2013 // USA // Ric Esther Bienstock // November 16, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Washington University Brown Hall)
Director Ric Esther Bienstock’s disquieting new documentary feature, Tales from the Organ Trade, is an uncommonly balanced and even-handed film, but this isn’t to say that it is bias-free. Bienstock conveys a broad disapproval for the status quo within the global kidney trade, and asserts that this black- and gray-market exchange is phenomenally unjust to the vast majority of participating individuals, save a handful of elite doctors and brokers. Ultimately, the film also leans towards the policy views espoused by a quasi-libertarian organ transplant activist, who advocates for the legalization of kidney sales and a government-regulated pool for these retail spare parts.
However, Tales does not possess the white-hot indignation common to many documentary features about Big, Important Issues. Rather, Beinstock’s ambition is to convey the complexity of the kidney market and the myriad pressures that push profits upward and coax people into agreements that would be unthinkable in different circumstances. Rather than provoking tongue-clucking disapproval, the filmmakers are more interested in emphasizing just how intractable the problems associated with the trade are, and in implying that anyone peddling glib “solutions” should be regarded with skepticism.
Narrated by fellow Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, Tales flits across the globe to interview individuals involved in one or more aspects of the organ trade. Accordingly, the viewer is introduced to a remarkable array of real-life stories. A thirtysomething Toronto working mom is already experiencing kidney failure and nervously eyeing her own mother’s dialysis-deformed arms and ravaged health. Meanwhile, half a world away, a rural Philippine province is dense with adult men who have “donated” (sold) a kidney, although these transactions seem not to have improved the locals’ financial outlooks one bit.
These encounters are likes snapshots, incrementally expanding a ghastly urban legend into a highly detailed and multi-dimensional policy debate. In Tales’ primary through-line, the filmmakers flex their detective skills and track one kidney from its grateful recipient in Canada, through Israel, Turkey, Kosovo, and Moldova. This particular transplant seems dodgy on paper, but proves to have proceeded mostly above-board. Not so with most illegal surgeries, which are rife with medical malpractice, financial fraud, and outright criminal theft and assault,
A lesser documentary might have lingered on the more ghoulish medical twists or the awfulness of developing world poverty, creating a kind of misery porn inciting generalized outrage. Admittedly, the most immediate emotion that Tales provokes is self-centered First World relief. After hearing a Brazilian slum-dweller (and imminent kidney “donor”) yearn for a house where his children can stand without hunching beneath the low ceilings, one’s daily inconveniences seem a tad ridiculous.
While such moments are vivid and memorable, what truly impresses is Tales’ uncommon determination to eschew easy answers and to keep the numerous, contradictory aspects of its subject matter in full view. It’s the rare sort of documentary feature that serves as a potent work of sociopolitical consciousness-raising without descending into tiresome repetition, single-solution zealotry, or cuckoolander political fantasies. In short, it’s cinematic pedagoguery at its finest, leaving the viewer more knowledgeable, perturbed, and motivated with respect to a far-reaching and formerly obscure issue.