Hot Docs 2013: ‘Tales from the Organ Trade’ Review


Film Pulse Score

8542077112_4080abee42_zDIRECTED by                                                                             Film Pulse Score: 8/10

Ric Esther Bienstock’s Tales from the Organ Trade delves deeply into the world of illegal organ trafficking across the globe. While the practice may sound completely deplorable and horrific, the film shows us that it is a two-sided topic, with each side providing strong arguments. The film is narrated by David Cronenberg, director of such greats as Videodrome and The Fly, which was a stroke of genius considering he often explores the human body in his films.

The film takes a mostly objective look at each side of the organ trading coin by speaking with representatives for and against, however it does feel like they find many more people that are pro organ trading, which is a surprise. On one side you have the people donating, brokering, and receiving the illegally traded organs.  The film talks to many people, mostly in the Philippines, who have voluntarily given one of their kidneys in order to make some quick cash.  For them, selling a kidney is typically the equivalent of one year’s worth of wages. This can provide them with the means to feed their children and even start a business.

The filmmakers also talk with a man who was a recipient of a black market kidney.  This is particularly interesting, as he describes the entire process from finding a broker, to traveling to Turkey then Kosovo, to the procedure itself.  It’s around this point in the movie that the viewer realizes maybe this organ trading business isn’t so bad.

On the other side, the film speaks with a prosecutor who is attempting to shut these illegal practices down. He highlights the exploitative side of this dirty business and reminds us that the recipient normally pays around $100,000 for a kidney transplant, and only about $2000 goes to the donor.  Because these operations are illegal, there’s also the fear that corners are being cut when it comes to the screening process of the donors and the procedure itself.

There are many valid points made by both sides and it’s certainly not the cut and dry topic that I believed it to be before watching this documentary.  It’s also quite surprising that the filmmakers got so much cooperation from everyone involved, including from some of the infamous surgeons that are fugitives from Interpol.

On a technical level, this is a fairly standard talking head doc, however the subject matter is simply so fascinating the traditional structure didn’t bother me one bit.  There are several slightly chilling scenes that involve men posing in front of the camera showing off their surgery scars, which looked fantastic. The narration by David Cronenberg wasn’t that necessary, however he did a good job and helped us understand the process more clearly.

This is a decidedly difficult topic to film simply because of all the secrecy involved with much of how it works, but it would have been nice if they were able to speak with some additional recipients of organs, or were able to find people that were involved with parts other than the kidneys.  While the kidney is by far the most widely traded organ, it seems like this is just scratching the surface.

Tales From the Organ Trade is a fascinating film that exposes a serious problem with organ donation in our world. Donor wait lists have become increasingly long, and people are dying when they could be living full, healthy lives if they only received a kidney. This is an important film simply because how can we evoke change if we don’t know there’s a problem?