"If I'd made this movie, I'd have screwed it up," said Stan Brock, the founder of Remote Area Medical and a man with nearly a half-century of film experience.
The movie he is referring to is "Remote Area Medical," a documentary by Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman about Brock's organization, which provides free medical clinics to the poor. Their movie documents one of RAM's weekend pop-ups in Bristol, Tenn., in 2012.
The organization, which Brock founded in 1985, first set to work delivering health care in out-of-the-way locales such as the Amazonian jungle and the wilds of Africa. Brock, a former cowboy in South America and collaborator on Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom," was uniquely qualified for a medical venture serving virtually inaccessible areas in developing countries. Now, nearly 30 years later, more than 60 percent of RAM's clinics are conducted in the United States.
"The story it tells, from the point of view of the patients, that's so much more important than some of the things we do to to deliver ," Brock said in an interview with CQ Roll Call, praising the filmmakers' attention to those in need.
Aiming for a cinema verite immediacy, Reichert and Zaman eschew the names of patients and the volunteer medical and dental professionals at Bristol. That decision also affords some privacy for people who are well aware of the desperate straits they are in. They line up — sometimes days before the RAM clinic gates open — for everything from tooth extractions to chest X-rays, seeking acute pain relief and what will be, for some, just the start of long-term medical treatment.
"Going to RAM is going to take a little bit out of me," one patient says.
In withholding names, the filmmakers also wanted to communicate that the events they documented are not unique to Bristol. "It's indicative of what people are going through across the country," Reichert said in the same interview.
And it's not just the mountains of Tennessee where RAM takes its mission "to prevent pain and alleviate suffering by providing free quality health care to those in need." Just recently, RAM and its volunteer medical providers served thousands in Las Vegas, Seattle and Anaheim, Calif., and were scheduled to hold a four-day clinic in New York City last month, before having to cancel due to a disagreement with state authorities.
"Remote area medicine? We don't have to go too remote," one volunteer in Bristol says in the film.
Reichert and Zaman show patients lining up by the thousands, filling the parking lot and, later, the interior of the Bristol Motor Speedway. The surrounding area, a beautiful part of the mid-South, provides the filmmakers with pastoral scenes that contrast mightily with harrowing medical images that underscore the suffering.
According to Brock, about 70 percent of those who come to the RAM clinics are there to see the dentist, primarily for extractions. "They all need to see a medical doctor, but they're there for more acute care," he added.
The dentistry scenes are among the film's hardest-hitting. Most people have a visceral reaction to any hint of harm to their teeth or mouth. It may never occur to many middle-class or upper-class people that others might literally beg a dentist to pull their teeth.
"That's one of the things we spent the most time discussing," Zaman said, regarding their decision to show in graphic detail some of the extractions. "For us, we thought we were restrained," she added, saying it's a delicate balance to consider "what's the least amount you can show to convey an understanding" of the desperation people feel while maintaining that "unless you see it for yourself," it's hard to get it.
One man says of his teeth, "I pulled a couple of them myself ... with a pair of pliers." Another breaks down after having the offending teeth taken out. A woman weeps when she finds out there aren't enough dentists at Bristol to pull all her teeth.
"It's not only a parade of pain coming through the gate," Zaman said. "They're complex human beings."
"We find that people are very moved by it. People , 'I didn't know it looked like that,'" Reichert said. The filmmaker paused, then added, "Nobody knows what it's like."
"Remote Area Medical" opens Friday at the West End Cinema at 2301 M St. NW.
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