The English Surgeon at the Henley International Film Festival

As the Department had been invited to attend HIFF, the international documentary film festival in Henley, I had the pleasure of watching a range of contemporary documentaries on Saturday (29/05/10).  One of the documentaries I saw was The English Surgeon, which tells the story of Henry Marsh, a surgeon who regularly travels to the Ukraine to work with medical staff there to help patients suffering from brain tumours, under extremely difficult conditions. It is a genuinely touching documentary that is bound to fill you with admiration for Henry Marsh himself and with gratitude to director/producer Geoffrey Smith for introducing us to this remarkable man.

While I would recommend the documentary to anyone, there was one moment in the documentary that I found highly problematic, and that I was pleased to be able to raise in the Q&A session with Geoffrey Smith. At one point in the documentary, Henry Marsh and his Ukrainian colleague are attending to a young Ukrainian woman. Her test results have come in, and the diagnosis is terminal; she only has a short time left to live. Henry and his colleague discuss the test results, and the question of when and how to tell her, directly in front of her in English, which she does not speak. They decide to tell her at a later time, when her mother will be present, and she leaves.

So, although this moment is now in the past, within the present tense of the documentary, knowledge is at this moment shared between the two doctors and the viewer. The patient, a young, working-class woman, is excluded from this privileged position. There is no voice-over giving any further contextual information, and so I felt decidedly uncomfortable watching.

In the Q&A, I asked Geoffrey Smith to reflect a little further on the ethical challenges of such a moment, and he explained very eloquently how the production team had sought the woman’s permission, that it is a legal requirement in the Ukraine to have a next of kin present under such circumstances, and how he had wrestled with the moment in question as part of his decision-making process. Ultimately, his intention was to give an insight into the extremely difficult position of the doctor who has to break such terrible news to patients, and how this often means a certain ‘limit-reaching’ for the doctors.

Geoffrey Smith’s considerate response led me to think that the moment was not just about a ‘limit-reaching’ for the medical staff, but also a ‘limit-reaching’ of a sort for the documentary maker and the documentary viewer: the moment is meant to be difficult and problematic for all concerned, because it is an intrinsically difficult and problematic moment. I do wish that the documentary had reflected on its decision-making process a little more reflexively, but the illuminating discussion afterwards showed the productive possibilities that such Q&A sessions can offer.