POV: How did you go about finding the four people that you profile in your film?
Roger Weisberg: To find the four characters in the film, we cast a pretty broad net and probably interviewed well over a hundred subjects. We wanted to find people who were in the midst of some sort of health care crisis without insurance. We didn’t know where these stories were going to lead. We talked to health care providers and doctors at community health centers and at hospitals that would see folks who are uninsured. We talked to advocacy groups like the AARP and the Children’s Defense Fund. We talked to certain health care provider groups like the American Cancer Society, who led us to one of our characters — Karen Dove.
We ended up following 15 subjects for about two years, and we chose the four characters in the final film largely because their stories have the best dramatic arc, but also because their stories illustrated the issues that have to be confronted by the next administration if we’re going to improve access to health care for people who don’t have insurance in this country.
POV: Was it hard for them to step in front of the camera and tell their stories? Is that a challenge that you face as a filmmaker?
Weisberg: Yes, invariably there are challenges with this kind of verité filmmaking. One is that sometimes we don’t know where the characters’ journeys are going to take them, and they end up in pretty painful places. And those characters have different reactions in terms of whether they want our camera crews, and eventually the public, to be there during these very personal, very painful moments.
There were also sometimes problems of access during shooting. We didn’t know whether this doctor or that hospital would allow our crews access, because we didn’t know that there were going to be these crises that would come up. There was the issue of pride too. For some of our characters, when they found out how compromised their conditions were because of their medical problems, that pride was sometimes a barrier to fully sharing what was going on, because they didn’t want to share that sense of shame. That was so sad, since it wasn’t a problem that anyone would attribute to being their fault. Their medical problems were not because of bad decisions or lifestyle choices, their medical problems were the result of not having health insurance and not being able to keep themselves well.
POV: When viewers come away from this film, what do you want them to understand about our current health care crisis?
Weisberg: A lot of people think that if you’re sick in this country, you can go to a hospital emergency room and get the care you need. I want people to realize how difficult it is to access health care in this country without insurance, and I want them, after seeing the film, to be so outraged and ashamed that they’re motivated to do something about it at a historical moment when we have a chance to overhaul our health care system and extend coverage to all Americans. So I really hope that the film becomes a call to action at a time when the nation is listening.
POV: If people want to take action as a result of this film, what can they do?
Weisberg: There many things that people can do:
1. Write their elected officials and urge them to support efforts to extend health insurance to all Americans.
2. Host a screening or house party to bring visibility to this issue and encourage discussion about health care reform.
3. Join local community groups and national organizations that are pushing the next president and Congress to move the nation towards universal health insurance.
4. Learn more about this issue, hear what the presidential candidates are saying about health care reform, and download a Viewer Guide.
POV: There has been a good amount of coverage on the health care issues in the United States during this presidential campaign. Do the plans being put forth by the presidential candidates address the issues that you’re bringing up in your film?
Weisberg: They do in different ways. In the film, I wanted to put a human face on the problem of not having access to health care if you’re uninsured, but I was also careful not to presume to prescribe a cure or a political solution. I felt that that wasn’t the mission of a cinema verité film. But I do hope that the film leads to those kinds of discussions.
The presidential candidates have very different approaches. Simply put, I think that the Democratic plan envisions a greater role for the government. It envisions a kind of shared sacrifice where you have employers, individuals and businesses all playing a role in financing health care, with universal access as the goal. On the Republican side they’re going to rely on the tax code to try to create incentives for people to go out and buy private insurance from the private insurance market. They’re also big on health savings accounts and enhancing competition in the medical marketplace as a way of bringing down costs and making health care more accessible to more Americans.
POV:What kind of efforts are you making to ensure that Critical Condition makes a difference in the debate surrounding health care reform?
The film has already played at 4 events in DC that have led dozens of key national organizations to acquire the video to show at other venues. It has screened at over a dozen international film festivals. POV and Outreach Extensions are joining forces with local public television stations and health care stakeholders to coordinate screenings, town hall meetings, and health policy forums in over 30 cities. We have arranged to create a Spanish language one-hour version of the film to air on a Spanish language network — V-me. We have produced a comprehensive Viewer Guide that includes an analysis of the key issues, a Discussion Leader’s Guide, suggestions for classroom use, and a bibliography. We are designing a very comprehensive web site that will include streamed video of the positions of the presidential candidates, an online debate among leading health policy experts, referrals and resources for the uninsured, and an interactive talk- back forum. Finally, in order to get the public to understand the broader policy implications of stories featured in Critical Condition, MacNeil Lehrer Productions is producing a PBS election special immediately following the broadcast of Critical Condition, which will feature the Presidential candidates and their health policy spokespersons addressing how the candidates’ proposals would address the kinds of problems experienced by the subjects of our film.
P.O.V: You’re a veteran filmmaker who has made seven or eight films on health care in America. What keeps bringing you back to the subject of health care, and what drew you to making this film in particular?
Weisberg: The first film I made on the health access issue was in 1980. At the time, I assumed that in America, we don’t turn people away — if you show up on the doorstep of a hospital, you’re going to get care. Most Americans still take that for granted. But when I started reporting on health care in the early ’80s, I discovered that that wasn’t always the case: You can get emergency care, but you can’t get the referral to the specialists, you can’t get treatment for chronic diseases, you can’t get the medication you need to prevent these acute episodes that the uninsured suffer.
So I felt a sense of outrage that I hope people who watch Critical Condition will feel too. It’s just not right that 47 million Americans — one out of every six — don’t have health insurance. In fact, one out of three Americans were without health insurance at one point during the last two-year period. This is a huge crisis, but until it affects you, you aren’t really aware of the consequences. It can cost you your job, your health, your entire life savings, your home, and as one of the subjects in our film experienced, even your life.
What brings me to the subject again and again is that the problems keep getting worse. When I first reported on this problem in the 1980s, there were some twenty million Americans without health insurance. Now there are 47 million Americans without health insurance. We now spend $2 trillion dollars a year on health care, which is a sixth of our entire economic output — yet we have worse outcomes than the rest of the world. We spend 50 percent more than the next closest country on health care and yet we rank 15th in preventable death, 24th in longevity and 28th in infant mortality. So we’re spending more and getting less for our population. And I just keep coming back to the sense that we can do better.
POV: You were an investigative reporter in the ’80s, reporting on health care. How did you become a filmmaker?
Weisberg: I became a filmmaker somewhat inadvertently and unintentionally. I was first a teacher, then a consumer advocate. And then through pure chance I was loaned out to some consumer groups that were teaming up with public television to present consumer-oriented programs. So I was hired by these programs, and I learned the ropes of filmmaking in the trenches, doing these consumer reports as a field correspondent. But I like the control of being behind the camera more than I liked being in front of the camera. Now it’s 30 years later, and PBS is presenting the 30th documentary that I’ve made.
POV: You said you’ve made 30 films, and so many of them seem to focus on the underclass in America, the marginalized populations. What draws you to those subjects?
Weisberg: Part of it, I think, is growing up in the ’60s, coming of age at a time when I was looking around and seeing a lot of injustice, a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of challenging of authority. I also recognized that I had opportunities that were not available to many Americans, and the ’60s were a time when people weren’t really enamored with the rampant materialism around them. My motivation was not just to do well, but to do good while doing well. So I found a niche in filmmaking where I could express myself freely and try to do so in a way that advocated expanding opportunities for people who didn’t have the kind of opportunities that were handed to me. Issues like access to health care, at-risk youth and child welfare have become my de facto beat because those were issues that got my juices flowing as a young man, and continue to do so today.