Reviews Short Documentary

Yellowstone (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: Éanna Mac Cana

Writers: Éanna Mac Cana

Running time: 26mins

Yellowstone is a sincere and personal portrait of a history of healthcare in Belfast. The film is both a thorough documentation of the evolution of Belfast City Hospital – which grew from a humble six-bed unit for the sick of the city’s workhouse in the pre-NHS era, to a 900-bed university teaching hospital – and a moving glimpse into the different ways the institution has touched director Éanna Mac Cana’s family through the years.

The film might have come across a tad-dry were it not for this – its veritable text-book of information and black-and-white photos no doubt giving a number of viewers uncomfortable flashbacks to their days studying History of Medicine in their GCSE days – but for the fact that the filmmaker cleverly interweaves his own life into the story. His moving narration includes the recounting of the birth and death of his infant sibling, who came before him in the hospital’s Jubilee Maternity Unit – a building which would later be demolished and replaced by the Cancer Centre that Mac Cana would become familiar during his time spent as an in-patient in 2017.

The film is an extensive and worthy statement on the vital role Belfast City Hospital has played throughout the last hundred years in this regard – however, it comes up a little short when it comes to explaining why it this story needs telling now. According to the director’s statement, Yellowstone “harbours a deep awareness for the future with an urgent statement for our time; a recognition that many chronic issues the hospital has suffered from over time, find relevance today,” but beyond ‘it is the right thing to do to give people healthcare free at the point of use,’ it is hard to distil exactly what that ‘relevance’ is.

Considering the era which we live in, it feels like there is something missing in this regard. The experimental styling of some sections of the film suggests there might be something I have over-looked in the film’s greater meaning, but on the surface at least, there is only a minimal allusion to the continuing coronavirus pandemic, and even less reference to the decade of austerity cuts it has just endured.

Last week, news broke that Jenny McGee, a nurse who had helped care for Boris Johnson when he was gravely ill with Covid-19, had tendered her resignation. Disillusioned by the “lack of respect” shown by the government for the NHS and healthcare workers, McGee revealed Johnson’s lackeys had at one stage tried to coerce her into a “clap for the NHS” photo opportunity alongside the Prime Minister, during what she had expected would be a discreet ‘thank you visit’ to 10 Downing Street.

Months later, Johnson still seems unwilling to properly pay his due respects to the professionals without whom the ageing gout patient would most likely be pushing up daisies. McGee reportedly kept vigil by the Etonian’s bedside for two days when he was in intensive care – something which did not seem to count for much earlier in the year, when the government proposed a 1% pay rise (despite inflation being forecast at 1.5%) for NHS staff like her.

While the vitriol targeted at the life-saving work of NHS professionals is especially pronounced in the wake of them prolonging hundreds of thousands of lives through the deadliest pandemic in more than a century, however, it should be noted that this is far from the first time the UK’s government clearly seeking to undermine the crucial institution. After almost a decade of underfunding, the NHS continues to struggle to make ends meet, and the money promised to it does not allow for preparations for the future. According to Fund Our NHS, the budget for public health services in 2020 was already £850 million lower in real terms than in 2015/16, and by 2021 the budget it anticipated this would have been cut by 25% from its 2015/16 level in real-terms.

With that being the case, the NHS was then faced with a spiralling number of Covid-19 cases, thanks in large part to the government’s reluctance to impose travel restrictions on the public until it was too late. Crippled under the weight of that demand, the fact the institution has just come through a stress-test it was far from equipped for – even as the government utterly flubbed attempts to procure protective equipment and ventilation machinery along the way – is nothing short of a miracle. It is not one which will likely be repeated, however, as the vultures continue to circle while talk of privatisation refuses to go away.

In this context, to make a documentary about the NHS and not mention any of this feels like we are dodging one of the most defining issues of 21st century politics. We are standing on a cliff-edge, staring into the abyss of a slew of systemic collapses that will bring with them a continued stream of public health crises. Either we realise the value of socialised medicine, and how vital it will be in giving us any quality of life at all over the coming decades, or we buy into the logic that we cannot afford to combat them, and “let the bodies pile high” as the Prime Minister so succinctly put it. While Yellowstone is half the way there, in so far as it shows the intrinsic value of providing healthcare to those who might not otherwise afford it – elongating and improving the quality of their lives – it does not adequately flag up or critique the threats which the NHS faces.

This film is extremely successful in so far as it tells a social and personal history of healthcare in Belfast. Éanna Mac Cana’s candour as a filmmaker is particularly worthy of praise, as it takes courage and grace to cover the lives and losses of those nearest and dearest to him – as well as his own personal struggle with cancer. Having dealt with such matters so openly and earnestly elevates Yellowstone from a simple re-tread of past events into being a living, breathing historical source. With that being said, if the point of studying history is to learn from it, there is too little here to inform audiences of the NHS’ present struggles, or the nightmarish future we may face without it.

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