brave) about Nicks’s twenty-four hour observation of a public hospital and the people who pass through its doors in the span of twenty-four hours. Social media has made everyone, expert or not, informed or not, knowledgeable or not, into a participant in public discourse. In the wake of the Supreme Court hearings about the Health Care Reform Bill, one can hardly go on Twitter or Facebook without encountering scores of people who not only want to offer an opinion about complex social policy but who are also increasingly comfortable in adopting a derisive tone of dismissal towards those who disagree.

The reality is that social problems are not simple, however much we want to try to claim they are in our public discourse in order to demonize our opposition. They are complex, they are messy, and, as the film shows, our policy decisions are not abstractions. They have real consequences that affect real people.

In one striking moment from the film a doctor privately and ironically expresses frustration that a patient is able to walk under his own power because that restricts the doctor’s administrative choices of how he can proceed. An unemployed, uninsured father has a daughter with a fever high enough to need medical attention but not sufficiently immanently threatening to warrant immediate attention. The waiting room is a kind of limbo, where patients with few resources must figure out how to keep a place in line while the world around them keeps moving and the prospect of help seems paradoxically so close and yet infinitely far away. Even once the patients are admitted, the treatment prospects seem maddeningly unpredictable. One chronic drug abuser gets a “million dollar” review to confirm that he is crashing from meth and cocaine, while another with chronic, debilitating pain is basically told that there is no appropriate treatment for him at an emergency facility.

As is the case with any slice-of-life, however, just when one seems settled into a particular point of view, something happens to make you rethink. A belligerent patient curses at a doctor for asking him to review his case history and says he would rather die than put up with “this shit” (meaning the bureaucratic process that must be negotiated to get dialysis at the facility). “This is all free, right?” asks a patient meeting with a financial counselor. The layers of assumptions built into such a question (which, truthfully, can be interpreted as half tongue-in-cheek) reinforce that the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is not just in their checkbooks but also in their understanding of what the facility was intended to be (a place for emergency care) and what it has become (all purpose health care for those who can’t afford anything else).

Strangely, much of the power of the film comes not from the stories that are told but of those that are not. Waiting rooms, like airports, are filled with people, often with emotions that belie a story clearly written on their faces. These glimpses create an extrapolating effect, reminding the viewer that each person we do see is representative of a much larger swath of the social fabric battling daily with issues–financial, social, health–that threaten to overwhelm them. In one such glimpse, I saw a man with what looked to be a diamond stud earring speaking on a smart phone that is a more expensive model than a phone that I can afford. The glimpse, and the complex feelings it engendered, took me back nearly twenty years to a moment when I was walking out of the theater where I saw Hoop Dreams and was stunned to hear the woman in front of me dismissively complain that the subjects of the film complained about not having money for electricity (in a cold Chicago winter) but could somehow all afford hundred dollar sneakers and color televisions.

Who deserves health care?

How much should health care costs?

At what point do we agree someone “can’t afford” health care, and what do we do then?

These are not the same questions, and they are not easy questions. I have a feeling that they will be questions that we as a society will be wrestling with for the rest of my life.

The Waiting Room plays at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on Friday, April 13 at 7:30.

Update: This film will be available on DVD and Digital on October 22, 2013 from Cinedigm.

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