Human Stories: Inside 'The Waiting Room'
Human stories have long driven documentary, but in the past several years, the form has seen an uptick in social issue films. Documentary is perfect for essays, and essays with clear agendas are less challenging to market, brand and sell. But hewing to an issue often means downplaying the very people these issues impact. People are messy and multi-dimensional, and can’t easily be corralled into an essay film to support a point. So therein lies the quandary: choose an agenda and you might gain support and alliances; or choose a human story and bend over backwards to make it sound marginally sexy to supporters without vested interests.
Director Peter Nicks had been following a story about patients in the waiting room of a public hospital. Transforming that story into a doc about universal healthcare might seem like the logical step. But as Nicks explains, "“Healthcare, as a policy question and a problem in America, wasn’t the driving motivation [to make my film]. It was the stories of the people who populated this fascinating place.” That place is Oakland Highland Hospital, a public facility where East Bay residents without insurance generally end up. “I think people have an idea of what the ‘uninsured’ are,” Nicks notes, suggesting the expectation that public hospitals are for the homeless and unemployed. “I feel they [the patients] broke stereotypes and were surprising; those are the ingredients of storytelling that sparked me.”
Nicks' documentary, The Waiting Room (Prods.: Linda Davis, William B. Hirsch, Peter Nicks), won both the Audience Award and Golden Gate Award for Bay Area Documentary Feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and a Special US Feature Jury Mention at Silverdocs. The film opens in theaters September 26 through International Film Circuit and airs in Spring 2013 on PBS' Independent Lens series.
Nicks worked in TV in New York for three years before returning home to the San Francisco East Bay, where his wife had worked as a speech-language pathologist at Oakland Highland Hospital. "She'd come home with these incredible stories," Nicks recalls. "In the early 2000s I visited the ER and saw the story potential." When Nicks and his family moved back to the Bay Area in 2005, his wife returned to work at the hospital, and two weeks in she came back with news that other documentarians were scoping the place out for a film. Privately financed by two doc-loving attorneys, the film had San Francisco filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk; Common Threads) attached. Nicks had worked with the Academy Award-winning duo previously, so he contacted them and jokingly said, "You stole my movie!" The production team hired Nicks to shoot and produce, and the goal of the project, according to Nicks, was to "ostensibly argue for universal healthcare." That was in 2007, and then financing came through for Epstein and Friedman's first narrative feature, Howl .
"We folded the tent and I went away and did stuff for the next two years and couldn't get the experience out of my head," Nicks says. "So one day I approached everyone--Rob, Jeff, the investors, the hospital--and asked to take it over. Every step of the way, everyone said OK." By 2009, healthcare had become a massive issue, so Nicks told the financiers he'd raise the money independently. "But I wanted to make the same film--not an issue film, the same film," he explains. Nicks asserts that the human story inside the waiting room--this waiting room or any other--is the element that crystallizes the issue.
Nicks didn't just make a film: "We had two projects and two budgets," he says. "The first was for the film, the second was for the interactive story tool that happens in the waiting room." You can see the results here, and as opposed to looking like outtakes, these are self-contained little vignettes--interviews with people about their experiences living without insurance and sitting apprehensively in waiting rooms. This is the tool that resembles activism for universal healthcare, with people speaking directly to the topic inside their own personal stories.
Nicks raised nearly of $1 million for The Waiting Room, with support coming from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Fledgling Fund, California Council for the Humanities, Pacific Pioneer Fund and ITVS. "ITVS pushed me to make it more political, with a sharper edge, and to give it more context," he says, citing how easy it is to market a film that presents its agenda first and its story later, if at all. The popularity of issue docs aren't just due to their digestibility; as Nicks maintains, "They tell you their premise and then walk you through the logic "I pushed back," says Nicks. "My motivation was that, in the debate on healthcare, the conversation was dominated so much by the pundits that the people who were left out were the people in the frontlines and the waiting rooms. The film gives the audience an intimate sense of navigating the public healthcare system. You don't need any commentators, graphs, statistics or talking heads. Eventually, everyone came around, especially after the film started moving on the festival circuit. The reaction from audiences and critics was kind of profound.
"Docs in the last few years have gotten polemical," Nicks observes. "I call them ‘disaster docs,' but they're very good at citing an issue, making a point, taking you through the paces, clearly without apology, and they're relatively easy to market. They're fundable, stakeholders know how to come around them. With our film, when you take out that context, that sharp edge, the question becomes, Well, what's the film about? That question came up a lot." Nicks reiterated the answer is that the film is about our collective humanity, how we're "bound together" in this thing, "regardless if we have insurance or not, we're all vulnerable. I wanted to re-form that dialogue about healthcare around people." He'd like to inspire dialogues about healthcare that don't devolve into screaming matches. But regardless of what audiences do with The Waiting Room, they'll be reminded that politics affect people, which is something Americans will need to remember when this election season comes around.
Sara Vizcarrando manages the Opening Movies section at Rottentomatoes.com and teaches film at DeAnza College.