More than 200 people gathered on 49th Street, just off of Telegraph Avenue, to sit down in the middle of the street and watch a documentary film screened on the side of the Bank of the West building. The weekly tradition in the summer, known as the Temescal Street Cinema, started its season last Thursday and has been a part of the community since 2008.
The films are always by Bay Area artists and this year’s opener was The Waiting Room, a documentary that shows the effects of an overburdened healthcare system. Shot in the overcrowded waiting room at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, the film is fueled by the testimony of disgruntled patients who, as one doctor puts it in the film, are “lost in the shuffle”—one with a bullet in his leg, another with testicular cancer, a young girl with strep throat and rising fever who can barely open her mouth: all are pushed back. (You can read Oakland North’s interview with Waiting Room director Peter Nicks here.)
“Once I heard about the film, we were really excited to host it because it’s very local and relates to issues happening right here in Oakland,” said Suzanne L’Heureux, an Oakland-based artist and educator who founded the Temescal Street Cinema. “It’s a really high quality film so it fits the bill for us, both in terms of wanting to have really high quality films here at the street cinema and have films that represent issues that are directly related to the experiences of people living in Oakland.”
Every year, each screening attracts 150 to 200 people. When they feature a hit film, like The Waiting Room, it draws as many as 300 people. The BART transit system, which shut down because of a fire in West Oakland early Thursday morning, did not cause L’Heureux to be concerned about the turnout. “I just never thought about it,” she said with an expression that showed she was thinking seriously. “A lot of people ride their bikes here and live in the neighborhood. But when the Oscar Grant thing was going on, the decision came on one of the nights, and only 75 people attended.”
Last Thursday, people came out in droves: lying on the street in blankets, eating picnics from coolers, pouring wine into wine glasses and animatedly talking and greeting their friends. “We have such a great crowd because we have this amazing film,” L’Heureux said to the audience. “When they [the films] can be about Oakland or the bay area—but especially about Oakland, it means all the world to us.”
Nicks, who has been traveling across the country for festival screening, came to the screening with his wife, Vanna, who works at Highland Hospital and was a part of the inspiration for this film. “After we finished graduate school,” he said, “I was coming out of film school and she had gotten her masters in speech and her first job was at Highland. She would come home with all these stories and this was before the healthcare issue became an ideological debate.”
“Tonight it’s amazing to have the opportunity to watch the film in an open air community like this because this is a film about community,” Nicks said to the crowd. “We made the film primarily because over the years as the health care debate has gotten noisier and noisier. We’ve heard from a lot of people—except for those represented in this film that are stuck in waiting rooms, not just in Oakland, but all over the country.”
“Is anyone out there from Highland?” he asked through a microphone rigged up to amplified speakers. Hands went up and there were cheers from people who worked at the hospital or had spent time in the waiting room.
“This film is really for and about you,” Nicks said. “In this health care story—this narrative that we are all on—we are all connected. As we move forward and sort of wait on the word of what the Supreme Court is going to decide, we [people with a role in making the film] wanted to let the politics and the arguments and the ideologies fall away and just tell the stories of this one community.”
Once the film started the audience was engrossed: captivated by the characters, personalities and experiences they could connect with. When the film was over, few people wanted to leave, chatting with one another, finishing their last bits of popcorn, and asking Nicks questions about the film.
“How did you get permission to show all the people that were in the film?” asked one man. “Why did you choose Highland?” another person yelled. Several people wanted to know how Nicks found Cynthia Johnson, better known as “CJ,” a certified nurse assistant at Highland whose personality helps carry the film.
“We did a fair amount of research in terms of talking to caregivers,” Nicks said. “Everything [shown in the film] happened in one day with patients, but with the caregivers we had more time and asked who would you recommend for us follow. CJ immediately came to everybody’s mind. She really is a symbol of the community of caregivers at Highland and many public hospitals—it takes a special kind of person to deal with the patient population at a public hospital. It’s a self-selecting group and CJ really exemplifies that. Like many of the caregivers at Highland she was born there, and this is the story you hear there over and over again, particularly with the nurses and administrative staff.”
People continued to raise their hands before someone asked a question that made the night come full circle: What surprised you most in making this film?
Nicks reflected for a moment. “Intimately living in that space—sitting down next to a patient and the diversity of that patient population was incredibly surprising to me,” he said. “In particular, the sense of being connected—that everyone was in this one space, that it was a common space, almost like a town square, where everybody was in someway linked. It’s one of the things I still think is lost around the debate of the healthcare system in America. How we are all connected in this journey, that really touched me and I tried to communicate that in this film.”
The film will have a national broadcast on Independent Lens—a weekly PBS show that features new documentary films made by independent filmmakers—in 2013. Nicks’ documentary is currently finishing its festival run and being prepped for a theatrical release in the fall before the election.
The full schedule for the Temescal Street Cinema can be viewed here. Festivities for Thursday’s screenings will start at 8:00 p.m. with “Windows into Worlds,” a shorts program featuring several different filmmakers, starting at 8:45 p.m.