Saskia Steinberg reviews Sasha King’s documentary on Vicky Phelan’s fight to expose the truth of the Irish cervical cancer debacle and her own personal fight to stay alive.
Sasha King’s documentary explores Vicky Phelan’s fight for justice, as a result of the CervicalCheck cancer scandal.
The feature-film follows Vicky, a mother of two from Annacotty, Co. Limerick, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014. In 2018, Vicky received heartbreaking news that her cancer was terminal and had an estimated 6-12 months to live. Vicky reveals the tragedy of this diagnosis, yet demonstrates a characteristic we see time and time again, her dogged determination. Prompted by the shock of her diagnosis, Vicky turned to her medical records, where she discovered that a smear test in 2011 had detected cancer. However, this diagnosis was kept from her.
The documentary shows Vicky as she juggles two battles: one legal, as she sues Clinical Pathology Laboratories, and one physical, as she undergoes cancer treatment. Yet, her tenacity is what you take away from the eponymous film. Vicky’s determination is inherent – most obviously in surpassing the 6-12 months she was told she had left to live. Her trailblazing fight to seek legal justice led to an approximate 221 women being informed they had been involved in the scandal.
Vicky is not just an expository biopic; it’s a film that projects what is core to Vicky: advocating for others. As such, we also hear other victims’ testimonies.
Most members of the public have heard about the CervicalCheck scandal through news reports which inevitably lack soul. Sasha King gives an unparalleled platform for the victims to speak candidly about their experiences. The subject is approached with emotion and sympathy. We follow them in an incredibly intimate way, being invited into their homes, experiencing moments of celebration and commiseration. This unique affinity allowed the audience to see the first-hand effects of the scandal. Through getting to know these people, albeit through a screen, and putting faces to names, it made apparent the magnitude of those affected.
King particularly focuses on the banding together of Vicky, Stephen Teap, whose wife, Irene, passed away from cervical cancer, and Lorraine, who was belatedly diagnosed with cervical cancer. King emphasizes the heroism of these figures, and rightly so. They reformed Irish female healthcare, brought international awareness to their cause, and achieved legal justice. Their undeniable selflessness is inspiring to watch.
King combines a mixture of footage, ranging from news clips to intimate vlogs recorded with an iPhone camera. There is this incredible dichotomy within the film, where we see the peaceful serenity of Vicky standing alone on the beach, in conjunction with clips of Vicky in the public eye. It lends to King’s success in demonstrating Vicky’s three-dimensional character, in which she can be both the charismatic, confident advocate, and the incredibly personable and raw Vicky at home.
Despite the tragic circumstances, Vicky’s own humour provided comic relief. Her highly infectious vivaciousness generated a great many laughs from the audience.
In the Q+A following the premiere, King revealed the conscious intention to make Vicky a collaborative project. King told Vicky to record moments on her phone where King and her crew were absent. This creative decision generated a unique connection between the audience and Vicky. We were able to see Vicky’s genuine reaction to situations through vlog form, as if we were knew her personally. Building on the collaborative approach, King’s husband and son wrote several tracks for the documentary. In the Q+A after the screening, King explained that the song ‘This Fight Is For You’, was written as an anthem for Vicky’s fight. Another song, ‘Brewing Up A Storm’ features several times in the film, alluding to Vicky’s fearless whistleblowing.
At its core, Vicky reveals the widespread institutionalized misogyny within the Irish healthcare system. This is manifested in the countless points at which women’s health has been disregarded, and the tragic repercussions that have stemmed from this. Professor Gabriel Scally recalls a conversation between a woman and her GP in which it was asserted that nuns were immune to cervical cancer on account of their celibacy. This ignorance to female medical issues within the Irish health service is, above all, incredibly dangerous. This example is just one of many featured in the documentary, yet it speaks for the film’s fundamental message: the need for reform. During the Q+A, Steven reiterated this motion, explaining that Vicky’s control was removed by people she didn’t even know. By making sure this never happens again, Vicky is ‘pushing for women to be in charge of themselves’.
The documentary elucidates Vicky’s resilience and unwavering attempt to hold those accountable and to implement REAL change. It is an inspiring piece of work, where you will not leave dry eyed.
To merely class this as a documentary would be myopic. This is a wake-up call, not just for the healthcare industry but for society as a whole.
Vicky screened on 24th February 2022 at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.