To watch Peter Nicks' "The Waiting Room" is to wish it would never end. This is important to say at the outset, because any description of this documentary, about a day in the life of a hospital waiting room, might make it sound like a sermon or a dish of plain spinach. Oh, no. This is human drama at its most intense and universal. This is the rare film that can change the way you think and see the world.
It takes place in Oakland's Highland Hospital, an emergency room that treats hundreds of people a day, many of them uninsured. Patients in the know bring a blanket and some lunch and dinner. The movie follows patients, doctors and nurses over the course of 24 hours, and if you enter the movie thinking you have problems, you will probably walk out thinking you don't, not like this.
The least enviable state on earth, the state to which no one aspires, is that of being sick. The second least enviable is to have no money. But to be sick and have no money is to be exponentially worse off.
Of the many real people followed over the course of a very packed 82 minutes, there's a man in his 20s with symptoms that are screaming cancer. But instead of having to worry only about that, he has to worry about money. He even has to worry about whether anyone will be willing to operate on him, and if so, whether they will do so in time.
Over the course of "The Waiting Room," you meet people who are used to the indignity of poverty and those who aren't. There's a middle-aged white woman who shows up for about 20 seconds, somewhere in the middle of the film, trying to act breezy.
She mentions that she just happens to have recently lost her job; otherwise, she would have gone straight to Alameda Hospital. It's as if she has fallen off the truck but hasn't stopped bouncing. She doesn't quite realize where she has landed.
There is also the carpet layer with bone spurs in his back, a man with a sweetness that seems almost biblical, who can't sleep from the pain and can't get an appointment with a specialist. You see him at the cashier, following his visit, trying to make jokes as he pleads his poverty, trying to be seen as a human being and not as a condition.
Then there's the young father who is scared to death because his little girl has a raging fever and can barely open her mouth.
"This is the first time I've ever gone a year without a job," he says. But what he's really thinking is, "I've fallen so low I can't even protect my daughter."
Sure, it's the recession, and bad luck, and things happen. But this kind of terror is so primal in a man that there's no chasing it away.
After seeing "The Waiting Room," there can be little doubt, not only that people die for lack of health care, but that it happens all the time. Case in point: a 44-year-old man who keeps having strokes. Because he can walk out of the emergency room with a cane, the doctor can't put him in the hospital. Instead the doctor has to beg someone in neurology to give the man an appointment in a month. If the man dies before then, few will know or care.
"The Waiting Room" is a series of revelations. Some might be called political, but most are spiritual. They are revelations of human suffering, of the daily heroism of frontline doctors and of a saintly nurse at reception who, in the midst of chaos even as she has to disappoint people, and tell them no, they can't be seen still makes everyone feel like a person.
Yes, "The Waiting Room" functions as an admonition that something must be done, by showing us an America with its pants down. But it's also an admonition to slow down and look at the strangers you see on the train, or in the store, and imagine what their lives might be like. To be gentler, and to live in the awareness of a common humanity.
The filmmaker knows this, which is why he chooses not to end "The Waiting Room" with updates about the various people presented onscreen. Instead he ends it in a zone of poetry, showing in fast motion people coming and going in that room over the course of a single day. All those stories, all those lives we will never know.
THE WAITING ROOM
★ ★ ★ ★
Director: Peter Nicks