When Pete Nicks released his character-driven study of a waiting room, the Silverdocs and Hot Docs alum “The Waiting Room,” he also launched a website that allows people to watch clips from the film and other footage and share their thoughts on a broken health care system. The film, unlike its equally strong contemporary, “Escape Fire” (Sundance 2012), does not propose answers to the health care problem, but it does show the situation millions of Americans face when the only course of action for any medical care is a visit to the emergency room — the option Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, like former president George W. Bush before him, prescribed for the uninsured in a recent “60 Minutes” interview.
Indiewire asked Nicks to explain how a social-cause film can make a difference when it doesn’t claim to have the answers. Here’s what he had to say.
“The Waiting Room” opened at the IFC Center in New York Wednesday.
UPDATE: “The Waiting Room” will screen on PBS’s Independent Lens series on October 15, 2013. [Bryce J. Renninger]
The most powerful stories are like seeds. You plant them and they often grow into strong, meaningful living things. Artists and filmmakers who stay the course and produce a body of work over time may not always see each individual story make a huge impact right away. But over time, stories of all genres can have a collective impact on the nation’s consciousness. It takes time for these stories to grow and take effect.
Unfortunately, time is one thing struggling documentary filmmakers cannot always afford. One of the first questions a documentary filmmaker must answer before a foundation, philanthropist or even a rich uncle will write a big check is “describe the impact you hope to make with your film.” Whether or not a filmmaker can get funding often hinges not only on the strength of his story, but in how he answers this question. In my experience, I have found it increasingly difficult to argue that a well-told story alone — absent any obvious “change apparatus” (whatever that means) — can make a meaningful difference in today’s media landscape, where change and impact are often measured in “likes” and “views” on social media, or influence a direct policy change that can be traced back to the film. Funders, just like voters, often demand immediate gratification. They want to see change happen before them in real time.
With “The Waiting Room,” I chose to think more about the seed I was planting than the immediate impact this film should or could make. I felt it was important to shoot the film in an observational style — without narration, text, graphics or much music. The concept for the film developed organically from stories my wife, a speech pathologist at Highland Hospital, told me about the struggles and resilience of her patient population. I felt that these stories — and the voices of the waiting room — spoke for themselves and were a silent but critical part of the national discussion about health care. They were the stories that needed to creep into our national consciousness to help break through the political standstill our country has come to when it comes to health care.
As the issues and political debate surrounding health care reform got louder, it occurred to me that the people who were not participating in the debate were the very people we were fighting over: the uninsured, waiting in underfunded and overstretched public hospitals all over the country for sometimes basic and often urgent health care needs.
With this in mind, I would like to see film funders shift their emphasis from proof of impact to proof of need for a certain story to be told. In the case of “The Waiting Room,” these voices could be what the country needs to hear in order to move forward and create real change… one “like” at a time.