AFI Docs Review: “Remote Area Medical”

Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman capture the people who flock to a NASCAR track in search of free health care.

By: Melissa Romero

Year after year, thousands ascend upon Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, hoping to snag a ticket that will gain them access not to the next NASCAR race but to free health care. They hope, sometimes in vain, while camping out in the freezing cold for days, that this time around there will be enough dentists to treat everyone. Or that a toddler can get a new pair of glasses so he can see the chalkboard at school. Maybe his mom will be able to finally get that mammogram, too.

The story that Remote Area Medical delivers—of the profound lack of affordable health care in the United States—isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s one worth telling over and over again. Despite the passage in 2010 of the Affordable Care Act, thousands of residents in remote areas of the country still lack the access, money, and resources to attain simple medical procedures. When the organization Remote Area Medical rolls its armada of volunteer doctors, nurses, and dentists once a year to Bristol, it’s the residents’ only hope.

“We’ve had to cut back in places like Guatemala and Honduras because of the need here,” says RAM founder Stan Brock. “Welcome to America.”

Directors Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman bring raw emotion to Remote Area Medical with their composite of interviews with downtrodden, often unemployed patients whose ailments run the gamut. There’s the man who tells the camera he hasn’t kissed his wife in a year; she suffers from degenerative gum disease. She hopes to receive dentures after getting six infected teeth pulled, but walks away empty-handed. “Not enough dentists,” she’s told.

There’s the other woman who smokes multiple packs a day and offers a crooked smile when her doctor shows her the black spots on her lungs. If I have lung cancer, she tells the camera, I’ll deal with it when it comes. She doesn’t have to say anything for the viewer to know that next time RAM comes to town it’ll probably be too late.

Remote Area Medical is an important film that offers a sobering look at the current state of health care in the US. While there are a few happy endings—the woman who gets a new pair of eyeglasses, the older man who gets a new set of teeth—you’re left unconvinced. Sure, what the organization does for the rural dwellers in America is commendable. But the true story of the film is the thousands of well-meaning families down on their luck who’ve been ignored and forgotten for far too long.

Playing June 21, 4 PM, at the Goethe-Institut, and June 22, 3 PM, at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.