Interview with Filmmaker Peter Nicks on "THE WAITING ROOM"

Check out our interview below with Peter Nicks, Director/Producer for The Waiting Room, an innovative blend of documentary film and social media that follows the life and times of an American public hospital amidst the greatest change to our health care system in decades. Peter is a participant in Firelight Media's Producers' Lab, a mentorship program for for independent, talented, and diverse filmmakers.

About The Film
The Waiting Room is a character-driven documentary film that uses extraordinary access to go behind the doors of an American public hospital struggling to care for a community of largely uninsured patients. The film offers a raw, intimate, and even uplifting look at how patients, staff and caregivers each cope with disease, bureaucracy and hard choices.

About The Storytelling Project
The Waiting Room Storytelling Project is a location-based social media and community engagement initiative that aims to improve the patient experience through the collection and sharing of digital content. This cultural data – video, data visualizations, photographs and text – is collected in the waiting room by creating frameworks for sharing that range from anonymous expressions of feeling to deeper storytelling.

Firelight Media: What are some of the highlights of the film?

Peter Nicks: In the film, we have a nurse who is sort of the queen of the waiting room and she represents caregivers. Her spirit shines throughout the film. It is a hard film to watch in some ways because it reveals how challenged this health care system is. But this woman is a miracle. If we had more caregivers like her, our public healthcare system would be that much better.

There are many stories in the film, all of them very powerful. There is a family that brought their young daughter to the hospital. She was my daughter’s age when we were filming, and seeing their challenges brings home the urgency of what we are facing. People don’t have continuity of care. I remember my doctor growing up. I had same doctor from elementary school through college, but that is not the case for a significant segment of the population. And this is where this film sheds light.

FM: Where is film showing?

PN: We just did a preview at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. You can check out my interview there on YouTube. We will be screening parts of the film in the Netherlands, when I speak at the TEDx program on “The Future of Health”. The World Premiere of The Waiting Room is scheduled for the Full Frame Documentary Festival in April 2012. We are also headed to the Ashland Independent Film Festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, and Rooftop Films 2012, among others. We have several community screenings planned as well, including one on May 12, 2012 at the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

The film is scheduled to air on PBS' Independent Lens in the Fall of 2012.

FM: What inspired you to work on this project?

PN: My wife works at the hospital where we shot the film and I was listening to her tell me these stories everyday--about people who were taking two or three buses to get to the hospital and who had such a fighting spirit. All we hear about is the arguing between special interest groups, politicians, and journalists. What gets lost, are these small stories, which add up to a big picture of communities dealing with this stuff day in and day out. That is what I am trying to capture.

FM: What do you want audiences to think about as they engage the film?

PN: We tried not to make a political film that tells the audience what to think or feel. But we do want everyone to think about what kind of healthcare system we should have. We want to remind people that things are still not working right and we shouldn’t forget the uninsured and underserved, because we are all connected. Any one of us can find ourselves stuck in a public hospital waiting room tomorrow. We want people to keep this in the forefront of what has become a series of ideological arguments and debates. People stuck in the waiting rooms have no voice in this conversation at all. Through this film and the interactive project, we want to bring them to the conversation. It is an ongoing conversation, this thing won’t be solved tomorrow.

FM: Tell me about the interactive arm of the project.

PN: The interactive companion to the film is about using storytelling to engage people around this issue of access to healthcare. Our platform allows patients to engage while they are stuck in the waiting room of the hospital. We want to turn a disconnected, isolated experience into something more empowering. People can upload videos, photos, commentary and send tweets. As we move forward, all of this cultural data will be curated online and used to get a better understanding of the needs and experiences of people that are underserved.

FM: How did you fund your work?

PN: The interactive piece actually preceded the film. Doing the interactive piece first definitely helped us raise money. We had a presence online and we were able to attract a lot of people that way. Putting the vignettes online allowed funders and donors to see the potential for the film, and that helped a lot. I also went through the BAVC Producers Institute for New Media Technologies. Then ITVS got involved. MacArthur funded the interactive project and the film. We also received a grant from the Fledgling Fund. We received a P360 grant from ITVS for the interactive project, and California Endowment supported that piece as well.

FM: What have been your major challenges?

PN: Time and resources. The interactive piece is a whole project in itself. You can’t do both simultaneously. We have fundraised close to a million dollars. I am the director of both projects. Dealing with technology adds a whole other problem-solving checklist. It is almost like building a start-up company. For filmmakers who are trying to embark on an interactive project, you have to go in with both eyes open. It is hard to focus and make them both at the same time. We basically stopped working on the interactive piece when we worked on the film. The film is like a child, it needs your attention, you have to feed it and nurse it. We are working to figure out outreach and distribution for the film, and traveling around to festivals. The interactive is a heavy part of the community engagement but it needs its own level of legwork.

FM: How has your participation in the Firelight Media Producers’ Lab helped you?

PN: It is always helpful to be part of a community of creative people who want to tell a story and make an impact. Sometimes this process can be an incredibly lonely and difficult journey. I am in Cally, so it was hard to participate in all of the events and gatherings, but I did attend quite a few of them. The Firelight community is extremely valuable because it is a unique community. There are not that many producers of color, so that alone has an intangible value for me, both personally and professionally. Getting to know people who have done it, people like Byron Hurt, Laurens Grant and others, you just get inspired. Being close to Stanley Nelson, who is a veteran, is incredible. This kind of space really doesn’t exist anywhere else. After Blackside, there have not been too many outposts. I am incredibly grateful for all of the relationships I have made through the program. And hopefully, I can help mentor another filmmaker coming up.

To have mentorship and community support in a focused way is absolutely vital for young independent filmmakers. It is vital because it is so hard to do this thing--there are so many questions, so many roadblocks. I was really fortunate to get the funding that I did early on. I know that my experience is atypical… but without something like the Producers’ Lab, you are on your own. If you don’t have institutional support, you are on your own. And on top of it, how does one find a mentor who can bring that cultural piece to your journey? It is hard to express the importance of that. I went to Howard, so I kind of had some of that experience coming through college. But this is a hugely supportive environment, where you can get relevant feedback on a cultural level that you might not get in some other professional networks.

FM: How can our readers support this project?

PN: They can go to our website http://www.whatruwaitingfor.com/ and spread the word! We are trying to raise the voices of the people in the waiting room and bring them out into the public sphere. As we move forward, we will have marching orders for people. To organize a screening, a discussion, or a community event, you can contact us at info@whatruwaitingfor.com. And definitely join us on Facebook.
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