After the end? Exploring the BFI National Archive in the wake of Covid-19

In the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, a Wellcome Trust project team has been working with our national collection of film and television to investigate how public health emergencies of the past have been represented on screen.

Dr. Wise on Influenza (1919)

The Covid-19 pandemic is ‘officially over’. So several media outlets, including The SunChannel 5The Sunday Times and LBC, reported in 2023, paraphrasing an announcement from the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Lost in these headlines, decontextualising and misrepresenting the announcement, was its more nuanced expression of movement towards “longer-term sustained Covid-19 disease prevention, control and management”. The WHO didn’t say Covid-19 is no longer a risk: it was marking a transition from a (clearly unsustainable) state of global emergency into a new social, political and medical understanding of the virus as integrated into the landscape of everyday health and risk, aligning it with other infections’ histories of emergency, from polio and tuberculosis (TB) to HIV/AIDS.

So what does this have to do with film?

After the End is a Wellcome Trust funded research project at the University of Oxford. Its researchers have recently been looking at how holdings of the BFI National Archive help us think about how public health emergencies – and their endings – are culturally represented. In dialogue with BFI curators, they’ve explored material from the archive’s extensive collections of documentaries, public health information and healthcare training media, while also using the BFI’s wider filmographic database to engage with feature films and television related to pandemics and epidemics, both held in the archive and beyond.

What’s fascinating is that the interplay between discourses of acute emergency and long-term management is nothing new in public health messaging. A dramatised documentary from 1950 – Defeat Tuberculosis (1950), a Central Office of Information (COI) production for the Ministry of Health – begins by looking back ‘100 years ago’ to when TB constituted a death sentence, before presenting the declining infection rate and a modern programme of management. 

Defeat Tuberculosis (1950)

The 1948 COI film Polio – Diagnosis and Management explores how post-war doctors coordinated a response to the sudden explosion in Britain of a disease that was previously a marginal concern beyond the ‘developing’ world.  

Polio - Diagnosis and Management (1948)

Exploring representations of public health emergencies in the archive very much involves a reckoning with Britain’s imperial past. The 1930 silent films Men Seeking God (1930) and Cuttack Leper Asylum (1930), produced by missionary societies in India, explore the treatment and management of leprosy during a time of British colonial rule. Leprosy was a disease rarely encountered in Britain then and since: one that, as Susan Sontag observed, has historically carried an enduring stigma comparable to that of TB and subsequently HIV/AIDs. 

Men Seeking God (1930)
Cuttack Leper Asylum (1930)

The archive registers a tension between contemporary misapprehensions of diseases as ‘cured’ and careful regimes of long-term ongoing management. If Covid is no more ‘over’ than TB, polio, leprosy and HIV/AIDs, a good question to ask is: over for whom? And why?

Archives show us that the idea of an end is fictional, often serving political or ideological objectives. In the case of Covid, a key objective seemed to be the facilitation of a return to work and other forms of social and economic productivity (and reproductivity). In Defeat Tuberculosis, emphasis is placed on TB patients regaining their status as working, reproducing members of society. The voiceover memorably intones: “Tuberculosis still kills 23,000 people a year; of these, half are young people just beginning their careers and bringing up families.” There is a striking similarity between this and today’s talk of a return to work and normality.

Other features of our most recent pandemic, such as mass testing, social distancing and the rise of anti-establishment sentiment are also visible in the archive. Defeat Tuberculosis emphasises the roll-out of X-ray screening as key to long-term management strategies. Social distancing memorably appears In Dr Wise on Influenza (1919), one of Britain’s earliest public information films, made at the height of the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919 as a means of minimising the spread of the virus. 

Dr Wise on Influenza (1919)

In these ways, consulting the archive to better understand the endings of public health emergencies, while we are ourselves amid such an emergency, produces a strange experience of double vision, where past, present and dystopian futures are superimposed upon one another. 

Interestingly, some non-fiction films in the archive tend to construct the epidemic, pandemic or public health emergency as an attack on the social body of the nation. In Tracing the Spread of Infection, made in 1949 in the early days of the NHS, doctors undertake forensic-style detective work to identify the origins of hospital ward outbreaks. This short film emphasises how infant and mother both depend on the medical institution to mount an effective defence against infection, employing military language that Sontag highlighted as typical of institutional and cultural responses to infectious diseases – “often the infant is unable to mobilise its own defences rapidly enough and disease germs soon take hold”.

Tracing the Spread of Infection (1949)

More recent documentaries take up the tone and the style. The documentary Killer Flu (1998) reflects the relationship between public health and the military, recording efforts of a US Armed Forces laboratory to understand the Spanish Flu epidemic. The relationship between medical institutions and state power also informs Will Parry’s New Killer Diseases (2000), a TV documentary preserved in the BFI National Archive that examinines the dangers posed by emerging pathogens in the context of a secure government biological research facility at Porton Down. The through line connecting these media is their expression of complex thematic relationships between public health initiatives and a ‘quiet’ nationalism concerned with the defence of the social, as well as individual, body.

The experiences of NHS workers, so keenly valued during the recent pandemic, can also be traced through the archive. Material there amply demonstrates how central Britain’s Commonwealth citizens were to making-up the fledgling NHS workforce, showing how questions of national health have always confounded simplistic geographical or racial concepts. For example, among the ‘tantalising’ material surviving from an uncompleted documentary showcasing Black British talent, A World Is Turning (1948) is footage of a Black surgeon operating on a white patient, while the drama-documentary Understanding Aggression (1960), originally used in the training of psychiatric nurses, features Irish and African women in nursing roles in an acknowledgment of real-world demographics and hierarchies among post-war healthcare workers. These images resonate with our appreciation of the diversity and commitment of frontline workers and anticipate what would become a recognition of a wider range of identities in public health media, amid increased dialogue between Britain and the Commonwealth in public health media from the 60s and 70s onwards. 

A shift away from the unified, paternalistic messaging of many earlier films was marked by the closure of the Central Office of Information in 2012. Its absence is a factor in the increasingly heterogeneous nature of public health film communication today, influencing the shape of the most recent pandemic messaging. This is the important context for contemporary material such as Raja Hussina’s 2021 documentary Lost Connections and Lipa Hussain’s Press 5 Key, part of a move away from the perspective of the pandemic or public health emergency as a delimited attack on a homogenous society, towards an understanding that such emergencies ripple through a globally networked, multicultural society.

Lost Connections (2021)
Press 5 Key (2022)