In the waiting room of Oakland’s Highland Hospital, there is much at stake. Faces loom and hover, and almost always provoke. Some are creased with lines of sorrow, others sag with fatigue, and a few glow with mirth. This amalgam of emotions reflects what we undergo as we watch the documentary “The Waiting Room,” it puts us in the same position as these patients. Pinned underneath the powerful sway of the human face, which captivates and resonates, we can feel sorrow, fatigue, and mirth interlock and intertwine.
The portraits here are not just of faces, but of a community. Highland Hospital teems with the vibrations of communication. People gather across race, gender, and space to join together in a sort of communal dance that makes the place hum. To watch this film is so engaging, that for the viewer, the act of waiting becomes the main event in and of itself.
At a time when the politics around American health care are so heated, it is remarkable that the film manages to tell the story of a public hospital without bombarding the viewer with heavy-handed political proselytizing.
The politics are there, but they snake through the film in a subtle way. It is in the story of a patient with testicular cancer, who undergoes a series of tests at a Kaiser hospital only to find out that they won’t treat him. It is in the torrents of people that flow in and out of the waiting room. It is in the hooded figures who lie asleep across the chairs, and in the families huddled together in prayer. As one of the doctors says, “We’re a public hospital. We’re the safety net of society. We’re an institution of last resort for so many people.”
The journey of the film is itself as winding and bumpy as the story that it tells. Director Peter Nicks’s inspiration came from stories he had heard from his wife, who is a speech pathologist at the hospital.
Two influential producers helped Nicks gain permission to film in the hospital, but during the course of the filming they backed out, putting the project on hiatus. Nicks called investors, raised money, and had to convince the hospital to allow him to regain access.
“Highland Hospital is a fascinating cross-section of America,” said Nicks, ”It’s a metaphor for where America is right now.”
If this is true, then the image of America presented in the film is one of a diverse society, without adequate health insurance, dealing with an inefficient bureaucracy and deadly illnesses all while individuals try to work and support a family. “You only hear about Highland when someone is shot,” Nicks said, so the documentary humanizes, complicates and layers a public institution often depicted in just two dimensions. The third dimension added here is what serious journalism is all about, telling the stories that no one else has the fortitude to tell.
The film is careful about not depicting the hospital as a flawless, glorious savior of humanity that can do no harm. It delves deeply into the difficult decisions that the hospital staff must make. In one scene, a homeless man, who almost dies from a drug overdose, lies in a hospital bed after being treated. If the hospital sends the man outside in the cold, they risk damaging his health, but if he stays in the hospital he is taking up a bed that another person in the waiting room could use.
Thankfully, the film does not end the affair with some sort of a happy compromise, but instead shows that the hospital chose to allow the homeless man to stay. It tears our sympathy in half because it is such a terribly real moment.
In another scene, a doctor is trying to calm a difficult patient who yells, “Tell ‘em to take this goddamn catheter out of my chest and I’ll just make it on my own.”
“If we take that out, you would eventually die,” says the doctor.
“Well so fuckin what?” responds the patient.
This moment captures the existential drama of this film. Sickness is ugly. Here is a place, that is a sort of mecca for the miserable, a final front upon which the war against disease is being waged, a places that entreats us: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” It is Highland Hospital, what America is meant to be.