Pictures of Health: Five Current Documentaries Tackle the Medical Issue

Pictures of Health: Five Current Documentaries Tackle the Medical Issue

Oct 03, 2012

Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases.


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 allot 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 U.S. 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 Mathew 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.

In theaters and on iTunes and VOD this Friday.

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?

Now in theaters.

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 its 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.  

Now in theaters.


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.

Now in theaters.

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.

Now in theaters.




In Theaters

The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki) - The new documentary from the director of Reagan and Why We Fight is surprisingly subjective, inspired by a personal, lifelong relationship to someone whose life has constantly been tragically affected by the U.S. War on Drugs. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, it’s unlike most issue docs and most first-person films, bringing us through a comprehensive history and contemporary look at the systemic problem of illegal drugs.

It’s both a brilliant investigative piece that somewhat controversially relates the War on Drugs to the Holocaust and a true nonfiction complement to The Wire, complete with extensive commentary from that series’ creator, David Simon. I would love to see this finally earn Jarecki his first Oscar nomination (his brother Andrew shouldn’t be the only one with the honor anyway). Opens this Friday in NYC and next week in L.A. and D.C. with other cities to follow through the fall.


Photographic Memory (Ross McElwee) - The greatest autobiographical filmmaker is back with his first documentary released since 2003’s Bright Leaves (He shelved 2008’s In Paraguay after its festival premiere). Call me biased since Sherman’s March is likely my favorite doc of all time, but I love this latest personal essay on McElwee’s relationship with his son and how it leads to a nostalgic trip to France with a spotty memory and some old photographs while circling through ideas about generational differences and similarities, changes and consistencies with photographic media and how such media both aids and confuses recollections of the past.

More than his many followers in the first-person doc genre, he has a poetically reflective and contemplative style, dominated by his voiceover, which seems capable of turning any bit of home movie or other subjective media into a captivating investigation through memory, history and/or a present life decision or change. Here he winds up searching for an early girlfriend, which makes the film feel somewhat like a prequel to Sherman’s March. I’d say this film, in spite of its very universal appeal, is mainly of interest to McElwee fans, but it’s very easy to become a McElwee fan, as his four major docs are streaming on Netflix. Opens October 12 in NYC, Chicago and Hartford.


I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog

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