The Waiting Room (Dir. Peter Nicks, USA, 2012, 80 min.)
At Highland Hospital in Oakland, it’s another normal day. Sick people line up in the emergency room to wait until a doctor can see them. That usually takes all day. What we see is a flow of humanity that’s at the bottom end of the 99 per cent. This is a last resort, but it’s their only way into health care – all ages, all races, all ailments, almost all dead broke.
You would not want to be on their end of the equation. Opponents of the Obama plan would say that reform would bring this country to a system of rationing. When you see “The Waiting Room,” you are made aware that rationing is already at work, whether the illness is cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, drunkenness, or kidney disease. You see people who don’t have money paying in another currency, time.
Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks gives you what looks like a Fred Wiseman movie, using the kind of raw material and a cinematographic precision that you would expect from a television show like “E.R.” It’s more distilled than Wiseman – shorter – but the pageantry, if you can call it that, is no less complex – hardworking employees under huge pressure who’ve seen it all, impatient sick people, an infusion of the suffering who have been laid off from their jobs, and lots of fear.
“The Waiting Room” is edited to give the range of emotions observed and experienced in that space, and that range is vast. You feel as if you’ve been there for a day after 80 minutes, and you’re thankful that you’ve been watching a movie. Patients who have nowhere to go after treatment are kept in beds until someplace is found, and the waiting gets longer. This is documentary as distilled observation. It’s also as strong an argument for universal health care that I’ve seen in years. Funded partly by ITVS, it should end up on Public Television, if PBS is till there.