Directed by Peter Nicks. PG. 81 min. Opens Jan. 18 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
Based on the evidence of the footage gleaned by Peter Nicks in his compelling new documentary, The Waiting Room, an absolutely dizzying number of sick, wounded, or otherwise distressed souls trundle daily into Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, in need of care.
They get it, but the troubling thing about the film is how it pays tribute to the hospital staff’s incredible skill and patience in dealing with the intake without losing sight of the fact that many of the patients shouldn’t be there. They’re using emergency-room services to get diagnoses and treatments they can’t otherwise afford. One man drops in regularly for on-the-fly dialysis; another patient with bone spurs in his back is offered Vicodin in lieu of surgery. The elephant in the room is health insurance, which most of the people encountered by Nicks’s camera don’t have. In the absence of contextualizing narration, the film scores its political points through simple, unvarnished observation. We hear snatches of conversations about money troubles, but the film’s M.O. is to show and not tell—the images of anguished, exhausted faces staring out from the beds are worth a thousand words and then some.
Nicks’s film isn’t entirely depressing. It enshrines the commitment of the doctors, nurses, and emergency medical workers who have to play logistical games with available space while tending to life-or-death situations. And contrary to the popular media depiction of ERs as explosive powder-keg environments, Nicks emphasizes the effectiveness of orderly hospital procedures. Much like its subjects, The Waiting Room tackles extreme situations without ever losing its composure.