We've all heard plenty recently from politicians about Obamacare and America's healthcare crisis. But most of us haven't heard from young doctors on the front lines of the broken system, trying to hold onto their idealism and the Hippocratic oath.
Ryan McGarry's gripping documentary, “Code Black,” does just that, cutting through the din of pundits and pols by putting us over his shoulder in the emergency room at Los Angeles County Medical Center.
“The goal is to disarm people,” McGarry said after a recent shift in the ER at Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, where he now practices. “I think that's enough. If we can just disarm people, maybe the next time they're exposed to the debate they think about the people on the front line.”
McGarry, 31, began making the film in 2008 while he was a resident physician in the ER at L.A. County, working 12-hour shifts in the hospital and spending his few waking hours trying to make a professional documentary.
He profiles himself and the team of young residents during their time in the hospital's notorious “C-Booth,” the trauma center where modern emergency medicine developed. C-Booth closed in 2008, when L.A. County was replaced by a new state-of-the-art facility. There, the young doctors in “Code Black” struggle with the overburdened waiting room, piles of paperwork and legal precautions.
In one scene, a frustrated McGarry is instructed to prepare for a malpractice suit while filling out a report on a patient, because the patient was hurt on the job and his employer is likely to challenge a workman's compensation claim.
“It's pretty damn simple,” McGarry says. “Patients want to see doctors and doctors want to help patients. Profit shouldn't be part of that conversation.”
The film includes some intense and graphic images of emergency room procedures — unflinching looks at chests sawed and people dying on the table.
McGarry felt he needed to show the jarring intensity of such scenes in the ER, because it makes the over-crowded waiting rooms and bureaucracy seem all the more absurd.
“If you can sort of experience the visually intense moment, you can feel that and it puts a different weight on the waiting room, which is a bigger problem,” he says.
We see patients wait upwards of 24 hours to see a doctor, many of them the uninsured poor for whom the emergency room is the only access to healthcare.
McGarry will hold a question-and-answer session with festival-goers after Friday's screening at Aspen Filmfest, along with two other doctors featured in it.
“Code Black” won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival this summer, and McGarry is in talks with distributors to give the film a theatrical and on-demand release. It's also been optioned by “Mad Men” producer Marti Noxon, who is working to adapt “Code Black” into a dramatic television series. McGarry is planning to direct some of the series episodes, and is interested in making fictional narrative films down the line.
'Mother, I Love You'
A quiet Latvian drama about a 12-year-old boy, “Mother, I Love You,” may be the most universally affecting film featured at this year's Aspen Filmfest.
It follows Raimonds (Kristofers Konovalovs) as his boyhood mischief teeters on the edge of petty crime.
Raised by a single mom, Raimonds rebels against her with school pranks, hides bad behavior reports, and clashes with his school band conductor. As he and his friend Peteris begin breaking into the apartments his mother cleans, their hijinks escalate and police catch on.
The stakes may seem low, but the emotional intensity of the film couldn't be higher. Director Janis Nords deftly hones in on the guilt and fear that attends everyone's adolescence, and elicits a nuanced performance from Konovalovs.
“They say that fear has big eyes when you're a kid,” says Nords. “What may look like nonsense things, unimportant things from an adult point of view are completely different when you're a kid.”
The movie won top prizes at the Los Angeles and Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, giving it palpable buzz coming into Friday's Filmfest screening.
“I never thought it would bring any awards or anything like this,” says Nords. “Working from low expectations means you've set solid ground for yourself. I hope I can keep that quality.”
Aspen Filmfest 2013
Through Sunday, Sept. 29 • Paepcke Auditorium
Mother, I Love You
2:30 p.m. • Friday, Sept. 27
5:30 p.m. • Friday, Sept. 27
Full schedule at www.aspenfilm.org