The medical clinic that gives Remote Area Medical its name was originally conceived with the purpose of traveling internationally to aid those without access to medical care. Instead, the nonprofit group has spent most of its time and resources in the U.S., where the need for medical assistance is almost overwhelming. Here, the miniature army of doctors and dentists who volunteer their time are seen in action during a three-day clinic at the Bristol Motor Speedway in the group’s home state of Tennessee. Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s documentary scathingly exposes the eroding political leadership that has allowed such desperation to fester within so wealthy a nation, and all without directly addressing such lightning-rod issues as minimum wage, healthcare reform, or our ever-stagnant Congress. The closest anyone comes to naming names is an impassioned reference by one subject to “the people who make decisions,” and by focusing exclusively on the human impact of our failed policies, the film not only makes the most of its modest resources and running time, but it cuts to the literal heart of the issue. At the Speedway, thousands arrive and wait in line, some for days, in hopes of receiving one of a limited number of tickets for the care (such as tooth extractions and mammograms) they otherwise can’t afford.
Despite the subdued anger and drawn-out suffering on display, Remote Area Medical is primarily a work of hope. The filmmakers frequently utilize tracking shots, reminiscent of the work of Jennifer Baichwal, that lyrically convey the sense of community forged within this makeshift, anthill-busy operation. Forgoing narration, the filmmakers offer little-to-no commentary on this material, achieving something close to pure objectivity and, in doing so, allowing the material to double as a launching pad for the kind of active political discourse so sorely needed to correct such injustices that require this kind of volunteer-based effort in the first place. The film’s frankness is unyielding, from the heartbreaking image of a kindly but stubborn young woman begging for a ticket to the viscerally arresting sight of bloody dental work being carried out on people who haven’t been to a dentist in years, if not decades. Ultimately, Remote Area Medical is invaluable not just in the insights it provides into an American reality often untold, but more so in the potency of the questions its prompts, and in how it refuses to simplify or misrepresent its subjects.