The prospect of going under the surgeon’s knife terrifies most human beings. And rightly so. Despite the extraordinary theoretical and technological advancements of the past two centuries, no major medical procedure has a 100% success rate. Ultimately though, very few of us would balk at taking this step, if all other options were closed to us. Not even if the disease we were suffering from was poverty.
Ric Esther Bienstock’s incisive documentary lays out all of the grim facts on the table and dares viewers to leave the theatre with their preconceived notions intact. Steering well clear of sensationalist tales of men and women waylaid by bio-buccaneers who snatch people’s chloroformed kidneys while they sleep, the director tells the stories of those who “willingly” exchange their bodily integrity for another year’s worth of food and shelter for their families. Bienstock takes us to a village in the Philippines where nearly every adult male sports a nephrectomy (kidney removal operation) scar. Through candid interviews, we learn how badly these people (in places around the globe) are counting on continued demand for the only moderately valuable assets they possess – pieces of their own bodies. The sprawling tragedy hits home on a very personal level when we learn that the shooting of this documentary itself may have cost one villager dearly.
The director also presents the plight of Western dialysis patients languishing on interminable organ transplant recipient lists in a very sympathetic light. One man describes his life without a properly functioning kidney as “merely existing” – and a long term dialysis patient in her fifties reveals the atrocious ravages wrought upon her body by this inadequate form of treatment. We meet a Toronto man who made the fateful choice to pay a six-figure sum for a new lease on life – and the internationally reviled team of profiteers (now sought by Interpol) who brokered his illicit operation. Bienstock’s camera reveals no sneering moustache-twirlers among this group. Tabloid poster-villain Yusuf Somnez, a skilled Turkish surgeon who performed innumerable transplants as a member of the infamous Medicus clinic, comes across as a cultured and reasonably amiable family man who says he was “just practicing his profession” when he removed organs from desperately empty bellies and tucked them snugly into the sanctified sides of his well-to-do patients. Lives were saved, were they not? And the donors had signed consent forms. Legally binding contracts. The backbone of all capitalist enterprise. The film does not offer any explicit judgment of his actions.
Nor does Bienstock pronounce upon the cogency of Interpol’s crusade against the international organ trade. However, when the lead investigator on the Medicus case accuses his targets of “taking advantage of the human condition”, one cannot help but wonder: is obscene economic inequality an intrinsic aspect of the human condition? Narrator David Cronenberg, no stranger himself to the symbolic use of anatomical pathology, leaves us with the uneasy feeling that international authorities are targeting mere symptoms, rather than the root of the crisis. When humanity at large is compelled by dire economic necessity to throw open the doors of its physiological pantry, the real problem has nothing to do with whether a few pounds of flesh exchange hands in cash-hallowed raids. It is the bare fact that so many cupboards are empty which should concern us.
Tales From the Organ Trade makes its North American premiere at the Isabel Bader Theatre on April 28 (7 pm). It will also show at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on April 29 (1 pm) and at the Scotiabank Theatre on May 2 (4 pm).
Consult the complete Hot Docs Festival schedule here.