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Hot Docs 2013: Tales From the Organ Trade

Kidney seller from a village in the Philippines / Photo courtesy Associated Producers Ltd.

In Tales From the Organ Trade, Ric Bienstock reinforces her hardearned reputation for slipping a camera into impossible places and emerging with gut-wrenching stories of the human condition (Sex Slaves and Impact of Terror, etc). She crafts her latest investigative documentary with the punctiliousness of a surgeon’s scalpel, aiming to unravel a complex ethical quandary behind the growing black market of underpaid kidney donors, select transplant surgeons and desperate recipients. The intimate decisions that three people—who are facing transplants or continued pain and suffering and even death—must make cast a shadow on Canadian laws that prohibit the regulated selling of human organs.

In parts of Ontario, people with kidney disease are on waiting lists of up to 10 years to get a kidney by way of a cadaver or altruistic donor. With the demand of diseased people far outweighing the organ supply, a thriving overseas black market is growing. “In some countries you can pick up a kidney for the price of a laptop,” narrator David Cronenberg states, in just the right tone to shock. This sad reality is exemplified in the Philippines, where Bienstock easily finds dozens of young men who have willingly sold a kidney to better their lives for only two thousand dollars.

When Raul Fain’s Ontario doctor informs him nothing more can be done for him at home he turns to the overseas market. For $105,000 he purchases a kidney transplant at the Medicus clinic in Kosovo. Coincidentally the same clinic later becomes the centre of a criminal investigation and a compelling through line in Bienstock’s film. In the media, including the Toronto Star, Fain is portrayed as a carefree and affluent user, and the donor as a coerced victim who wasn’t paid. In the film, Fain comes across as a thoughtful person of average means who made a choice to save his life. And when his donor is found, she says that the $12,000 agreed upon ahead of time was paid, adding that she was pleased to help Raul.

A diseased man in the U.S. aptly describes the life-and-death dilemma he faces: “I have three choices. I get a transplant overseas, I get a transplant in this country, or I die.” He seriously considers the black market and trying other alternative methods that don’t sit well with his grown daughter, who has chosen not to be a donor.

Torontonian Mary Jo Vradis is unabashedly candid about what it’s like to live with kidney disease. Throughout her 20s she has slept apart from her husband every second night to undergo dialysis that she self-administers in her home to allow a glimmer of normalcy at her job and extra time with her son. Her mother and brother are also waiting for a kidney transplant. Her 53-year-old mother has been waiting 18 years and may never get one. Mary Jo doesn’t want to go overseas but she understands the need: “When something isn’t freely available, a black market exists.” Even if Mary Jo succeeds in getting a kidney transplant, it can’t bring back the quality of life she’s lost in a decade of waiting.

Bienstock has found people whose stories might get doubters thinking differently about the difficult moral issue of regulating kidney sales as a pilot project aimed at saving lives.

Click here for POV’s full list of Hot Docs 2013 previews.

Janis Cole holds an MFA in Documentary Media from Ryerson University. She is a professor at OCAD University, and her award-winning documentaries include Calling the Shots, about the working lives of women filmmakers.

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