Streaming Spotlight: Healthcare workers in film

Doctors, nurses and carers on the silver screen

by Jennie Kermode

The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us all, if ever we forgot, of just how much we depend on healthcare workers – but how are they represented in cinema? These are some of the best documentaries and features you can watch at home that celebrate members of the medical community.

Patch Adams
Patch Adams

Patch Adams - Amazon Prime

Robin Williams turned in two standout performances as doctors in the course of his career. The second was in Awakenings, based on an episode in the life of Oliver Sacks, but before that he played the real life Hunter ‘Patch’ Adams in Tom Shadyac’s comedy drama. This is exactly the kind of sugar-sweet material with which Williams excelled; in lesser hands it might have been awful but he transformed it into a thoroughly entertaining experience. Telling the story of Adams’ dedication to transforming patient care through laughter, it turns the emoting up to 11 but its star – with able support from Philip Seymour Hoffman – ably keeps pace, and there’s a sharp wit underlying the sentiment.

The Cave
The Cave

The Cave - Google Play

As the actions of healthcare workers around the world during the pandemic have shown, when circumstances are tough, they have to keep going for everyone’s sake. When the bombing in the Syrian city of al Ghouta became so severe that it was impossible to keep going on the surface, paediatrician Amani Ballour took her team underground, becoming de facto manager of a hospital hidden in tunnels and caring for bombing victims as well as for people with serious illnesses and day to day health problems. Feras Fayyad’s Oscar-nominated documentary followed them as they worked with dwindling supplies to save as many lives as possible, and also let us get to know them as people, clinging to the remnants of civilisation, dreaming of pizza with extra cheese.

No Way Out
No Way Out

No Way Out - Amazon Prime

Not everybody appreciates what healthcare workers do, even when their lives are on the line. Joseph L Mankiewicz’s groundbreaking 1950 thriller stars Sidney Poitier (in his first ever screen role) as a young doctor who finds himself accused of murder after a white supremacist hoodlum dies in his care. Stephen McNally is the older doctor who tries to clear his name, learning a few new things about his country’s racial politics in the process, whilst Richard Widmark plays the dead man’s vengeful brother, attempting to whip up a race riot. Tightly paced and beautifully shot, it also explores the challenges facing women at the time and the way that aspiration in those expected to lack it can stir up resentment.

American Mary
American Mary

American Mary - Amazon Prime

Even today, women can struggle to get fair treatment in a profession traditionally dominated by men. Young medical student Mary (Katharine Isabelle) fears that she won’t even be able to pay her way through her course without resorting to working as a stripper – but that’s before she finds her way into the world of underground surgery. It begins with criminals who don’t want to give themselves away by gong to hospital, and soon become something more interesting – providing increasingly unusual services to plastic surgery addicts – before a particularly ugly experience in the conventional medical world sets her on a quest for revenge. Strikingly shot, the Soska sisters’ breakthrough film is a work of beauty – albeit one that requires a strong stomach.

Dr Akagi
Dr Akagi

Dr Akagi - Amazon Prime

Think of Japan in 1945 and the chances are that what comes to mind first will be war, but that’s not the only thing that ordinary people had to deal with. Shohei Imamura, himself the son of a doctor, looks at the small stories behind the big issues in this tale of a country doctor – a man whose community doesn’t take him all that seriously – who is the first to notice and outbreak of hepatitis and, when army officials won’t take him seriously, assembles an unlikely team to tackle it. The horrific consequences of war sit side by side with a sharp take on pre-existing social issues and good deal of humour and flirtatiousness, all exquisitely photographed, capturing Japanese society at a pivotal moment in its history.

For Sama
For Sama

For Sama - Channel 4 online, Amazon Prime

Taking for its title the mission at its heart, Waad al-Khateab’s BAFTA-winning documentary tells of her efforts to protect her little girl, born in Aleppo just weeks before bombing began, and her love for a doctor who is among those trying to save the city’s residents. It carries us through the excitement of setting up a new hospital against the odds, to the inevitable struggle and despair that comes after. Intense and intimate, it reminds us that those working in healthcare also have personal lives, and it makes room for the city’s children to share their views. Read what Waad al-Khateab and Edward Watts, her co-director, told us about it.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers - Amazon Prime

Doctors don’t just save individuals and cities – you never know when we might need them to save the world. Don Siegel’s classic of paranoid American science fiction, adapted from Jack Finney’s influential novel, stars Kevin McCarthy as a doctor who discovers something very odd happening to the residents of his small torn. At first he thinks it’s some kind of mass hysteria but he gradually becomes convinced that something far more sinister is afoot. Doctors were often the heroes of genre films of the era but in this case the tables are turned somewhat, as our hero’s conviction that something awful will happen to him if he falls asleep encourages him to take liberties with his prescribing pad and sees him struggling not to lose his mind – at least not before he can escape with a warning.

Marguerite Vimeo

For this week’s short, we’re bringing you the story of how an elderly woman’s life is transformed by a sympathetic home care nurse.


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