Most documentaries emerge through various known gatekeepers at major festivals. More and more these days, such a plethora of strong docs are being made by talent able to deploy inexpensive digital cameras that it's easy for new faces to get lost. "The Waiting Room" is a brilliant first feature from veteran television journalist Peter Nicks, who was unknown by many fest programmers. Hence it didn't turn up at Sundance (which favored "Escape Fire," the health-care "Waiting for Superman"), SXSW or Tribeca, but rather at True/False, Full Frame, Silver Docs, Ashland and San Francisco fests.
After listening to his wife come home every night with stories from her experiences at Oakland's main trauma center, Highland Hospital, Nicks decided to shoot a film there. "The Waiting Room" looks like it takes place over the course of one crammed night, but in fact he covered the ER for months, distilling a colorful cross-section of the most dramatic stories. Some are heartbreaking, from the father distraught that his little girl is burning with fever, to the young recently married man with no insurance who needs a major life-saving operation.
At a time when it's popular to make a film with a sharp edge that advocates a strong position, Nicks made a conscious decision to go immersive with a hybrid verite approach, "not to make a polemic film," he says. "As filmmakers we didn't want to tell the audience what we thought the problem was specifically and what we thought the solution should be."
Nicks admits he's "gotten into arguments with more activist filmmakers" about his stance. "My strong belief is when you allow the story to come forward, that can have as much impact as a film with an activist agenda. As we were watching the health care debate unfold, the story was dominated by people with vested interests: politicians, journalists, policy makers. The people who did not really have a voice in the whole thing were the patients and caregivers."
Needless to say Nicks is an ardent admirer of Frederick Wiseman. "I'm not going to lie, we deconstructed 'Hospital,'" he says. "We digitized it and our editor went through the film shot by shot. We wanted to understand what he was trying to do. His films were groundbreaking four decades ago. But we felt that his detached, fly-on-the-wall observational style would not work. We wanted to bring in the audience more intimately, in full color."
The film is a composite day in the life of a typical city hospital. Nicks was planning "to shoot the film on one day with 20 crews and do that ten times and pick the best days," he says, but for a variety of reasons that wasn't going to work. "We wanted the film to have a structural device--to have a sense that this is one average day at Highland Hospital--to weave the audience through the film."
Of course that means that the filmmakers are misleading the audience. They're not saying, we shot this story in November and this one in May. "That's where we get into debates, a philosophical analysis of non-fiction filming," he says. "No film is truly objective. We didn't want to make an advocacy film, through argument. We chose the characters we put in the film. Some of the best scenes are on the cutting room floor. We could not have every character be male or African American or Hispanic or the victim of a violent shooting."
Thus the film is not truly representative of what dominated the footage. "We spent one day with each character, never more than a day," Nick says. "Over and over, we'd meet at the beginning of the day as we met people and ask them if we could film them, quickly develop a rapport, and ended up with a basket of stories. Who made it in was based on broad criteria: thematic ideas we got at the end of filming, various ideas that were in the film, different problems with healthcare."
So you don't see as many wealthy accident victims as those of violent crimes, young African-American strokes, drug overdoses, hypertension, diabetes, he says:"We amassed an unbalanced collection of material that would not have communicated accurately what the community was dealing with as a whole."
The hero of the piece emerged early on: Nurse Johnson. "We got to hang out with her and knew immediately, she's off the charts, a customer service genius," Nicks says. "Her compassion is shared by lot of caregivers there. We wanted to tell that institutional story, a group of highly talented dedicated caregivers chose to be there. They could make more money, particularly attending physicians and surgeons. Like M.A.S.H., they're a self-selecting group with a war mentality."
Funded by ITVS, the $553,000 movie looked for a theatrical distributor. "Because we were not at any of the major 'distributor' fests, we had a difficult time getting their attention," says Nicks. What did happen is that the film started winning awards and gaining 'word of mouth' as it moved around the fest circuit.
Weinstein Co. almost pulled the trigger but didn't know how to market the film. "It's not a disaster film, it's a film with a human face on the story," says Nicks, who is cheered by the outreach from healthcare professionals poised to get out the word. "We've been inundated with emails from individuals as well as public hospitals, emergency room physicians, and National Nurses United."