Hot Docs Review – The English Surgeon

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The English Surgeon
Director – Geoffrey Smith

Hot Docs Synopsis:

When British brain surgeon Henry Marsh first visited the KGB Hospital in Kiev in the early 1990s, he was appalled by the conditions. Patients were dying from simple tumours left untreated. Since then, Marsh has been on a mission to create a viable brain surgery clinic, salvaging discarded equipment from British hospitals, second-hand drills from flea markets and any other tools that may be fashioned to do the job. Geoffrey Smith’s exceptional documentary follows the maverick neurosurgeon on his latest trip to the Ukraine, as he once again encounters patients for whom he is their last chance. Marian is among them. Stricken by an enormous, life-threatening brain tumour, we follow Marian through his harrowing brain surgery. As Marsh tackles increasingly risky cases, he is haunted by the memory of a young Ukrainian girl whose operation went fatally wrong. Tense, heartbreaking and at times humorous, this is an extraordinary documentary. Musical score composed and performed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
-Sarah Whitehous

I ended up checking out The English Surgeon simply because I needed to kill some time between two screenings I had planned to attend. I didn’t know much about the film other than the fact that it had a pretty awesome poster and apparently featured some graphic brain surgery footage. BONUS! As it turns out, The English Surgeon is looking to be my favourite film at this year’s Hot Docs Festival.

Director Geoffery Smith follows English surgeon Henry Marsh as he attempts to bring some much needed help and experience to a small hospital in the Ukraine. The KGB owned medical facility is run by Ukrainian neurosurgeon Igor Kurilets, one of the most charming and utterly watchable non-fiction characters I’ve seen in a long time. Together, Henry and Igor attempt to make a dent in the impossibly large number of mis-diagnosed and un-diagnosed patients in the the town of Kiev. Igor closely watches Henry and learns from him, hoping to utilize this knowledge in his own medical centre, which he hopes to build in the near future. I’ve got to tell you, this duo was completely entertaining. There’s a great scene where the two of them go shopping at a local street market, scavenging for parts for their medical equipment. Their comedic timing is impecable. But their most inspired scenes are those dealing with the patients. In one horribly awkward moment, Henry scans over a 23 year old woman’s x-rays, eventually coming to the conclusion that she has less than five years to live. The woman sits in silence, a language barrier hiding the fact that right in front of her, Ivan and Henry are having a conversation about how to appropriately handle the situation. Ivan, completely desperate, says ‘I don’t know what to tell her’.

The film focuses on a patient named Marian, a man who suffers from epileptic fits. He’s told that he has a large benign tumor in his brain, and if it isn’t removed he could potentially die. Luckily for Marian, Henry Marsh offers his services for free, meaning Marian’s poor family would only have to pay for the hospital room. After all, their working staff has to get paid somehow. As we get to know Marian, it’s clear that there’s a chance that his surgery may not turn out so well in the end. There’s a slight possibility that upon the removal of his tumor, he could suffer from complete paralysis of his right side, or even die. In one scene, Henry explains to Marian, using Igor as a translator, that it’s best to do the operation while he’s awake. This way he can keep track of Marian’s ability to move his limbs. He assures him that it won’t be painful, but it certainly isn’t pleasant. The loud sounds of the drill and the aggressive nature of the surgery would definitely be stressful. Marian, completely calm and collective, agrees to go through with the operation and insists it’s important that it happens as soon as possible. This leads to an intense on-screen surgery that clearly created some anxiety amongst the audience in the theatre. In one shot we see Marian smiling, and on the other side of a curtain a hole is violently being drilled into his skull. An amazing scene.

Visually, The English Surgeon is stunning. Shot in HD, the film’s florescent hues and cool colours perfectly capture the tone of the film, enhancing the dim Kiev cityscape and giving the hospital sequences a sterile feel. I remember specifically being impressed by the film’s score, only to be surprised by a Nick Cave composer credit. He, and Warren Ellis are responsible for a touching yet subtle accompaniment that compliments the drama without pandering to the audience or over-sentimentality. The English Surgeon is just one of those films were every single element successfully comes together to create a touching, inspiring and truly dramatic piece of non-fiction filmmaking. — Jay