The Plot: Vicky Phelan found herself faced with a limited life span of 6 – 12 months. Being a wife and a mother with caring responsibilities, it wasn’t meant to be like this. Her cervical cancer check letter confirmed that she was fine but yet contained contradictory information. Digging deeper, she exposed a broken healthcare system of outsourcing cervical cancer checks to a foreign lab and an inability for that same system to apologise for its grave error. Rather than stay quiet, she talked and told her story. Then other Irishwomen came forward with a similar story. Over 221 of them…
The Verdict: Daughter. Wife. Mother. Woman. Warrior. The story of Vicky Phelan is an all-too-human story about the failings of a broken Irish healthcare system and how it treats women’s health. Having had a brush with cancer before, she was later told that there was no evidence of disease on her cervical cancer check – a false positive that proved to be life-changing. This is information that needed to be known but was not disclosed to her and her family. While her story is familiar from media appearances, feature documentary Vicky sets the records straight on this epic failure of the healthcare system when it did not do what it was supposed to do – care about health. We follow her over the course of several years as she documents her deterioration / progress in battling the monster inside trying to kill her while exhaustively wrestling with the healthcare system for some sort of truthful justice.
Ostensibly, it’s the stuff of a rousing story about one woman fighting against the system… if Julia Roberts or Cate Blanchett played her in a Hollywood dramatisation (let’s hope not). Vicky the documentary film is just what this story needs, as it comes directly from her – as it should be. It’s very much like the woman herself – quiet, humble, selfless and with a distinctive female voice. She’s not a firebrand, but she certainly has a low-burning fire within her that urges her to speak up, even when offered shut-up money in a legal settlement. That would not do. Sasha King’s film is not just a straight-up portrait of one woman’s story. It also links to other stories so it becomes this interconnected web, with many stories spinning out from just Phelan’s story as she tries to stay alive and see her story through to real change in women’s healthcare.
What impresses about King’s film is the way she presents it in an uncomplicated manner. There’s technical medical information, but King boils it down to a human level in what it means for Phelan’s outlook – which looked very bleak at one point (her tumour returned aggressively ten times worse). The interviews with Phelan have that intimate impression, rather than the detached manner that can often be found in documentaries where the filmmaker keeps a distance from the subject. This is a story to care about, for men as well as women. Surrounding her are her family, friends, her lawyer and the husband of a woman who went through a similar experience but didn’t make it. There’s a simplicity in its delivery which is subtly powerful, moving beyond the system failings to focus on the human impact of poor decision-making and cost-cutting measures. As the credits roll over a song called ‘This Fight Was For You’, Vicky is a reminder of the wider story of the 221+ at issue but with the calmness, courage and resolve of one woman in the eye of the storm. A story worth retelling in a film worth seeing.