5 Health Care Documentaries that Aimed for Impact in 2012

From the Doc Talk archives, here's a list of documentaries concerning health care that were released around the 2012 presidential election.

Escape Fire health care documentaries

This Doc Talk column on health care documentaries was originally published on the now-defunct Movies.com blog on October 3, 2012.

With the presidential election only a month away, it’s time for movies tackling important national issues to hit theaters. And one major subject that a handful of new documentaries are addressing right now is health care. Tonight’s domestic policy-focused debate is set to devote 15 minutes of time to that very issue as one of the three secondary topics (the economy is the primary), and that conversation will surely cover “Obamacare” and Mitt Romney’s past and present thoughts on the subject, and maybe the event will leave you convinced that one candidate is better for the US health care system than the other.

But a quarter of an hour is not very long to discuss such a big, important topic as this. So, in addition to other sources of information and arguments, you need at least a feature-length film or five to help you properly understand and consider the issue. Fortunately, I’ve seen most of the new films on the subject, and I can provide you with this handy guide to all the health care docs currently or soon to be in theaters.

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare (Susan Froemke and Matthew Heineman)

What it’s about: Taking its title from a once-novel and dismissed life-saving tactic involving wildfires, the film looks at seemingly obvious yet little known or accepted methods of prevention and treatment while focusing on the problem of America having a costly disease-management system rather than a health care system.

How it’s about it: It’s a fairly conventional doc with talking heads (including talk show regular Dr. Andrew Weil and former Medicare and Medicaid head Don Berwick among the experts) and a number of firsthand human-interest stories, the latter of which is approached with a verite sensibility courtesy of Fromke, an editor and producer on the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens.

Necessary viewing before voting? Yes, mostly because it shows us that the wrong points about health care are being addressed and debated, that we should be questioning the quality and effectiveness of our health system before we make the effort to give all Americans access to something that might not even be beneficial to them. It’s one of those rare gems that concentrates on solutions to a problem rather than just hopelessly presenting one.

The Waiting Room (Peter Nicks)

What it’s about: A look at one 24-hour period inside the waiting room and ER of a public hospital, specifically Oakland’s Highland Hospital.

How it’s about it: Using a composite of footage shot over many months, the film plays out mostly in an observational verite style akin to the work of Frederick Wiseman, except that there’s also voiceover from each of the uninsured subjects (patients or family of patients) providing additional exposition and some very on-the-nose commentary. Instead of being about the place, it’s about the people there, albeit people who were seemingly very intently picked out.

Necessary viewing before voting? Maybe. I’m all fine with the doc having an agenda to show us why people need to be insured, but most of the points here are familiar, obvious, repetitive, and redundant, stressed too literally where simple, straight observation would suffice. Also, will hospital waiting rooms look much different when everyone is insured?

Doctored — aka Medical Inc. (Bobby Sheehan)

What it’s about: An investigation into the “monopoly” of the medical-industrial complex and how Americans are viewed as patients: primarily as consumers of care and treatment worth profiting from rather than necessarily helped or cured. The film initially focuses in particular on the chiropractic field and a court case involving it being labeled a “cult” for attempting alternative practices.

How it’s about it: Talking heads and stock footage in a way that’s even more conventional than Escape Fire, and as you can see in just the wording of promotional materials (which I’ve quoted and mimicked somewhat in the synopsis above) it uses loaded rhetoric for a very slanted argument against the AMA, the pharmaceutical industry and the current health care system overall.

Necessary viewing before voting? Possibly, even if Escape Fire is the better film claiming that the system is broken and offering ideas of alternative medical practices. And there is something to be said of media that is so pointed and one-sided in the last days leading up to an election if only to challenge voter complacency. Maybe these docs don’t directly relate to the debate on the health care issue as it stands, but they do encourage us to consider options and have real hope for real change in what may be bigger problems in need of reform.

Primum Non Nocere: First – Do No Harm (James Reynolds)

What it’s about: Blood transfusions are bad.

How it’s about it: Talking heads and, from what I’ve read, a disorganized overload of information. It looks like an infomercial trying to sell us off of something.

Necessary viewing before voting? I can’t say. This is the one doc of the bunch I haven’t seen, but in spite of its specific target, it does seem to be saying something similar to Escape Fire and Doctored, which is that the American health care system is too entrenched in broken methods and not easily swayed toward new and contrary knowledge. Still, based on film review consensus and the trailer, it appears to be best saved for home video or TV if you’re interested.

How to Survive a Plague (David France)

What it’s about: A chronicle of the advances in AIDS research and treatment led by the activist organizations ACT and TAG through the ’80s and ’90s.

How it’s about it: Almost entirely through the use of archival videos shot during the time, footage which is incredibly consistent and thorough, as well as some minimally employed reflective talking heads.

Necessary viewing before voting? Definitely, because it’s not necessarily an issue film with a case to be made other than that change can be made if people stay strong and positive for the cause. And as for the health care issue, it recognizes certain pros and cons with both the for-profit medical treatment industry (namely Big Pharma) and government institutions.

This reposting was done with permission and using the Internet Archive.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.