Almost heaven, Bristol, Tennessee. The nation’s official "Birthplace of Country Music" boasts the kind of breathtaking natural beauty that might inspire a John Denver song. But the pristine state of its mighty river and Appalachian mountain vistas stand in stark contrast to the degenerative physical state of most of its inhabitants. Scraping by on sporadic (and frequently hazardous) labor contracts, the employment opportunities available in Bristol are not the kinds that come with benefits. Enter Remote Area Medical (RAM): a volunteer relief corps that provides free healthcare to those in dire need — and the subject of the documentary of the same name opening this week from Jeff Reichart ("Gerrymandering") and Farihah Zaman.
Dropping into town just as RAM is setting up its three-day operation, the filmmakers get up-close-and-personal with the weathered faces of the people directly impacted by the country’s healthcare crisis.
Transforming Bristol’s Motor Speedway from a NASCAR racetrack to a fully equipped medical and dental facility constitutes an impressive logistical feat: monstrous tents are raised, row upon row of folding tables set up, and golf carts whiz about the sprawling grounds, transporting patients between departments. Accommodating up to 800 people per day, RAM is entirely reliant on an army of volunteer staff: from a Boston-based MD to a local jeweler turned denture repairman, the organization has mobilized over 80,000 volunteers from near and far since its inception in 1985.
At the helm of the operation is Stan Brock, RAM’s founder and resident super hero. At age 77, Mr. Brock rides his bike into work each day, going about his duties with distinguished diligence. Sporting khaki medical fatigues and maintaining faint traces of a British accent, he’s a cross between Christopher Plummer and Crocodile Dundee — as quietly dignified as he is exceptionally brave, not to mention a captivating presence on camera (Brock co-hosted NBC’s "Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom" in the 60s).
"Three-hundred and forty operations," he tells the camera proudly, "and we’ve never failed to start on time." Each day on site begins promptly at 3:30am with the ritualistic distribution of neon pink numbered slips to the sea of hands waiting in the pitch-black parking lot. Exhausted, anxious, and shivering in the sub-zero weather, most of the patients make the pilgrimage to RAM camp overnight in the hopes of getting a golden ticket. Those who do are utterly elated, those who don’t understandably crushed and frustrated, and the daily dramas unfold accordingly.
The ailments of Bristol’s prospective patients range from diseases as severe as lung cancer to needs as basic as prescription glasses. "If it weren’t for RAM, how would you see a doctor?" the filmmakers ask one woman who is simply hoping for a routine check-up. "I wouldn’t," she answers matter-of-factly, and she’s not the exception. Many of the people we meet in the film have never seen a doctor or a dentist. One man in his mid-60s tells the camera that the last time he saw a physician he was 16 years old (as it turns out, he has dangerously high blood pressure), while another explains that he’s had to yank out his own teeth with a pair of pliers on numerous occasions to deal with the pain caused by abscesses.
Chaptered in accordance with RAM’s 3-day stint in Bristol, "Remote Area Medical" follows a fairly standard documentary formula. Talking heads are intercut with observational footage (including some horrific and very bloody close ups of tooth extractions), but the directors distinguish themselves by creating a sense of intimacy with each of their many subjects that never once feels forced or fails to move, That the film is able to convey the sheer size of the operation and simultaneously do justice to the individual stories it presents owes as much to the directors as it does to editor Sam Pollard, who keeps pace with RAM’s sense of urgency while slowing down just enough to capture the Southern cadence — replete with drawling y’all’s and sibilant god bless’s.
If the movie leans a little to heavily on the construction of its subjects as simple country folk ("we’re just a bunch of old country people…always say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no sir’"), Reichart and Zaman portray the remarkably stoic host of characters they come across with deep sympathy and frequent humor. "I’m so sorry," one of the filmmakers says from behind the camera as a man waiting in line points out how many metal plates have been implanted in his corpus since being crushed by a Bobcat on the job. "I’m not," he responds, with great alacrity, "I’m still alive!"
As much as RAM changes — and saves — lives, the filmmakers are also careful to point out its limitations: many of the patients will need access to follow up treatments they can’t afford, or are finding out about life-threatening problems that could have been prevented with earlier care (it’s incredibly frustrating to watch a woman light up immediately after the doctor has explained the spot on her lung).
RAM’s pop up existence is but a Band-Aid solution in the grand scheme of things, but paired with the dedicated effort of these two filmmakers, will ideally promote wider awareness and perhaps the outrage needed to spur change. Genuinely moving but never maudlin, "Remote Area Medical" lays bare the injustice of a system that fails to provide for those who need it most.