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Remote Area Medical
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by Jay Seaver

"High-quality health care."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: "Remote Area Medical" takes great pains to separate itself from partisan politics as much as possible, but its very premise - that a service designed to bring basic medical treatment to people in areas without any sort of infrastructure like the middle of the Amazon rain forest now spends 60% of its time tending to small-town America - must at least suggest a need for action, no matter what one feels the action is. And even without having that argument, it's an intriguing look at just how this massive-but-mobile free clinic works.

In this case, the RAM team is spending a weekend in Bristol, Tennessee, not terribly far from their Knoxville headquarters. They set up shop at the racetrack, hand out tickets at 3:30am - which would seem early except that some cars have been waiting for days - and then at 7am sharp they take people in the order that they arrive. Many are there for routine checkups, mammograms, and the like, while some have more specific symptoms. A large number are there for eye exams and dental care; there are facilities on-hand to manufacture glasses and dentures. Roughly two thousand people will be examined by the volunteer physicians on-hand.

That dental and vision are so prominent may be surprising to some in the audience, but perhaps it shouldn't be. As much we often tend to think of health care in reactive terms - not necessarily emergency services, but something done after a problem has shown itself - filmmakers Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman have the patients receiving that kind of assistance explain how a degenerative gum disease that leave's one's teeth a mess can certainly make it difficult to get a job that involves dealing with people, or how not being able to see well enough to read can undermine a person's confidence. There are bits where people talk about what health care costs and what it should cost, sure, but if Remote Area Medical makes any contribution to the debate about affordable health care, it's in framing it as something that improves everyday life as opposed to just something needed in bad situations.

Reichert & Zaman spend a little time with certain patients before and after the clinic, and they tend to be a sympathetic, likable bunch; occasionally unsophisticated, but easy to relate to. Other subjects aggressively push their way into the movie, and while that's sometimes abrasive - for as much as this visit often reflects wounded pride to the first group, it's easy to see the latter as responding to charity by demanding more - it does just as often highlight the desperation these people feel. It can be a litmus test for the audience, too - do they remember the several people who leave with tears of gratitude, or the woman who is shown a very cloudy x-ray of her lungs and smokes a cigarette on her way out, telling her husband she's not going to change any habits?

It takes a lot of patience to deal with things like that, and the filmmakers have a lot of time and praise for the volunteers. Interestingly, they don't spend much time on RAM founder Stan Brock - they have him tell the story of having an emergency in South America that led to the creation of the organization, but he is almost treated as a mascot through much of the picture (though still energetic, he is an older guy now). The folks actually giving care get more screen time, and wile some have stories of how and why they hooked up with the organization, we mostly get an idea of their makeup by watching them work and seeing how this differs from normal medical practice. One doctor points out he wouldn't do certain procedures in his office for liability reasons; another drives his own trailer truck. A jeweler gets pressed into service making dentures.

Zaman & Reichert are skilled at giving the audience these fairly quick but revealing glimpses of their subjects; the audience might not know anybody well by the end of the picture, but it's got a good sense of many people. They also do a fine job of communicating the scale of the operation, whether it be showing how crowded the parking lot is getting hours before opening or showing a long line of dentists' chairs. They use their locations well, too - for as much as the headquarters in Knoxville is humble, there's something about an polished but empty stadium (or, in this case, racetrack) that implies something about a community's priorities when contrasted with people who have little. Of course, it complements the upbeat, can-do montage of the RAM crew rolling out to set up shop in Bristol.

That attitude pervades the film - that there are committed people who may not be able to solve all of the nation's health-care problems, but they can at least make a dent in them, and here's how. "Remote Area Medical" is effective enough to serve as a recruiting video even as it acknowledges that more needs to be done.

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originally posted: 05/10/13 10:05:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Nashville Film Festival For more in the 2013 Nashville Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Sarasota Film Festival For more in the 2013 Sarasota Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival For more in the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 AFI Docs Film Festival For more in the 2013 AFI Docs Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Farihah Zaman
  Jeff Reichert

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