Hot Docs Review: Tales from the Organ Trade [Ric Esther Bienstock, 2013]

There is a “little known” problem with money: it discourages a holistic valuation from a humane perspective. Everything can be transacted, but not everyone can agree on a fair price. Is it really moral to discourage organ trading while thousands die from conditions that are medically trivial if only given a supply that can match the demand? This is the value that Bienstock’s documentary questions. I can just imagine the Q&A session filled with outraged people with two healthy kidneys.

The title says organ, but the whole film is really about kidney trades. We are all familiar (but hopefully not intimately) with the hotel-ice-bath urban myth which has a genuine root in the skewed supply/demand balance: there’s too many people on dialysis and not enough kidneys for transplantation. Bienstock, a veteran Canadian documentary maker, assembled a cast of characters whose involvement with kidneys cover the spectrum of that balance – except the middlemen. Her attempts at an interview with the cash-supply of the Medicus operation was obviously met with silence. Frankly, I would question the authenticity (and in equal portion applaud her tenacity) had she succeeded where Interpol failed. But she did get interviews from the doctors involved in one particular case of international organ trafficking, and scores of donors, successful and waiting transplant patients, some lower-rung local traffickers, as well as prosecutors pursuing the doctors. The flow of the film generally follows two potential donors in the Philippines, but presents switchbacks between the multitude of people and presents kidney trafficking through such an mosaic.

While I feel that Tales is a very good motivational piece, it could have contained a bit more investigative value. The Medicus tangent served as a nice segway into how doctors, patients, donors and the blackmarket trade intersected, but it was not made into a focal point. But maybe I’ve watched one too many Frontline/ProPublica episode. One immediate departure from expectation is that the whole thing doesn’t feel depressing or ominous at all. The tone was clearly defiant, and one would not be confused on where Bienstock stood. It wrapped up with happy endings all around, and even ended with post-texts lambasting NGOs and governments as being politically-correct but factually immoral while Blur’s “Out of time” played as out-tro. It was cleanly edited with a minimal dose of infographics at the introduction. One thing it does well is introduce the audience to the diverse range of opinions – although again I feel that there’s a bias toward the positive. A slightly surprising fact is that in online, “altruistic” donor matching services, people still prefer to donate to those who are young and with potential. If chivalry is dead, altruism is probably extinct. While many of the participants (except the prosecutors) appear to be somewhat anti-establishment, at one point the Toronto patient on a waiting list (which is of course the longest one in Ontario) said: “Well if it’s not freely available, there’s a black market.” Exactly what compelled her to complain about Lake Ontario not brimming with salvageable renal material wasn’t very clear, but it did demonstrate the frustration of putting one’s life on dialysis for 9 years while your person is being ground through the system. That said, if you deem the legalization of drugs, alcohol, prostitution, homosexual marriage and other liberal propaganda a product of our morally bankrupt society, you might want to stay home and clean your guns with your 6 year-old.

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Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews

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