With all the anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on health care reform, Peter Nicks may have expected a captive audience last week when his new documentary on the current health system, The Waiting Room, was shown on Capitol Hill. The audience was void of politicians, though. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., introduced the film and then had to leave, and no other members showed up for the free screening in the Cannon House Office Building on the evening of June 18.
This is not a partisan film, according to Nicks. “I’m not an activist, I’m not Michael Moore,” the 44-year-old director says. “I didn’t want to make a documentary that was going to be red meat for one side or the other.”
What Nicks’s film does is provide a different lens through which to view health care reform, mostly from the point of view of patients in a typical emergency room. Many of them have no health insurance.
“I’m down to zero right now in my bank account. I got about 80 bucks in my pocket,” patient Davelo Lujuan says in a scene from the film. “And I don’t know what else to do.”
A carpet-layer, Lujuan had gone to Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., because of back pain due to bone spurs that was threatening his ability to work. He happened to show up on one of the days over an eight-week period when Nicks was shooting his film in 2010, the same year Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that is now awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court on its constitutionality.
The Waiting Room is different from documentaries that focus on talking heads and data. The film isn’t about the monotony of waiting in uncomfortable chairs in a sterile environment. Instead, the interaction between patients is shown as conversations erupt between people who have been waiting hours to see a doctor.
The staff tries to help uninsured patients as much as possible, while setting up beds in the hallways to help the overflow from the waiting room. Gunshot victims are rushed in by paramedics, and a doctor is briefed on how to break the news to a family after one of the victims dies.
“It’s a film about our common humanity,” Nicks says. “It’s a film about a common condition. We weren’t asking people what they thought about ‘Obamacare,’ we were asking who they were.”
The Waiting Room also has a related interactive storytelling project. The website for the project is organized according to emotions and shows snapshots of patients in the ER experiencing feelings that range from grief to hope. The project uses formats such as photos, text, and video in an attempt to improve patient satisfaction through feedback.
Nicks has worked at ABC News and PBS’s Life 360, and he has a master’s degree in documentary filmmaking from the University of California (Berkeley). But he would rather discuss the film than his resume. The project has been in the making for 12 years, ever since his wife started working at Highland Hospital and he became enthralled by the stories she’d tell of the patients.
The documentary was finally filmed in 2010, edited in 2011, and has been making the rounds of film festivals this year. It was screened last week at the American Film Institute’s Silverdocs, where it won a Special Jury Mention. A press release announcing the award says: “This vérité film gives us a personal experience with patients and caregivers trying to navigate a complicated and flawed health care system.”
The film will be released in theaters this fall and is scheduled to air on PBS’s Independent Lens in January. Nicks says he is fully invested in the project and he will continue the journey by extending the storytelling aspect until 2014 to provide a voice for those he says often go unheard.
His wife still works at Highland Hospital, and he’s maintained contact with the film’s subjects. “We didn’t just parachute in and leave,” he says.