Imagine that you live in poverty. A chance arises for you to earn a year's salary in one day. All being well, no one will get hurt. In fact, what you're going to do will save someone's life. Sounds like quite a deal. Or at least it does until until you realize that what we're talking about here is selling one of your kidneys. And that it's illegal almost everywhere.
The decision to sell an organ is a stark choice. It speaks so much of all that is wrong with our global inequities. It shouldn't be happening. But, like it or not, it does happen. For many people looking to get out of poverty, the sale of one of their organs is clearly a desperate choice ... but it is also a choice that they are sometimes willing to make.
The illegal organ trade is not for the faint hearted. Sure, it saves lives, but it's an ugly business. Ric Esther Bienstock, the documentary-maker behind the award winning "Sex Slaves" documentary about global sex trafficking has taken on the subject head first and eyes open with her new film, Tales from the Organ Trade. It's getting it's North American premiere tonight here in Toronto at the Hot Docs festival. We sat down with her recently to find out exactly what lay behind her decision to focus on such a moral minefield and to ask what she's trying to achieve.
"I'm not advocating for incentivised donation. That door is shut. But I'd love the film to spark debate" says Bienstock. Unlike Sex Slaves, Tales from the Organ Trade doesn't take any sides. As Bienstock says, "sex trafficking is a very black and white issue". But making Tales from the Organ Trade took Bienstock into a lot of grey areas. "It shook me up," she admits. "When I started making the film I had a very different view from when I finished making the film. I started off thinking, its purely exploitative, period. And that's 90% of how it's characterised in media reports, films, and anything I've seen.... but there are thinkers out there, surgeons and ethicists who think that a regulated, incentivised system is the way to go. And there are people who think it is repulsive and exploitative. So I really have a sense of what they all believe, and why they believe that."
The turnaround for Bienstock was going to countries like the Philippines, Ukraine and Moldova and meeting donors. The fact is, she says, so many of the people she met were not coerced. They actively sought out the brokers who would find them a buyer. "You don't need to coerce people in the Philippines," she argues. If they are coerced, she says, they are, as she puts it, "effectively coerced by their own poverty." And what is more, they are forced into the black market, where there are virtually no protections. "If you think about it," she says, "it's a situation where you have extremely desperate people on both sides, crashing together in a black market." It's a situation ripe for exploitation.
Bienstock took more than 3 years to make the film, crisscrossing the world to talk to the different people involved in the organ trade, from donors and recipients, to the brokers and surgeons that make it all happen. Although these characters are operating outside the law, and are often portrayed as evil, exploitative crooks, Bienstock had little trouble finding them - and again, saw them as much more complicated than the typical black-and-white narratives. But getting them to give their side of the story to camera was much more difficult.
One doctor wanted by Interpol only agreed to be filmed after his mother had approved of Bienstock following a lunch date in Istanbul. Another only agreed after Bienstock had flown to Israel to meet him for coffee. "The first thing he said to me", recounts Bienstock, "is I'm not going to be in your film." He eventually agreed after Bienstock convinced him that she wasn't out to vilify him; she simply wanted his side of the story.
Tales from the Organ Trade ends up being powerful for resolutely avoiding taking sides. Rare among documentaries tackling such sensationalist subjects, it doesn't look to reinforce prejudices but invites us to make up our minds. This may make for uncomfortable viewing, but it's a necessary approach to a subject that often defies conventional ethical logic. As the film's publicity materials put it: "This is a world where the villains often save lives and the medical establishment, helpless, too often watches people die. Where the victims often walk away content and the buyers of organs - the recipients - return home with a new lease on life "