Remote Area Medical: Film Review

Doc offers in-the-trenches evidence of dire need in the U.S. health-care system.

A Bristol, Tenn., racetrack turns into a three-day M*A*S*H station in a sensitive new doc.

NEW YORK — Finding that the kind of huge medical-aid missions American charities send overseas are just as necessary within our borders, Remote Area Medical illuminates health-care ironies without preaching about them. Filmmakers Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman watch admiringly as volunteers care for as many people as they can in a three-day marathon and introduce us to the working poor who travel great distances and wait for days hoping to receive that care. The doc will be an eye-opener on the fest circuit and could, with timely TV sales, be a useful part of an ongoing national discussion in which propaganda often overshadows solid evidence.

In 1927, urban record-industry folk came to Bristol, Tenn., in the hope of recording musicians who couldn't or wouldn't travel to New York studios. Those sessions were the recording debut of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and other pioneers of modern country music. Today, the region that gave us the world's greatest hillbilly music is hurting: We meet women poor enough they'll suffer agonizing, disfiguring gum disease without going to the dentist; men who pull their own teeth out with pliers and self-medicate with cheap street drugs; and a 61 year-old who hasn't seen a doctor since he was 10, whose blood pressure is so high doctors seem astonished he's alive before them.

These people have gathered at Bristol's local NASCAR track, camping for days in the parking lot to meet the large team of volunteer medical professionals gathered within. Eighteen-wheelers full of equipment and massive tents are brought here by Remote Area Medical USA, a charity started by one-time Wild Kingdom co-host Stan Brock. Although it was founded decades ago to bring medical care to villages in the Amazon rainforest, the group soon realized how great the need was at home; it now does more than 60 percent of its work in the U.S.

Many viewers will want to hear more about Brock's experiences than we do here; others will expect RAM's efforts to be put in the context of broader statistical realities about American health care. But the filmmakers prefer, smartly, to focus on the people in present-tense need, making them not statistics to be debated but human stories.

To be sure, viewers of a certain mindset will find that many interviewees have brought trouble upon themselves; wry self-deprecation is common onscreen as patients describe lifelong smoking and other unwise lifestyle choices. But a smarter-than-thou stance is harder to take when one observes the physicians, optometrists, dentists and assistants who routinely leave comfortable jobs to fix fellow citizens they easily could ignore. Reichert and Zaman don't come out and say that RAM's unjudgmental attitude is the only humane position in debates over "socialized medicine" for citizens who haven't been smart or lucky enough to take care of themselves. But it certainly makes that conclusion an easy one to reach.

Production: Impact Partners, Candescent Films

Directors: Jeff Reichert, Farihah Zaman

Producers: Jeff Reichert, Farihah Zaman, Dan O'Meara

Executive producers: Ilene Kahn Power, Dan Cogan, Lilly Hartley, Jeffrey Tarrant

Director of photography:

Music: David Wingo

Editor: Sam Pollard

No rating, 80 minutes