Silverdocs Review: “The Waiting Room,” “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare,” “Ann Richards’ Texas”

Our take on what’s showing at Silverdocs this year.

By: Washingtonian Staff

The Waiting Room

Playing Tuesday, June 19, at 8:45 PM, and Wednesday, June 20, at 2:15 PM

There are no talking heads in The Waiting Room, Peter Nicks’s artful tale of an ER waiting room in Oakland’s Highland Hospital. There are no voiceovers either, and no statistics flashing up onscreen; no animated segments or archival footage. Instead, Nicks lets the patients tell their own stories, and the result is a powerful but ultimately gloomy statement about American health care—with the inevitable conclusion being that it’s broken, perhaps beyond repair.

Most of the patients who arrive at Highland’s ER aren’t emergency cases. But without health insurance or a regular medical practitioner to consult, they’re forced to go to the ER when they get sick. Nicks reveals that for many, it’s a last resort after self-diagnosis, drugstore remedies, and even prayer (one family pleads to Jesus to take their brother’s pain away while he’s suffering from a gunshot wound). As a result, the waiting room is packed, and patients without severe illnesses can wait five to ten hours before they’re seen.

“I’m at the doctor’s,” say several patients, while they’re talking on cellphones. The doctors they do see are harried, overworked, and frequent targets of abuse. Their cases vary from people who need refills on their prescriptions to people beyond help. One 15-year-old is brought in unconscious, and the team is unable to revive him. Nicks’s camera focuses on the boy’s foot, limp and unmoving, while the doctor who tried to revive him is seen to be visibly shaken.

The movie’s lack of punctuation is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you’re obliged to draw your own conclusions. On the other, the action can occasionally feel tedious. And despite a lack of commentary, Nicks still finds ways to editorialize: In one scene his camera focuses first on a doctor’s salad, and then on a patient’s fried chicken, seeming to enjoy the contrast.

This is undoubtedly a tricky subject, and the endless bureaucratic obstacles patients face are carefully emphasized, meaning the film can feel inevitably frustrating. Nicks focuses on one man with back problems who jokes with an administrator about the cost of his treatment. The camera stays on his face, and just seconds later his smile fades, and the anxiety etched on his features is palpable. A doctor spells it out thusly: “We’re a public hospital; we’re a safety net in society. We’re an institution of last resort for so many people.” But Highland, The Waiting Room reveals, is also often as powerless as the people who turn to it for help.

—SOPHIE GILBERT

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare

Playing Wednesday, June 20, at 6:30 PM and Friday, June 22, at 4:15 PM

You probably wouldn’t expect a documentary about the policy failings of the American health-care system to open with the story of a 1949 Montana forest fire. You might even think you’re watching the wrong movie. But never fear—you’re in the right theater. You just have to sit through an extended, pretty contorted metaphor first.

The Mann Gulch fire was a blaze of epic proportions, at one point threatening to overtake a group of firefighters on the front line. One of them, in the (literal) heat of the moment, improvised a brilliant escape plan: set a smaller fire on a patch of grass ahead of the encroaching fire line, so when the larger flames reached it, there would be nothing left to burn. A safe harbor.

Thus, “escape fire.” Can we talk about health care now? According to filmmakers Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke, the Mann Gulch fire represents the system’s failings—skyrocketing costs, endemic obesity and disease, an overburdened primary care network. The escape fire is “an improvised, effective solution to a crisis that cannot be solved using traditional approaches”—or so says the film’s website.

It seems like the filmmakers are issuing a directive to think outside the box to solve these problems, that the deficits are inherent to the system, and policymakers and health-care providers need to free themselves from decades of traditional ways and pull off some breakthroughs. Spoiler alert: On the film’s checklist of solutions to reverse the impending implosion of our health-care system, we have health and exercise education (duh), rolling back society’s collective overmedication (sure), and, finally, acupuncture (really?).

To be fair, the filmmakers really did their research, and these solutions, along with a few others, are convincingly argued. But haven’t we heard this before? That we need preventive care instead of “disease management,” less voracious insurance and pharmaceutical lobbying, etc.? It’s part of the problem of tackling a subject as large and complex as the nation’s byzantine health-care system—there’s so much ground to cover that it’s hard to move past the broad swaths into the nitty-gritty, less familiar stuff.

It doesn’t help that the documentary lacks a clear narrative—a sense of momentum to carry the viewer into a resolution. Sure, there are characters—a primary care physician fed up with the system, a reformed lobbyist, scores of health professionals and experts—but there’s no story here, mostly just talking heads and slickly visualized statistics. Not to say that a documentary about American health needs to have some stunt narrative, like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (eating McDonald’s for a month) or Michael Moore’s Sicko (little day trip to Guantanamo).

The film’s strongest moments come when it focuses on a microcosm of the health-care problem: American soldiers returning from war. There’s one in particular whose pain (both physical and emotional) is so palpably portrayed I began to think the whole thing should’ve just been about him. He certainly has the most visceral moments: opening a bag of his medications in agonizing frustration, dozens and dozens of tiny orange bottles spilling over his lap and down to the floor. It’s powerful stuff, and bravely examines the health-care crisis from an until-now marginalized perspective.

It’s unfortunate the rest of the film doesn’t tread such novel ground. Instead we get Big Pharma bashings, warnings about sugary foods, and a conclusion espousing Safeway’s insurance model of incentivizing good diet and exercise that’s not nearly as revolutionary as the inspirational background music suggests.

But maybe that’s the true message of the escape fire metaphor—not that we need to radically reorder our thinking, but that the answers are already right there in front of us.

—MICHAEL GAYNOR

Ann Richards’ Texas

Playing Thursday, June 21, at 6 PM, and Saturday, June 23, at 4:30 PM

If you’re expecting an impartial take on a well-loved figure, forget it. Keith Patterson and Jack Lofton’s world premiere movie, Ann Richards’ Texas, is a 90-minute valentine to the first woman elected governor of Texas in her own right—her only predecessor, “Ma” Ferguson, was elected after her husband was convicted, impeached, and removed from the governor’s office.

Richards was known for her big hair, sharp wit, distinctive voice, and liberal leanings, which proved her undoing when an upstart named Karl Rove rallied conservative interests against her. This film will delight her fans, although sometimes the fawning gets as thick as Richards’s down-home accent. Glowing accolades from Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin don’t add much to the proceedings.

The recollections of Richards’s local political allies and of her daughter, Cecile, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, are far more meaningful. They paint a picture of a Texas many Texans choose not to remember. In Dallas public schools, children applauded when the news was broadcast that President Kennedy had been shot there. A white old-boys’ network ran the state and largely discounted the prospects of the upstart female community activist who only ran for public office when her husband declined to do so.

Many of us remember Richards’s firebrand speeches. More interesting are the less visible actions she took to create opportunities for minorities, gays, and other groups. She was prescient in recognizing that Texas was becoming a “majority minority” state.

It’s also fascinating to watch a young Karl Rove and his protégé, George W. Bush. Did Richards underestimate them, or were the political winds blowing too far to the right for her to stay as upright as her famed white pompadour? She lost the race, but she never lost her appeal. For unreconstructed liberals like me, this film offers the pleasurable opportunity to spend an evening with Ann Richards.

—LESLIE MILK