If the phrase “graphic dental work” excites you, then boy do I have the documentary for you! Remote Area Medical isn’t just about oral surgery, it’s actually about a weekend-long free medical clinic that came to rural Tennessee and helped thousands of people get much-needed medical care. It’s an eye-opening glimpse into the lives of people who simply cannot afford medical care, and the people who have a limited window of time to help them.
Over the span of four days, RAM is set up at a NASCAR Speedway in Bristol, TN, a rural town in the Appalachian Mountains. The parking lot fills with cars beginning on Wednesday, a full day before the program begins. Paralleling the wait are much more fortunate people who get in line for middle Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Hundreds of cars get in line, hoping for a chance to be seen on the first day, but only 500 tickets are available for that day, and they are given out at 3:30 a.m. This means a long night, with no rest, in 32 degree cold. By the time tickets are given out, it becomes clear that many of them have no other option for care, and otherwise will not get it if they do not get in; some people who do not get in try to cheat the line system.
Stan Brock founded the charity Remote Area Medical (RAM) in 1985 after realizing access is a more barrier to entry for healthcare. Today, the majority of the work RAM does is in the United States, due to the overwhelming demand of communities here. The documentary only briefly touches on his story, because the focus isn’t on what he’s doing; it’s on what these folks need. Some of them come in for dental work, others for eyeglasses, and still others for basic check-ups like mammograms. These routine appointments that people with insurance coverage take for granted are completely out of the question for these families.
When it’s too expensive to go to the doctor for anything, it means that many of the people in this area haven’t been to the doctor in decades. Most of the people came to RAM for dentists. A woman who works as a waitress came out to get some teeth pulled due to degenerative gum disease and for dentures to improve her self-esteem, her appearance, and to be able to kiss her husband. She broke down in tears as the dentist removed an entire side of teeth from her mouth. Though she couldn’t get any dentures because there weren’t enough dentists, she was pleased to get what she got, even if it’ll take another year until RAM comes back and she can have her treatment finished. She’s not the only person who needs further treatment, either. There is a lot of work to be done, but just not enough time.
The facilities RAM brings to the Speedway are mobile. This includes a radiology lab, mobile dentures, an eyeglass lens processing lab, and more. One man finds out that he has extremely high blood pressure, and a woman finds out that she has spots on her lung x-ray that very well could be cancerous, since it runs in her family and she is a very heavy smokes. She smokes so heavily that despite the warnings from the doctor to quit, she lights up on her way out of the Speedway.
The film deftly tells all of these stories and more in just under 90 minutes. It’s a documentation of what life is like for them, and that is one of its main strengths. It doesn’t feel voyeuristic, nor does it feel distant. The people who are interviewed for the film want their stories to be heard, and the filmmakers don’t try to spin it. There is absolutely no mention of the Affordable Care Act or any mentions of political leanings from anyone. There are no lectures. The film is about people in need, and the people who can and are trying to help them. Quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot more to it, and it feels just right, though it could’ve used a follow-up story a few months down the line on the patients it focused on the most. Remote Area Medical is moving, and well worth a watch.