The Shared Fabric of Humanity

Two documentaries highlight the history of our society and who we want to live in it



Last Spring, my 13-year-old son came home with an assignment: interview his oldest family member about her experiences growing up, her marriage and family, and her life now.

We had just one slight complication: his 94-year-old great grandmother lived an ocean away and has neither computer nor a smart phone with which to make trans-continental communication any easier. But thanks to an international plan on our mobiles, Jack rang her landline in Western Kansas, put her on speaker, and interviewed her from 7,205 kilometers away.

I can’t tell you the joy it was to overhear this conversation between two of my dearest family members, 81 years apart in age. Jack learned things about my Grandma Eleanor that I had never heard before, like how most homes still used oil lamps instead of electricity. Or how she never properly learned how to work the tape deck or the television all these years (the latter being the one advancement in technology she believes society could have done without). Or how lucky she feels to spend her days visiting and caring for her friends, many of whom are younger than her.

I’m sure at some point I sat down to ask my Granny similar questions, but it was in that special moment that I realized she was giving him a gift: her memories, her wishes, the sound of her voice. My son was recording history through her eyes.

This idea is at the heart of, The Travellersa three-part documentary series on RTÉ. Actor John Connors and a team of researchers – all of whom are Travellers – visit their own families, neighbours, and friends to record the oral history of the Travelling community for the National Folklore Collection in the national archives.

‘The whole aim of it, really, is to get the older Travellers in the community while their memories are still good and pass it on to us,’ says researcher Geraldine McDonald. ‘This is a way, as well, that we can be proud of who we are and proud of where we came from, and our grandparents and our great-grandparents… to honour their memories.’

Connors’ series tenderly documents their shared history, systemic prejudice of forced assimilation (as evidenced by the 1963 Report of the Commission on Itinerancy) and the struggle now to record, maintain and pass down their unique cultural identity. The Travellers concludes this Wednesday evening on RTÉ One. Parts One and Two can be found on RTÉ iPlayer.

Another recent documentary highlights similar ideas, starting with the question of ‘What kind of society do you want to live in, and who do want to live in it?’ Actress and screenwriter Sally Phillips (Miranda, Bridget Jones’s Diary) poses this first of many difficult questions in the unbelievably touching – and, truthfully, quite frightening – A World Without Down Syndrome (BBC2, or – shhhh – on YouTube).

Phillips, who’s 11-year-old son Olly has Down Syndrome, set out to discover how prenatal screening affects parental choice, especially when it comes to what’s often described as a ‘catastrophic’ diagnosis.

‘What’s so very dreadful to the world about Down Syndrome?’ she asks in light of some stunning statistics. In the UK alone, nine out of ten women terminate when prenatal screening determines a likely diagnosis of Down Syndrome (and they can do so right up until the moment of birth). This type of screening is 85 to 90 per cent accurate, but as new advances in non-invasive screening become available through the NHS, that statistic is expected to increase.

Phillips travelled to Iceland for a glimpse into a society without Down Syndrome, as in the last five years 100 per cent of Down’s pregnancies have been terminated. While there, she met 32-year-old Halldóra, a surviving member of a population facing extinction, and the author of an article ‘protesting her right to life.’

‘Halldóra speaks two languages, she’s got a job, she’s hoping to marry her long-term boyfriend this summer,’ says Phillips. ‘It upsets me that she’s having to justify her existence. Imagine if you had to do that.’

Like The Travellers documentary, A World Without Down Syndrome reminds us that language matters. Not just language, but choice matters – and what we do with those choices. Though not a program about the legalities or ethics of abortion itself, Phillips does wonder if choice is ‘always the wonderful thing it’s cracked up to be?’ Our choices say something about our values, which say something our humanity.

Science has no morality, a geneticist in California tells her. But society does. We do. Will we allow society to make room for people with disabilities, or will we let others who are different live alongside us?

For all the ways my grandmother could tell you television has made society the worse for wear, it is at least allowing us to reckon with these questions while offering glimpses into the complex fabric of humanity. It may just be offering us a chance to get it right, after all.