By Trey Bunn ~
I recently spent some time with a film called Robin, Peter, and Darryl: Three to the Hospital. This 1969 documentary, directed and produced by Phyllis Johnson for George C. Stoney Associates, tells the story of three toddlers who go into the hospital for minor surgery. My work with the film dealt with preparing the digitized copy for public access, including reviewing and revising the captioning. This caption information is an important part of making films and videos in the National Library of Medicine’s collection accessible to a wide range of audiences. Video captioning is time consuming, and recently, there have been developments in machine-based generation—you may be familiar with YouTube’s auto-transcription feature—but they’re often far from perfect. An amusing example of this I encountered in a different video was a lecture on multiple stomas, which were repeatedly referred to instead as “multiple stomachs.”
Ensuring that captions for our historical materials are complete and correct requires intense attention, focus, and an experienced ear. In the case of Robin, Peter, and Darryl, I found that there were long passages that the original captioning left out, particularly when the people on-screen were speaking quietly or when the children were crying. And there was a lot of crying. Sometimes, it would be sufficient for the caption to say “[Peter:] [Crying],” that is, if he were just wailing incoherently. But what struck me were the times that Peter or another child was saying (shouting) something, and this was just glossed over as if the words didn’t matter. To me, there’s a difference between “[Crying]” and “Mommy! Mommy!” when the frightened child is wondering where their parent is. Given that getting through this film took so much patience and endurance, when I was finished with it, I reported to my colleagues saying, “Robin, Peter, and Darryl are done screaming.”
But I couldn’t stop thinking about the film. Many films I work on are straightforward, the audience and message are clear, but this film was more ambiguous, and it caught my imagination. There was so much to unpack, and that’s due to the compelling way it was put together. The film was done in the cinéma vérité style, with minimum narration, providing a direct view of the action. It shows the importance of caring for children psychologically during hospitalization, vividly and honestly depicting the effect of maternal separation, and it does so in a seemingly non-judgmental way. At no point is it stated whether or not something happening is good or bad; there are no “dos and don’ts” here.
There is no music at all, which adds to the realism of the film. The narrator introduces each child, but the parents and healthcare workers are never named. There is almost no background information given on these kids or their families, barely any emphasis on their illnesses and treatment. To me, it didn’t feel like a typical documentary or training film; it was more like a reality show, though without the modern technique of intentionally manipulating the participants into conflict. The viewer is intended to watch the relationships unfolding, gaining insight from the words and actions of the participants. The information the viewer gleans is often dependent on listening to what’s being said, which, as I mentioned, isn’t always easy to discern (and all the more reason to provide accurate captioning). As I watched the film, I realized that a great deal of its effectiveness relies on some psychological projection on the part of the viewer, for them to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.
The film begins with the three children, Robin, Peter, and Darryl, being admitted by their parents. Early on, the viewer gets a feel for the personalities of everyone involved. The healthcare workers are polite and accommodating, the parents are cooperative and join the staff in reassuring the children, and the children themselves are, well, as you would expect—they’re in unfamiliar surroundings and uncomfortable, sometimes calm but often scared and crying, and ranging from sympathetic to downright frustrating.
For example, when Peter is admitted to the hospital, he immediately begins making a seemingly illogical (and very loud) fuss over changing into his pajamas. This was one of the times where I found the captions lacking and worked to decipher what he was saying myself. He reasons that if he changes clothes, he won’t be able to go outside. He’s stuck there, and all he wants to do is leave. I felt it was important to give him his voice, not to just leave the caption blank or “[Crying].” I remember what it was like to be that small, to feel that controlled and oppressed and defiant. Truthfully, Peter is very much a brat throughout most of the film, and his mother admits that she often lets him have his way just to shut him up. His father seems ineffectual as well, and this led me to wonder if there was anything behind the mother’s almost flirtatious behavior with a doctor later in the film: Is she looking for her own escape?
Robin is quieter but still expresses distress. I wondered if the reason she’s so dependent on her bottle is because her mother seems aloof and distant. Robin’s mother even slips out while Robin is in the restroom, leaving the little girl in the hospital overnight to cry and wonder where her mother has gone, the nurses doing what they can to calm her. Later, Robin’s mother chides her for being bad, that is, crying. But we aren’t told what else is going on in the mother’s life, what she may be dealing with. When a doctor suggests early on that she take Robin to a dentist because her teeth are in bad shape, there’s a silent look she shoots back that seems to say: “Look, maybe you can afford that on top of this expensive surgery I’m already paying for, but not me.”
Darryl’s family seems the most stable and affectionate, though Darryl himself sometimes gets out of hand because, well, he’s a toddler. His father is stationed in Washington and on leave for this visit, but how much is he around the rest of the time? Darryl’s inability to speak English—his scenes often had to be captioned simply “[Spanish speaking]”—probably causes him a lot of uneasiness during the times when his family isn’t at the hospital, and one of the nurses expresses frustration over their inability to communicate as well.
The producer, the Columbia University Department of Nursing, and a mention in the end credits of the Psychiatric Nursing Training Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, point to the intended audience for all of this dramatic storytelling. The film is in fact meant to teach healthcare workers the interpersonal skills they need to do their jobs—to take care of the kids and make them as comfortable as possible—in spite of their illnesses or their family’s circumstances. I could see this film being presented to nursing students with the instructor saying, “As rewarding as nursing can be, there are a lot of difficult people you’re going to have to deal with sometimes. And screaming.”