Thursday, August 30, 2012

Paul Cox's 'The Dinner Party': mortality, generosity and the hope of strangers

I've a column in the Sydney Morning Herald today, 'Play God: say yes to organ donation'. (Not my title.)

Prompted by Paul Cox's new documentary, 'The Dinner Party', I'm highlighting the value of organ donation, and the importance of recognising mortality: one's own and others'. A sample:
The Dinner Party brings home the ordinariness of serious illness: liver failure does not always happen to ''someone else'' or those who punish their bodies. It happens to one's spouse, child, sibling or oneself. It is part of the commonwealth of fragile bodily existence. 
The more public message of Cox's film is this: Australians are still dying or suffering for want of donor organs and tissue. From the big-ticket organs such as livers, hearts and lungs to the less celebrity corneas, spinal cords and skin, we are often running low on perfectly good parts. There are many emotions in this profound little film: horror at one's vulnerability and the grief of one's family; gratitude at life renewed; and bewilderment at it all, what many guests spoke of as a ''miracle''. There is also frustration: that many suffer the horror but never make it to the gratitude, because the organs come too late. 
This is, of course, part of a broader policy debate in Australia and abroad. Some have recommended an opt-out strategy for organ and tissue donations rather than opt-in: so that doctors harvest useful parts by default, rather than waiting for permission. Others have made suggestions for supply rather than demand. A ticked ''I am willing to be an organ recipient'' box on one's driver's licence, for example, makes a patient's wishes clear, and nods to reciprocity: if I may receive, then I can also give.
The film, by its free, conversational nature, does not try to solve this problem with a neat policy package. Perhaps Cox does have strong views on this - he has strong views on a great many things. But as a director, he has not transformed survivors' narratives into glib didactic soundbites.
(Photo: a still from 'The Dinner Party', courtesy of the SMH)

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