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Hospitals were nothing like the messy, chaotic places I grew up watching on TV or in movies. Back in my scrub days volunteering in an intensive care unit, everything was more or less quiet until something—a patient moving in or moving on to the next life—incited a medical team into action. But even in that quiet, there were the whispers and sobs of grieving family members, cries from people in pain, and the occasional tired sigh from someone on the staff. No one wants to find themself needing this much intervention between life and death, but there is an entire battalion of doctors, nurses, and support staff that watch over the everyday miracles and tragedies on these floors.
Luke Lorentzen’s latest documentary, “A Still Small Voice,” is a tender portrait of an underseen group among a hospital’s many departments. Embedding his camera among the new residents in spiritual care at New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, he follows Margaret “Mati” Engel, an aspiring hospital chaplain, as she spends time with patients and families facing heartbreaking circumstances: cancer patients awaiting their last breath, young parents coddling their lifeless newborn that will never grow old, a grieving daughter who’s lost her father. Over time, the camera captures the wear and tear of working on the emotional frontlines—something that has only gotten more difficult in the wake of the pandemic. Mati’s supervisor, David, also begins to experience fatigue and is unable to help Mati when she’s overwhelmed. Even chaplains aren’t infinite resources.
Like his previous film, “Midnight Family,” Lorentzen is curious about what drives certain people to care more about others than themselves, making caregiving their line of career. His camera shows the intensity of the work behind roles most of society may take for granted. Like “Midnight Family,” “A Still Small Voice” is just as much about the mundane check-ins and procedures as it is about the more emotional moments. The people at its center are everyday heroes, doing their best for others through sleep deprivation and worse. They calmly jump into situations most civilians aren’t prepared to handle, whether that’s tending to an open wound or answering tough questions about death for a person squaring up with their impending mortality. However intimate, the documentary does little to explore the issue of healthcare burnout, which could have been appropriate given Mati’s experience as she was cautioned against getting too emotionally attached to patients.
Lorentzen often films from a bit of a distance, almost as if to provide some sense of privacy and space to the subjects and not impede on Mati’s work. When she’s alone making calls, Lorentzen’s camera moves in, observing her calming techniques as she talks through death and grief. She rubs her chest and touches her Star of David to soothe herself while comforting the crying voice on the line. Here is when we see the toll this work is taking on her and how her overcommitment to caring has unintended consequences.
Lorentzen also illustrates the many ways Mati’s work extends beyond counseling patients. She’s there for other members of her cohort during check-ins, sharing each other’s burdens as they navigate through their residency, and she’s there for the tired nurses and doctors, making conversation while passing out free tea and treats to her coworkers. There’s even more to David than he shares with his residents, as Lorentzen is allowed to follow him into his private calls with a mentor and listen in to his struggles. Not everything goes according to plan in this documentary, and when tensions spike between Mati and David, the film maintains a distance to witness it all. After all, the people there for some of life’s best and worst moments are just like any of us—flawed, probably tired, and looking for answers to life’s questions.
Now playing in theaters.