Wednesday, December 08, 2004

'Edge of Life'

Did anyone see 'Edge of Life' last Thursday on BBC2? This was a documentary following the stories of two very premature babies and their families. I found it hugely unsettling, and I've been trying to figure out all week WHY it made me feel so uncomfortable. The programme tracked the parents from before the babies were born, meaning that the parents must have given prior consent for the births to be filmed and for the cameras to be present at key meetings with medical staff, etc. -- the kinds of moments which are intensely personal. I am not sure why any parent would knowingly agree to this in the face of such uncertaintly about the pregancy's outcome unless a particularly persuasive producer talked them into the educational value of sharing emotional trauma on national TV. These parents clearly were not exhibitionists -- they weren't the usual willing victims of reality TV whose exploitation in shows like 'Wife Swap' or 'I'm a Celebrity' is all too predictable. So why agree to be filmed at your most vulnerable, especially when that vulnerability extends to a very sick baby?

I think what unsettled me most was that I was constantly mentally 'filling in the gaps' about what we did not see but must inevitably have played a dominant part in making the programme -- imagining the conversations and negotiations that must constantly have gone on between cameraperson and the family. 'Could you say how you feel?' 'Do you mind if I put a camera in the incubator?' 'Could I film your response when the doctor tells you your baby's not making any progress?' We saw glimpses of distraught parents walking arm in arm down hospital corridors, surreptitiously (it felt) filmed from behind a half-closed door. No matter what level of consent was solicited from the participants, how could they possibly anticipate the invasion of their grief? It felt horribly voyeuristic.

Both babies survived with a huge amount of medical intervention. One couldn't help imagining whether other babies were filmed that didn't make it. The documentary raised issues about choices that have to be made when technology makes the difference between a viable birth and a late miscarriage. These are issues worth discussing, but I couldn't help feeling that this was at the expense of intruding in the lives of others in an exploitative way in order to make poignant TV. I'm not even sure it was enlightening about the issues it sought to address. I saw a previous programme in this series about whether disfigured children should have plastic surgery. That seemed to me to be far more informative and less voyeuristic: admittedly the stakes seemed lower. I'm not in favour of any sort of censorship, but I do question the ethical value of this kind of public exposure under the banner of education. I wanted to switch off in protest, but that wouldn't have stopped it from happening. And it was nailbiting stuff in an agonising sort of way.

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