OAKLAND -- When Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks started working on "The Waiting Room," his documentary about Oakland's Highland Hospital, one fact stood out immediately: the overwhelming diversity of the human stories he encountered.

One day, for instance, a renowned drummer from West Africa got sick and wound up in the hospital. Almost overnight, dozens of Africans living in Alameda County were at the man's hospital bedside with instruments, singing, dancing and partying. Another day a man who had worked for Richard Nixon came in after suffering a stroke. Neither man had insurance.

Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks (Courtesy of International Film Circuit)
Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks (Courtesy of International Film Circuit)

"Fortunes change," says Nicks, who earned his ¿master's in documentary filmmaking at UC Berkeley. "All these people who wouldn't normally sit down and meet each other were now bound together by the condition of needing help. That's what was missing in the conversation around health care."

Nicks has larger ambitions than filmmaking.

Using "The Waiting Room" as a launchpad, Nicks has already started developing what he calls a "digital storytelling project" about the nation's health care system. He wants to examine what works, what doesn't, and where to go from here -- and he wants to do so by having ordinary people tell their own stories.

As viewers of "The Waiting Room" will learn, the movie is short -- devoid, really -- of statistics, data or big picture thinking of any kind, focusing instead on the narratives of the uninsured. The policy details, Nicks decided, were too intricate to delve into with the film, but they were also too important to ignore altogether. That's where the digital platform comes in. He hopes it will be a space where the real meat and potatoes of Obama's Affordable Care Act can be hashed out by anyone who cares to have a say.

The idea is already catching on. The website, www.whatruwaitingfor.com, is rapidly developing into a multimedia platform where people can share their stories using videos, comments, blogs and pictures. A tab at the top allows you to classify your story according to a specific emotion: frustration, grief, hope or faith, among others. One video shows 7-year-old Nia Walker, an African-American girl, and her parents discussing the costs of health care and the challenges asthma poses to the African-American community.

In another video, a nurse at Highland says, "We're at a point in the United States where there's an ever increasing need for the services of community hospitals, and these community hospitals have less and less resources all the time."

Though Nicks seems to side with Obama's vision for the future, the digital storytelling site is also receptive to people who disagree with the idea.

"I know you like what you are doing, but ... taxpayers are supporting these needs and everybody thinks it is OK," says one commenter, Bob Weeks, in a posting online. "I have enough trouble trying to help my daughter I can't help somebody else's."

Nicks says the film and the storytelling website are slated to be incorporated into medical school curriculums, universities and other schools as part of an effort to expand the conversation about health care.

"You'd be hard-pressed to watch the film and say this is a health care experience you'd want to go through," Nicks says. "But it's what we have. That's the rub, the essence of the debate; to some people this system is acceptable and to others it's completely unacceptable."

The site also gives viewers an opportunity to choose particular themes -- access to care, violence and chronic disease, for example -- that may be especially relevant to them. The problems Nicks saw during the five months he spent in Highland's waiting room, he says, are common enough, and widespread enough, that everyone is affected, no matter how isolated or protected they may feel.

"Ultimately, they want to talk to people and get them in a frame of mind where they can empathize with people they ordinarily wouldn't."

Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429. Follow him at Twitter.com/scott_c_johnson and Twitter.com/oaklandeffect

"the waiting room"
The documentary opens Friday in the Bay Area.
Grand Lake Theater in Oakland: www.renaissancerialto.com
Camera Cinemas in San Jose: www.cameracinemas.com/camera3
Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco: www.sundancecinemas.com/kabuki_showtimes.html

A review of "The Waiting Room" can be found online at www.mercurynews.com and in Friday's TimeOut section.