Published May 06, 2008Henry Marsh has the power of God to save people from deadly brain tumours. He also has the responsibility to tell children and adults alike that they will soon die.
Marshs dilemma is the focus of Geoffrey Smiths extraordinary profile of a British neurosurgeon who has been donating his services to a private clinic in Kiev, Ukraine for 15 years. His patients are poor and seek specialised help in a country with woeful medical services and limited training. Marsh is their saviour, a burden he carries because, "My son had a brain tumour as a baby and I was desperate for someone to help me. I simply cant walk away from that need in others.
Smiths film is straightforward, shot over two weeks during the 2007 winter and featuring a soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Most of the footage takes place in a small room where Marsh examines x-rays and delivers diagnoses through Ukrainian colleague Igor Kurilets, who translates. Marsh sees grossly misdiagnosed patients but also patients he cant save because Ukraine lacks the proper equipment and trained support staff.
We feel his frustration, particularly in one scene in which he wrestles with how to tell a pretty, young woman that she will go blind and die within three years. The woman thinks shes suffering a benign infection. Igor asks Marsh what he should tell her. Marsh instructs Igor to uphold her illusion, since hope is the only thing they can give her, even if its false.
The highlight of the film is a harrowing surgery in which a poor, young man named Marian seeks treatment for a brain tumour thats causing him severe epilepsy and will kill him if left unchecked. Marsh can remove the tumour but lacking the proper equipment, Marian must stay awake throughout the entire operation, even as Marsh drills a hole into his skull.
Hot Docs named The English Surgeon the best international documentary, and for good reason. Smiths film has the rare power to place the audience in its subjects shoes as he grapples with issues of hope and mortality. (BBC)