In 1985, philanthropist Stan Brock founded Remote Area Medical, a charity intended, according to the title card that opens Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s exceptional documentary, “to bring free medical care to inaccessible regions of the Amazon rainforest.” Today the majority of their work is concentrated somewhere rather less secluded: the United States.
The film makes clear why. In April 2012, RAM volunteers descended upon Bristol, Tennessee, to orchestrate an elaborate three-day clinic at the Bristol Motor Speedway, the city’s gargantuan NASCAR stadium. Many hundreds of Bristol’s ill and injured attended, eager to enjoy the urgent treatment they’d been otherwise unable to afford. This is an irreproachable work of philanthropy, and it isn’t difficult for Remote Area Medical to impress the virtues of its subject. But the spirit of the film is hardly celebratory.
Reichert and Zaman level a perceptive, justly withering eye at the state of healthcare in the United States, careful to remind, if only implicitly, of the tragedy that necessitates these commendable acts of charity. A certain dark humor prevails. Early on, a RAM volunteer, circulating among hopefuls who have arrived to the speedway’s parking lot early to secure a place in line, approaches the family in front. “You’re first!” she beams.
The family isn’t amused. “We’ve been here since Tuesday,” they flatly report. Treatment begins Friday. At 3 a.m. they begin distributing tickets among the crowd. They soon exhaust the day’s supply — and must break the news to those who didn’t make the cut. Harrowing stuff, and Reichert and Zaman make it count: It’s hard to watch and not feel galvanized.