Title: Code Black
Director: Ryan McGarry
Filmmakers arrive at a life behind the camera in all sorts of manners these days. But perhaps one of the best things about the rapid decline in the cost of production is that allows relative neophytes who are perhaps experts in other fields the opportunity to shine an interesting and important light on causes and subjects in a manner that even the most dedicated and intellectually curious nonfiction filmmakers might not be able to achieve. Such is the case with Ryan McGarry, a doctor at Los Angeles County Hospital who took his camera to work during the four years of his residency. The resultant cinematic portrait of that time, “Code Black” — a world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it picked up the Documentary Grand Prize — paints a dire picture of an American health care system on the precipice of overload and collapse.
Turning the knob on cinematic advocacy to 11, “Code Black” (the title refers to a waiting room full or beyond capacity, which is its state most of the time) is disquieting and affecting in equal measure and, owing to the roots of its production, comes more or less inoculated against spurious claims of a politicized agenda. This isn’t a film made by someone to advance a predetermined point-of-view, it’s made by (and with) the people who actually toil on the health care frontlines, and deal with a shortage of resources that impacts patient care on a daily basis.
Unfolding as it does from 2008 to 2012, McGarry’s film takes a wholly different tack than Peter Nicks’ verité-style “The Waiting Room,” which basically was constructed to track as a single 24-hour period at an Oakland hospital that served as the primary care facility for over 250,000 citizens. Its net effect and gut-punch effectiveness, though, is the same. McGarry doesn’t shy away from the sometimes gruesome and/or graphic nature of the injuries that he and his colleagues face in the emergency room, and in the face of public hospital patient overflow and county budget cuts their little victories often seem nominal and/or short-lived — a case of one step forward, one step back.
Its greatest strength — the unvarnished, filter-less glimpse “Code Black” affords of the tangled process of treatment for the working poor and many others lacking health insurance — is also a bit of knock for the film when it comes to a more comprehensive overview of its old “C-Booth” space in relation to a newly constructed ER; McGarry’s work might arguably benefit from a bit more objectivity here, and stepping outside the parameters of its focus. Still, “Code Black” is a special film laced with both heartbreak and hope. It deserves a wider audience and open ears.
NOTE: For more information, visit www.CodeBlackMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon