Movie Review: The Waiting Room
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 81 minutes
Release Date: September 14, 2012
Directed by: Peter Nicks
Stars: 3 out of 5
When one of the doctors in the documentary "The Waiting Room" says in a voice-over "We are an institute of last resort for so many people," you know you are not exactly in for a joyride. There are a lot of heartbreaking cases seen by the doctors of Highland Hospital, but the film is not all dour and depressing. It manages to show how humans come together to try and defeat illness through compassion and patience.
Highland Hospital is located in Oakland, California, just off one of the major highways. Due to its location and the fact that it is the largest public hospital in the area, its emergency room is constantly busy. Director Peter Nicks, who also did the camera work, shows just how busy the hospital gets through the use of an overhead camera and time lapse technology. More than once, the audience is shown that for every patient treated and released, there are more to take the place in the waiting room.
The room feels like a boat that has taken on water, with the staff desperately using buckets to keep the boat from sinking, but with no hope of plugging up the hole causing the leak. Instead, the boat will continue to take on water, with the staff barely keeping it afloat. There is no narration, but the occasional voiceovers from the staff point out how the stream of uninsured patients, some needing very critical care, never really stops.
Nicks uses unusual camera angles to show the isolation and occasional desperation of some of the patients. Without a script, he is still able to paint a very haunting picture of what some of the people waiting to be treated go through. For example, many of the patients once had health insurance, some very recently. Due to bad economic conditions, some patients lost their jobs and health coverage. Those who had preexisting conditions like diabetes can no longer afford insulin or dialysis that could save their lives. Highland is truly their last resort, just as one of the doctors explains in the film.
Though several patients are shown and their stories told, there are many loose ends that don't get tied up in a pretty bow at the end of the film. A young patient has finished her treatment but doesn't have a vehicle or anyone to come pick her up. She is wheeled out to the nearby bus stop, which is the last the audience sees of her. She clearly cannot fend for herself and may not even be able to stand up by herself to get on the bus. The staff clearly sympathizes, but they can't help her, especially since they have dozens of other people waiting for care. Nicks doesn't follow up with her, leaving her story up in the air, like the fate of many waiting to be seen at Highland.
The film does not have any credited writers because there is no narration. This is an astute move on the part of Nicks, who clearly is leaving any judgments about the healthcare system to the audience. In doing so, he ensures that the underlying (but unspoken) comments about the system are heard, instead of drowning in a sea of political noise. This is in stark contrast to "Sicko," a healthcare documentary produced by filmmaker Michael Moore. Moore is something of a political firecracker with many detractors.
The message of "Sicko" was a valid one, but it was lost in the political maelstrom that generally follows Moore around. It is unfortunate that the message got lost, because the film was actually very good and made some excellent observations. Perhaps Nicks saw what happened with Moore's film and did his best to avoid those pitfalls. Whatever the reason, it was a wise decision on his part to not point fingers or place blame. All conclusions are drawn by the audience, and not by the filmmaker.
In fact, "The Waiting Room" feels almost like an exercise in audience participation. You may very well be emotionally exhausted by the end of it, from seeing all the human suffering. This is a good thing, because it will help to accomplish what documentaries should-a better understanding of the subject that will stay with you and make you think about the subject long after you view the film. "The Waiting Room" will definitely have a few patients who will stick in your memory, but more so the ever-patient staff who are overworked and underpaid. The film practically pays homage to them, as it should.