The title derives from a glib corporate medical slogan (“Where your care is our first priority”) which we see being used as a screen saver on a doctor’s computer at the beginning of Ariel Baska’s short film. What follows will interrogate and undermine that message, as ten-year-old Hannah (Violet Gotcher) visits the hospital for a checkup by herself while her parents are at work, and the attending doctor (Benjamin Frankenberg), young and out of his depth, opts first to ignore, and then to downplay and dismiss, the long list of symptoms that she has carefully written down for him. Hannah has a recognised brain disorder and all manner of associated complications, but the doctor would rather check boxes than listen to his patient and help her to a proper care plan for her complex needs.
That complexity is in part dramatised by the presence of another person, the adult Hannah 2 (Jamie Kirsten Howard), with them in the consulting room. Only Hannah – at least at first – can see and hear her, so that we wonder if Hannah 2 might just be in Hannah’s head, a product of a damaged brain alongside all the other side-effects of Hannah’s condition. Hannah 2 is like the ‘invisible friend‘ or dark doppelgänger so familiar from horror films that are concerned with psychiatric issues. She is Hannah’s interlocutor, confidante and protector, expressing the young girl’s anxieties while also giving advice, and immediately seeing through the doctor’s inexperience and unprofessionalism. The doctor, like the viewer at this point, suspects that Hannah’s problems are partly psychological – but this put-upon practitioner is about to find Hannah’s supposedly imaginary guardian angel also getting into his head.
Beginning production on Our First Priority while awaiting her own brain surgery, and dedicating the film in the closing credits to “all the loved ones we’ve lost to medical bias” (including her uncle Jack Gagan), writer/director Baska is clearly here taking on material close to her own experience and heart, while deploying genre elements in a cathartic bid to turn the tables – in our heads, if not in reality – on medical gaslighting. This is rough-around-the-edges, low-budget filmmaking, with only some giallo-esque lighting to cover over the cheesiness of the final confrontation between Hannah 2 and the doctor – but it is also pleasingly irrational and disorienting, while addressing a very real if underexplored issue.
strap: Ariel Baska’s short film uses the fantasies of genre to dramatise (and punish) medical gaslighting
© Anton Bitel