Bay Area Public Hospital closure explored in short documentary 'The Desert'

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The Desert, directed by Bo Kovitz is an intimate look into the aftermath of a major public hospital closure in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the wealthiest regions in the country.

Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo was the only full-service public hospital for more than 250,000 residents in West Contra Costa County. Now, the nearest public hospital is more than 15 miles away.

Locals observe as the Doctors Medical Center is torn down leaving the nearest public hospital 15 miles away. Film still from The Desert.

Following patients and frontline workers on the ground, The Desert reveals the multifaceted impact of the loss of a major safety net institution as those in the community travel further and overcome barriers to care. The Desert begins more than three years after Doctors Medical Center closed in 2015.  Across the street from the vacant hospital, we meet an urgent care staff, many of whom worked at the hospital’s emergency department for years. Millie Callen, a non-emergency clinical worker near the previously existing Doctors Medical Center, who describes the influx of patients and the limited resources to meet all the needs of those who come in, some of whom think the clinic is an emergency department.

First responders take a call, in The DesertOf the many issues that come with a hospital closure, clinic workers and doctors also cite the unavoidable outcome that comes from serving mostly uninsured and Medi-cal/Medicare patients: the gradual shutdown of major hospital departments over time, and the sacrifices many of the staff made to keep the hospital alive, and the ultimate burden on the patients to find help elsewhere.


Directors Statement

Director Bo Kovitz


When I began research about Doctors Medical Center, it struck me that it’s not rare in our country for a hospital to close. I read about hospitals closing in rural communities and others moving out of poor, predominantly black and brown neighborhoods into richer ones. I wanted to capture the lived experience and deepen our understanding beyond just reading words on a page. I wanted to see and hear the faces and voices of the people directly impacted by the loss of an institution so many of us take for granted.

I knew this film needed to be a 360° view of the community. It was obvious to look for the patients who were impacted but it became clearer every day that the impact is uniquely felt too by the frontline workers — the first responders, the doctors, nurses, clinicians and staffers. Those on the ground, with direct experience navigating the hospital desert, hold the most valuable information and perspective. But their lives and immediate expertise are seldom seen or heard, which I feel is changing now during COVID-19 as people turn to those in the eye of the storm for insight.

It’s imperative now more than ever to take a hard and critical look at the cracks in the American health care system. This film is a deep plunge into one community’s grappling with a system that forced a hospital to fail. My hope for The Desert is that it will encourage people to look in their own backyard and think of the unseen but real lives adapting every day.


Production Credits

Director, director of photography, editor - Bo Kovitz

Additional camera - Sarah Cahlan, Lucas Guilkey, Lisa Hornak

Sound recordists - Sarah Cahlan, Jean-Philippe Dobrin, Lucas Guilkey, Hao Guo, Sybil Patten

Translations - Nuria Marquez Martinez, Betty Marquez Rosales, JoeBill Munoz

Advisors - Dawn Porter, Carrie Lozano, Mike Shen, Andres Cediel, Kara Platoni, Tina Sacks, Chris O’ Dea, RIck Johnson

Composers - William Ryan Fritch, Jacob Bloomfield-Misrach, William Sammons

Post Production Sound - Berkeley Sound Artists

Sound Supervisor - Jacob Bloomfield-Misrach

Rerecording Mixer - Bijan Sharifi

Sound Designer - William Sammons

Sound Effects Editor - Ryan Crowther

Dialogue Editor - Alyssa Nevarez

Color Correction - Chris O’ Dea