Decades ago, philanthropist Stan Brock started Remote Area Medical to bring medical care to the most remote places, such as rural villages in Africa and South America, where the most nearby may be several days away. But he soon realized that there was a great need in less isolated places. Now, the majority of the foundation’s resources are devoted to running pop-up clinics in the United States, where health care may be nearby but, for some, financially inaccessible.
The documentary “Remote Area Medical” chronicles three days in the life of one of these temporary clinics. In 2012, filmmakers Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman took to a NASCAR race track in Bristol, Tenn., To see Brock and his army of volunteers at work. And what begins primarily as a glimpse of heartbreaking logistics turns into a heartbreaking examination of poverty-stricken America.
People start lining up on Tuesday for a first-in-class admission ticket to the makeshift clinic, which doesn’t open until Friday. Some of those waiting have serious illnesses – x-rays reveal a stain on the lungs of a heavy smoker. But many of the patients need dental care the most – not just to fill in cavities, but also to pull out decayed teeth. A man seems especially happy that he doesn’t have to start over with a wrench.
This same amiable man lets the cameras follow him as he leaves the clinic and goes to a friend’s house to snort some crushed pain relievers he bought on the street. He’s not proud of it, he explains, but buying medicine is cheaper than going to the doctor.
He is just one of many vibrant and memorable characters captured by the filmmakers. And that’s one of the highlights of the film. The ghost of politics may always be in the background, but the focus remains firmly on the stories of American citizens struggling to stay afloat in a depressed economy. And their inability to take care of themselves and their families is clearly an overwhelming reality.
Camera work ranges from utility to stationary, with opening shots showing the last breath of fall colors along the Bristol Hills. But some scenes are not for the faint of heart. The filmmakers don’t hesitate to show the horrific details of all these dental extractions.
All is not so great, however. The film is edited to balance the poignant character with brief touches of levity, including the image of Brock, dressed all in khaki as an elderly Boy Scout leader, hovering around the race track on his bike.
But even with these funniest moments and the amazingly generous displays of volunteer bodies, “Remote Area Medical” is an incredibly tragic film. It’s also an important question, reminding viewers that America is more than its coasts and cities. There are parts of the country that we too easily forget.
★ ★ ★
Unclassified. At the West End cinema. Contains disturbing images and drug use. 83 minutes.
Director Jeff Reichert will participate in a Q&A after the 7 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday.