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The Waiting Room

2012 | 81 min | Not rated | 1.85:1

The Waiting Room


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Theatrical release date

 22 March, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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The Waiting Room Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, March 21, 2013

“The Waiting Room” is a documentary about health care. While a touchy subject these days in America, it’s also a topic worth every moment of exploration, allowing for a deeper education and a wider appreciation for patient and medical staff. Mercifully, it’s not a politicized effort eager to turn heads with opinions, instead treating the topic with the directness it deserves, highlighting the frustrations and complications that take place during an average day at a public hospital. “The Waiting Room” is grim but enlightening, perhaps required viewing for those who care to debate themselves blue about a crisis they’ll never fully understand.

Highland Hospital in Oakland, California is inundated with patients every day. The “safety net” medical center for emergency room visits for those without insurance, Highland is hit with all types of trauma and care needs, working through an enormous patient list while the waiting room fills to capacity. Navigating the front-line chaos is Nurse Assistant Cynthia, a jovial but no-nonsense woman who checks vitals and assesses care needs before the next step of treatment begins. There’s also Dr. White, who was raised on images of “E.R.” intensity, finding the real world even more daunting as he manages the frazzled concerns of his patients. Sitting in the waiting room is Demia, an unemployed father to a young child suffering from a swollen throat; Carl, a drug addict who’s returned to the hospital after an evening of chemical excess; Eric, a young man faced with testicular cancer, sent to Highland after a dealing with a private hospital; and Davelo, a blue-collar worker with bone spurs, looking for treatment but fearing the bill.

Granted incredible access to the inner workings of Highland, director Peter Nicks takes full advantage of the opportunity, spreading out around the hospital to pick up on stories in progress, finding a plethora of people willing to share their anxiety with the production’s roving cameras. However, “The Waiting Room” isn’t a documentary of talking heads and issues, acting as more of a fly-on-the-wall experience, with participants never acknowledging Nicks’s presence, with the exception of Eric’s girlfriend, who asks the crew if Oakland is safe after dark after a day spent in the hospital. On a mission to be observant instead of questioning, Nicks lends the effort a semi-fictional feel, though the authenticity of the documentary is never in doubt, surveying troubled people trying to acquire immediate care, only to smash up against a system that’s overworked and overloaded, with the pinch boiling down to a quandary of open beds.

Undertaking a divisive subject matter, “The Waiting Room” plays it remarkably cool when it comes to preaching, refusing to indulge passions more than necessary, out to paint a portrait of a system that’s constantly in chaos, with doctors and nurses scrambling to meet needs and move beds to help ease congestion. The patients spotlighted are diverse, yet their stories all track along the same path. They’re broke and in desperate need of assistance, working a system designed to aid the needy. We see the pain of unemployment and, in Demia’s case, the confusion of single-fatherhood, making all the wrong moves as his child falls deeper into panic. Despite troubling financial situations (Davelo claims honest work has dried up due to the proliferation of illegals offering cheaper rates), Nicks is careful not to indulge a compassionate view, displaying the patients as they are, even when they exhibit less than ideal priorities. Eric is a particular concern, staging a fundraiser to help secure sperm donation opportunities before any potential testicle removal, yet he has no plan to pay for his medical bills. And Carl has abused the system for the last year, returning monthly for emergency treatments as he carries on with crack and weed addiction, forced to remain in the hospital (monopolizing a bed that could be used to treat scores of patients) when social services is unable to place him in a halfway house.

It’s a chilling film, unflinching in its depiction of death and discomfort, even watching the emergency room team attempt to revive a gunshot victim (another hourly event that steals beds away from the sick), dealing with the procedural aftermath before interacting with family. “The Waiting Room” is eye-opening without making trips to the soapbox, hitting the viewer with images of suffering and poverty absent a teary presentation of despair. It’s restrained, yet gripping and informative, allowing the participants to tell their own stories of aggravation while a larger understanding of need fighting a problematical system comes into view.

Director: Peter Nicks

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