Peter Nicks, The Waiting Room, 2012, digital video, color, 81 minutes.

ENHANCED CINEMA VERITÉ, Peter Nicks’s The Waiting Room drops us into the middle of the emergency room of Oakland’s Highland Hospital, which has become, by dint of our failed health care system, the primary care facility for a population of some 250,000 Californians, most of them without health insurance. We are, of course, like the director and his compact crew, merely observers. Nevertheless the thought occurs that, but for the grace of a regular paycheck with benefits or a substantial rainy day fund, there go you and me. Refusing didacticism, statistics, or analysis, The Waiting Room is, by virtue of the experiences it documents, an irrefutable argument for the necessity of universal health care, here and now. The movie depicts real human beings, every one of them deserving better than what they get.

Nicks condensed five months of shooting into one composite day that focuses on a rough half-dozen patients and three health care providers, all of the latter group worthy of sainthood at the least. And no, I’m not implying that they are putting on a kind face for the camera. For the patients, the most difficult part of visiting the emergency room is the waiting, which for some can last not hours but days, depending on how they are triaged and how many serious trauma victims suddenly appear to take precedence over everyone else. Unlike a series such as ER, The Waiting Room’s focus is not on these adrenaline-rush crises (though at one point three young men with gunshot wounds are wheeled in, one of whom does not survive) but on the chronically ill or those with garden-variety infectious diseases who rely on the emergency room because they can’t afford a primary care physician.

There’s a young girl with a raging fever and a scarily rapid heartbeat caused by a strep throat. Her father lost his insurance when he was laid off and is distraught and humiliated that he can’t provide for his daughter’s basic needs. A young man who has a large, likely cancerous, testicular tumor is referred to Highland when the private HMO that provisionally accepted him (he and his girlfriend are confused about the details) discovers he can’t afford membership or the copayment for the surgery he urgently needs. There is a middle-aged man who has worked for twenty years laying carpets. He has painful bone spurs in his back, but because he has no insurance, he can’t have them removed because public hospitals can’t cover surgery that is considered “unessential.” All the ER doctor can do is offer him Vicodin, which he doesn’t want to take because he’s afraid it will make him too sleepy to work.

“I just want you to turn around and see all the beautiful people here,” says the remarkably kind triage nurse, hugging a frightened, elderly Southeast Asian man. (We’ve previously seen her walk a nearly blind diabetic woman outside and down the driveway so that she can get on the right bus to take her home, a kindness that’s far beyond the stipulations of her job description.) She’s right about all the beauty of the people in the waiting room, who, for the most part, despite pain and anxiety, seem empathetic to one another’s needs. It is their openness that makes a project like The Waiting Room possible.

Because cinema verité by definition does not permit talking-head interviews or explanatory voice-overs, even such masters as Frederick Wiseman are partially stymied when their subjects are institutions. Observing how people operate within an institution seldom reveals its structure and purposes. That is, unless the institution is so dysfunctional that dealing with its problems is front and center 24/7, as is the case here. Nicks does, however, bend the vérité rules by using as voice-over some of what the patients and health-care workers must have said in footage that we don’t see. In other words, he doubles up on the verbal information provided by the characters. I don’t fault him for not being a purist, although given how engrossing, informative, and moving the film is, he could have done without the swelling music at the end, or the sped-up sequences of the waiting room as if to prove that thousands of patients come and go every week. These are minor quibbles. In a year of exceptionally strong documentaries, The Waiting Room is one of the most urgent and effective.

Amy Taubin

Reprised by popular demand, The Waiting Room plays daily at 1 PM through January 3 at the IFC Center in New York.