Remote Area Medical has been promoted with assurances that, even though it concerns healthcare, it avoids politics and favors a focus on people. It’s an odd disclaimer to make when you think about it, but considering how heavily politicized public medicine is in America, it’s not surprising. And this goes for many areas of life. Nothing is off the table when it comes to miring in debate, which in the U.S. is usually bifurcated rigidly along the lines of our two parties.
This is so thick in the atmosphere that, whether it intends to or not, this documentary may in fact be a political one, for no other reason than it pays attention to the subject. This is how it is now. Acknowledging an issue is a political act. You see it in people who disdain any talk of social problems on social media. You see it in the New York Times review of Remote Area Medical, which takes umbrage with how the film “refuses to take a stand or explore the questions it raises.”
Documentaries attract this kind of wrongheaded assumption of journalistic obligation constantly. I’ve always thought that it stemmed from people being unable to separate the form from educational films. But perhaps it’s a symptom of the “everything is political” culture. If facts are always up for dispute, then anything that works off of reality will be seen as contentious.
I wonder what version of Remote Area Medical could exist that wouldn’t attract any criticisms about supposed politics. Directed by Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman (Gerrymandering), the documentary is about the eponymous American nonprofit, which provides free healthcare to people around the world. The organization was originally active only in foreign countries, but it saw a need at home and began performing its services here, to the point where American locales now receive the majority of its attention. There are at least half a dozen mines that cry “liberal propaganda!” waiting to be triggered in those two sentences.
But what should the movie do? Pretend that the people of Bristol, Tennessee, whom RAM is seen serving in the doc, have such urgent health needs in some kind of a vacuum? Should the film simply paint a glowing portrait of RAM volunteer doctors as they attend to a problem with an un-discussed cause? Presumably, the Times would want the opposite, that talking heads and animated charts be brought in to elaborate on policy debates and statistics. This is the damned if you don’t, damned if you do element of nonfiction filmmaking in regards to touchy ideas.
Remote Area Medical chooses to simply be. Any conclusions about what RAM is doing in Bristol are left to the viewer to make. It’s not even really about RAM. It’s about the people they’ve come to help. People who haven’t seen a dentist in years. People who have undiagnosed illnesses ticking away inside them. People who queue up at a repurposed NASCAR racetrack for hours in hopes of getting treatment. This movie is about humans first, humans second, and policy particulars not at all.
That idea is rooted even in the film’s approach to the healthcare proper, which is the complete opposite of the sterility usually favored by medically inclined docs. Multiple oral surgeries are seen in graphic, unsparing detail. Here is empathy forged on sympathetic aches in the jaws of the viewers. And it’s driven home whenever someone can’t get to see a doctor (the “pop-up” clinic RAM’s running during the film only lasts three days).
The camera hovers over shoulders and dentistry chairs, less a fly on the wall than a polite guest. Occasionally, someone acknowledges it with a pithy explanation of what they’re doing. Sometimes it raps on a subject’s shoulder, so to speak, to get their commentary, usually from people with mouths stuffed full of cotton. It lingers on random details, like a remote control car buzzing around a parking lot. The film is less a slice of life than a slice of someone’s gums (perhaps with a rotted tooth or two), but the effect is still that the audience gets a glimpse of life in this specific place.
Perhaps engaging in a humanistic story could be considered a political move, regardless of the motivations behind making Remote Area Medical. But when we’re living in a future of a socialistic paradise with free healthcare for all, or a libertarian nightmare full of grasping masses of the starved, politics will matter far less than what this documentary conveys about what it’s like to desperately need some help, and to actually, finally get it.
Remote Area Medical is now playing in New York City with an expansion to more cities this Friday and through the new year. For locations and more details, see the film’s website.