Remote Area Medical (Reichert & Zaman, 2013)

It is hard to think of a proclamation of Jesus that is harder to understand–or believe–than “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I bring this up in the context of considering Remote Area Medical, Jeff Reichert’s and Farihah Zaman’s documentary because (at least in the first half) the directors focus on the recipients rather than the dispensers of free medical care. They are consistently, if not universally, a hard bunch to love:

–A woman repeatedly badgers a volunteer handing out tickets to those who have been waiting for hours, asking for an opportunity to cut in line and eventually lying about which car is hers in order to get a precious (and apparently unwarranted) marker.

–“We’ve been here for a long damn time…” grumbles one recipient, irritated that the demand for free services is so high it necessitates arriving almost a day in advance. (The three day event takes place at the Bristol Motor Speedway, and I couldn’t help but think of the lines of people who wait for days to secure tickets to their favorite sporting event.)

–“I was hoping to get more out of it then I got out of it,” sighs one woman who did receive free dental work but was unable to obtain the dentures she wanted.

–“I will get a loan before I get a damn number,” ironically threatens one woman who doesn’t like the answer she gets from one of the volunteers. There are some things worse than having to pay, apparently. Getting bossed around is one of them.

If you think drawing attention to those quotes makes me sound like a caricature of Mitt Romney in a PAC attack ad, well, I don’t disagree.

And that bothers me.

I thought more than once during Remote Area Medical about walking out of Hoop Dreams over two decades ago and listening to the pair of Midwestern blue-haired old ladies in front of me complaining that “those people” didn’t have enough money to keep the electricity turned on but “they were all wearing $100 sneakers.”

I remember feeling nothing but self-righteous indignation at those viewers. Have I changed that much since then? Because I don’t think the needs and challenges of the less privileged have.

The most maddening quote, however, was not one of ingratitude, entitlement, or need-prompted deception. In a fumbling attempt to tie  the program (or need for it) to some broader sociological or political meaning, a woman opines, “I wish all the people who made decisions could come down [here] to see what the consequences of their decisions would be…”

Speaking of vague references to “those” people…just who exactly is she talking about? Tobacco executives who market a carcinogenic product? Conglomerate food industries that contribute to obesity (and poor dental health)? Insurance companies that leveraged debt in credit default swabs and contributed to global inflation? The clinic set up in Bristol, Tennessee which, every time I’ve visited it, is about as anti-Obama as it gets, so it is hard for for me to reconcile the claims that insurance should be affordable and co-pays should be under $20 with the insistence that whatever our misfortunes might be, they are the product of unfair treatment at the hands of power and privilege.

Or maybe it isn’t. The truth is that the incredibly short shelf life for gratitude is as old as the Israelites turning their noses up at manna in the desert, and it is a human quality, not one limited to a particular class, race, or nationality.

The second half of Remote Area Medical is a little weaker than the first, in part because the focus changes ever so slightly to the providers and in part because the film doesn’t directly address some of the problems raised in the first half.

Perhaps the volunteers are simply modern days saints who don’t struggle with the ways that the rationing of health care brings out the worst (as well as the best) in all of us, but I doubt it. Also, unlike in Peter Nicks’s The Waiting Room, seldom do the highlighted consultations develop into more severe or sustained problems that require more than what can be addressed in a single consultation. (In the closest example, a smoker has a disturbing x-ray, but she shrugs off any intimations that some diagnoses call for changes in lifestyle rather than just treatment by suggesting that either God will take care of it, the RAM staff will take care of it, or it’s just not meant to be.)

It is unclear based on the film if the absence of more severe or complicated cases is due to editorial selection by the film’s maker or pre-screening by the staff itself. Perhaps I’m the viewing equivalent of the “glass half empty” mentality, unable to feel good about the feel good elements of the story without picking at loose threads. The film does raise most of these questions at one point or another, but it rarely explores possible answers, content with praising the good without asking why that good seems more needed now than ever.

Remote Area Medical will have its world premiere at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on Saturday, April 6. Tickets are available at the Full Frame Box Office.

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