Hot Docs Review: 'Tales from the Organ Trade'

Tales from the Organ Trade
(Canada, 82 min.)
Dir. Ric Esther Bienstock
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (North American Premiere)
Mary Jo Vradis, on dialysis for nine years. Associated Producers Ltd.
What constitutes a crime? Stealing? Hurting someone? Killing another person? Saving another human? The first three are easy no-brainers. They’re mostly black and white laws with well-known clauses and punishments. The fourth charge, however, doesn’t seem like a reason to go to the slammer. Human beings are good by nature (I say that as a naïve overgeneralization) and it’s easy to suppose that helping out and doing a good deed should be met with a reward and not with a punishment.

Ric Esther Bienstock’s provocative new film Tales from the Organ Trade is a bold investigative documentary that reconstructs the anatomy of a black market operation by following the organ trail from a recipient in Toronto to his middleman in Israel to his doctor hiding out in Turkey and to his donor in Moldova. Intercut throughout the procedure are interviews with other parties on different sides of the organ debate. An Interpol investigator uses the film’s controversial case as a lynchpin for the moral corruption of black market organ dealing; however, Mary Jo, a woman in Toronto, has put up with years of dialysis and explains the daily struggle of living with kidney failure when the health care system has an endless waiting list for transplants but few incentives for live donors. William, a man in Denver, likewise, debates turning to the black market as a last resort. Overseas in Manila, finally, Tales from the Organ Trade follows an “organ broker” who lets her neighbours escape poverty by allowing surgeons to cut them open and harvest a part of their bodies.

Tales from the Organ Trade makes it difficult to condemn either party because Bienstock makes clear the sense of desperation on both sides of the exchange. It’s literally a matter of life and death for the party in need of a transplant, and the donors portrayed in the film are reaching a point of abject poverty that requires a drastic solution. The sense of exploitation is an element that the participants all seem to acknowledge, but hope to see removed by government intervention for compensating donors. Similarly, by legalizing compensation, the organ trade lessens the gap between those who can afford treatment and those who cannot. (Surely, the savings on the cost of dialysis could offset compensation?) This element is underscored finely in William’s story, as his daughter declines to donate a kidney to her father even though she is an acceptable match. She simply doesn’t like the thought of giving up possession of a part of her body. “I’ve made a decision not to help,” she says.

If a lack of alternative presents itself in a situation with a declining time frame, then it’s only natural that people will turn to Option B. “If the system fails us,” says Mary Jo’s husband, Jim, “this is the by-product.” As the production team travels the globe and follows the intricate web of the controversial case, the film becomes less comfortable with allowing its audience to judge the parties on either side of the operation. Black market organ dealing isn’t exactly a victimless crime, but it’s hard to find an element of guilt when the donor, the recipient, and the doctor all testify that they participated in a consensual and mutually beneficial exchange. Fears that donors are being coerced and exploited are understandable (we’ve all seen Dirty Pretty Things), but, as Robert, the Toronto recipient, rationalizes on the $100 000 he spent to save his life, “Maybe it saved another person’s life. I can never profess to know.”

This smart, solidly produced film is sure to make viewers uncomfortable as it elides all possibility for easy answers. Tales from the Organ Trade raises the discomfort even further by having the story narrated by David Cronenberg, the godfather of cinematic body horror behind shocking and profound films such as Videodrome and Dead Ringers. Cronenberg’s voice, articulate and intelligent, narrates the tales from the organ trade as nonchalantly and matter-of-factly as possible. By presenting compensated organ donation as a viable alternative to the black market, the dicey predicament of Bienstock’s film takes Videodrome’s mantra of “Long live the new flesh!” to a whole other level.

Tales from the Organ Trade looks at the criminal web of organ trafficking, but the film doesn’t allow for an easy verdict. On one level, black market organ dealing is a simple business of supply and demand: there is a worldwide shortage of organs and a surplus of people in need of transplants, plus a complementary surplus of people in poverty forced to a point of financial necessity. Tales from the Organ Trade asks some profoundly complex moral and philosophical questions. Hung juries are bound to deliberate the film’s conundrums for hours and look at their friends—and themselves—in a different light when debating the concept of a crime that exists primarily on the level of morals and social norms.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Tales from the Organ Trade screens:
Sunday, April 28 – 7:00 pm at the Isabel Bader
Monday, April 29 – 1:00 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Thursday, May 2 – 4:00 pm at the Cineplex Scotiabank

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more info on films, tickets, and show times.