Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 29 April 2013
Categories The 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston
I can anticipate a few of the reasons why potential viewers might consider sidestepping Remote Area Medical, a new documentary from directors Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman. Upon hearing that the film is about volunteers providing much-needed medical care to the uninsured in rural Tennessee, some might fear that it will contain grueling footage of medical procedures, while others might want to avoid the film on the grounds that it sounds “depressing.” Yet while I won’t deny that Remote Area Medical contains some frank footage of pulled teeth, or that the film is undeniably sad at times, I will also insist that the stories here need to be told, and they need to be heard.
The film is named for an organization founded in 1985 by philanthropist Stan Brock. Though a title card informs us that the initial focus of Remote Area Medical (RAM) was bringing free care to remote areas in the Amazon rainforest, the organization has increasingly turned its attention to the United States. Reichert and Zaman’s film takes place in Bristol, Tennessee, the “heart of Appalachia,” during a single weekend at a RAM pop-up clinic housed in the Bristol Motor Speedway racetrack. Lacking any narration and using title cards only sparingly, the film mixes interviews with fly-on-the-wall footage that’s frequently left to speak for itself.
Much of it speaks volumes. For instance: we see uninsured American families sleeping in tents, or their cars, in the speedway’s parking lot, some of them for days, in order to obtain the free, first-come-first-serve tickets required in order to receive care from RAM. We see a volunteer walk the parking lot at 3:30 am, trying to focus on handing out tickets while a desperate woman follows her around, begging her for a ticket out of turn. We see people go home empty-handed, and people demanding a priority spot in line for the next morning after being shut out on the first day. We sense the frustration on both sides — the need here is simply too great to be met by a volunteer nonprofit — and it’s heartbreaking.
For those (like this writer) who have generally had good access to medical care, it’s staggering to pause and realize how much a new eyeglass prescription might mean to someone who hasn’t been able to get a job in large part because of poor vision, or how psychologically wounding it must be to constantly feel self-conscious about a missing, broken, or diseased tooth. (One interviewee admits pulling some of his own teeth with pliers when he couldn’t afford a dentist.) The documentary offers vivid examples of the very real impact - perhaps I should say the very real suffering - an absence of healthcare can create.
But there’s joy here, too, in little moments like a young patient’s adorably gleeful reaction to riding in a cart across the speedway to reach his doctor, or seeing a woman proudly march out in a brand new (and admittedly awesome) pair of glasses with a rosy-hued frame. A patient is overcome with grateful tears after receiving a working set of false teeth. At one point, the volunteers break into song. At another, the filmmakers share an amusingly garbled back-and-forth with a patient whose mouth is full of gauze. Reichert and Zaman even include some beautiful landscape footage and some brief glimpses of Bristol and its people outside of the fraught environment of the clinic, in order to better characterize this community, and also to give viewers a few moments of meditative respite.
It’s important to note that the film is neither dour nor exploitative. It also isn’t sensationalized. The interviewees are treated with dignity, and the footage of medical procedures is occasionally harrowing but never gratuitous. At a time when public debate about affordable access to healthcare often spawns overheated rhetoric rather than measured consideration, and Appalachia is generally either ignored by the media or represented in stereotypical fashion (see Saturday Night Live’s relatively recent “Appalachian Emergency Room” sketches), Remote Area Medical is a refreshingly level-headed and sensitive film about a community and the pressing issues that come to the fore there during a hectic weekend at the racetrack.
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