With any documentary series, one of the key elements that can make or break a series is access. How much will the subject let you film? Who is agreeing to be interviewed? Are there any statutory authorities involved? And do you have editorial freedom?
These would have been huge challenges for ABC’s Keeping Australia Alive, a 7 part documentary series which serves as a snapshot of Australia’s health system. More than 100 cameras were used at multiple locations across the nation all on the same day: Wednesday 28th October 2015. Those with long memories will recall Australia Live, a joint ABC, SBS and Nine event showing a day in the life of the nation during the Bicentennial. The scale also expands it beyond UK doco series 24 Hours in Emergency, which screens on SBS.
The first episode, “Cradle to Grave” depicts those at opposite ends at their life span. Filmed mostly at hospitals in Longreach, Westmead, Liverpool, Melbourne and medical care at Bribie Island, it is full of contrast.
The most uplifting moment in a sometimes-difficult viewing, is the birth of a baby to Amy and Gerado at Westmead. You’ll be fighting back tears at this magical moment, but not before all the drama of an epidural and induction at 37 weeks. In Longreach, where the community is much smaller, Dr John Douyere is delivering via caesarean.
“Everyone knows who you are, and knows you by name. It’s a good service,” says a grateful father.
At Liverpool Hospital Chrissie and Rob have completed yet another IVF cycle and cameras capture the phone call made by Prof. Peter Illingworth as he delivers the crucial news. Meanwhile, Vanessa is donating her eggs to a couple who advertised for a donor on Facebook, all without making a cent.
Contrasting these stories we meet 79 year old carer Rita of Bribie Island, whose husband Elbert has advanced dementia. At her advanced years she cares for the love of her life, but there will come a time when she is physically unable to continue this. Dr Trevor Vincent describes home carers like Rita as “the unpaid soldiers of the health system…..”
Other cases involve a tractor driver who has suffered a stroke, a woman suffering a burst brain aneurysm and a patient who must agree to an Advance Health Directive in preparation in the event of death.
At one level these are mostly RPA-style cases, but remembering these are all unfolding at the same time across the nation gives Keeping Australia Alive perspective. The resilience of the staff makes for the human touch, but the diversity of problems, all of which are influenced by their own landscape, is what gives the series a point of difference.
Other locations to feature in the series include Cowra, Canberra, Kintore, Daylesford, Perth, Brisbane, Tasmania, Bendigo, Sunshine, and Boigu -the most northern island in the Torres Straits.
Considerable acknowledgement should also go to the participants who have bravely consented to being filmed for this series. With such logistical hurdles, ITV Australia has done a sterling job to pull this together under Executive Producer Karen Dewey and Series Producer Elle Gibbons. Frankly, it’s a template ABC could now apply to other aspects of our society, not just our health system.
While the series takes a snapshot of our health system, largely paying tribute to our brilliant men and women in medical care, it’s important to note it doesn’t take the pulse of our hospitals. The series avoids the politics of under-funding and doesn’t draw conclusions on the ailing health system. Were it more opinionated it could be complemented by a Q&A debate as part of the broadcast.
The opening episode also avoids the rawest, grimmest moments, such as losing a patient on the table, children in pain, extreme injuries and utter despair. Whether these will follow as the series unfolds is unclear.
But what is left on screen is vast, diverse, challenging, personal and emotional, giving the viewer a sense of our robust life.
All of that makes for unique television.
Keeping Australia Alive airs 8:30pm Tuesdays on ABC.