There’s something sublime about watching a film. The experience can take you to a fantastic world, removed from reality—a world with lessons and closure. One that is finite.
Documentaries certainly throw viewers a curveball, then, when they present truths on screens larger than life.
Besides the occasional Bill Nye: The Science Guy that I watched in elementary school, my first serious venture into documentary film was with Michael Moore. Roger and Me, Moore’s classic 1989 documentary that highlights the closures of General Motors factories in Michigan and their effects on the greater community, was moving. Even as a teenager, the dark, gray images and grainy camera work stood out to me. Moore brilliantly used these cinematic effects to drive home the truth he was illustrating.
Moore’s cinematographic style is alive and well in some more recent independent documentaries. Fruitvale Station, for example, attempted to capture as much authenticity and veracity as possible when director Ryan Coogler secured permission to shoot in the same room where the news of the death of Oscar Grant, a central individual in the story, reached his family.
The Waiting Room tells the story of Oakland, California’s Highland Hospital, a public hospital that often accommodates the city’s impoverished, uninsured communities. The film opens with people making their way to the hospital. A gloomy public bus moves slowly into the stop in front of the building. The film then moves inside and into the hospital’s distinctive long waiting room. A nurse encourages those waiting to quiet down, or they won’t be able to hear their names being called.
Reading about the realities of lacking health insurance is difficult, both in terms of interest and comprehension. It’s hard to learn about people dying from preventable diseases or how some were once denied coverage because of preexisting conditions. It’s also hard to conceive of textbook examples as real people.
This is not to say that it is any easier to watch it on screen, but the immediacy of its depiction in film is striking.
The Waiting Room follows doctors and nurses over the course of a single day more than it does patients. The doctors and nurses narrate a scene in which a young man was shot and, as they describe it, the viewer’s attention is arrested and forced to focus on this vulnerable patient.
The film becomes even more difficult to witness when it highlights the inability of hospital staff to vacate a bed because one now fully recovered patient is homeless. Unwilling to send him back onto the street, the doctors leave the bed occupied as many continue to wait outside.
Another documentary, Last Train Home, highlights similarly difficult human practices, this time abroad. The film focuses on the life of a young Chinese family, whose mother and father leave their home in rural China to find jobs in the city as migrant workers. The title refers to the Chinese New Year—the family’s annual return home—and the chaos before finding train tickets.
The documentary narrows its focus on one single family, capturing their distress in a way that voyeuristic, yet contemplative.
In one scene, the mother and father are home, dealing with a family dispute––their daughter wants to drop out of school and enter the workforce. As their conversation becomes heated, the family becomes increasingly aware of and irritated with the camera personnel. Then, disregarding them, the father slaps his daughter flat across the face. The reality that the whole scene captures is unnerving.
The Waiting Room and Last Train Home are different in their narration, but similar in their scope—a scope that is far greater than any fiction film can capture. While a finite world is comfortable, with its simple solutions and its clear messages, the world of documentary filmmaking expands our horizons beyond that fictitious existence, confronting the ugliness and expansiveness of our world.