CIFF 2013: Tales from the Organ Trade

David Cronenberg narrates Canadian documentary on the sale of organs in the Third World.

David Cronenberg narrates Canadian documentary on the sale of organs in the Third World

Would you buy an organ from someone if your life, or the life of a loved one, depended on it? That's the question this Canadian film poses to its audience. (Tales from the Organ Trade/YouTube)

The title of this unsettling Canadian documentary tells you exactly what you’ll get from it. Director Ric Esther Bienstock travelled the world to gather many versions of the same story involving international trafficking of vital organs removed from the healthy poor for transplant into the dying rich.

For those with a taste for questions of ethics — and social justice on a global scale — this doc will satisfy.- Mario Trono 

Living flesh is a bizarre commodity which is probably why Bienstock called in Canadian director David Cronenberg for narration duties.

Less macabre and more mundane, however, are the economics of the organ trade.

Bottom line? There is a shortage of donated organs and a surplus of poor people. So, supply chains get staffed and this documentary traces the line, from desperate organ recipients to willing surgeons to donor recruiters to, finally, the donors themselves, one so poor in the Philippines that his family of four lives in a crawlspace.


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One would think that the charge of gross exploitation is an easy one to make but not according to everyone. After all, some recipients reason, the donors consent and are reimbursed. But since the organ trade is illegal in most countries, the surgeries are underground with conditions less than ideal and can lead to complications or even death. Recipients are often paid a pittance by Western standards — a gross insult to surgical injury.

Nonetheless, we see that it’s hard for dying persons not to draw the line between a reasonable contract and exploitation differently than healthy persons. They’re facing death, after all.

This film will draw you into an ethical grey zone when it reminds how family members often agree to donate organs. Could a stranger reasonably do it for free? For compensation then? When does it become exploitation? Would a globally enforced ban be right in all cases?

When the film presents the case of a Moldovan woman who readily agreed to sell her kidney to a Canadian man who did not qualify for transplant at home due to his age, one sees less of a problem. But when the viewer is presented with “Dr. Vulture,” a man who is being chased by prosecutors and who has performed over 2,000 transplants with no official oversight, the case for action seems clear.

See it or not?

Kudos to this film for pushing us to find the workable middle ground. For those with a taste for questions of ethics, and social justice on a global scale, this doc will satisfy.


Mario Trono

Calgary Eyeopener movie reviewer

Mario Trono, a confessed visual culture addict, is a film and art reviewer obsessed with finding interesting things to look at and tell people about. He daylights as a film professor at Mount Royal University. You can follow him on Twitter at @MarioTrono and hear his DVD reviews Friday at 6:50 a.m. MT on the Calgary Eyeopener.


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