What first drew you to the subject of the black market organ trade?
The film I did before this was about sex trafficking. The wife of one of my subjects had been trafficked to Turkey, and he said, “I’d do anything to get her back -- I’d even sell my kidney.” Just like we would say, “I would give my right hand.” The fact that this was an even an expression struck me as odd. I thought, wow, this -- selling one’s kidney -- must be happening on a regular basis to have that as a colloquial way of speaking. There’s something interesting in this world: Westerners who are desperate to live and people in developing countries who are desperate for money.… How do these generally law-abiding citizens end up participating in something we think of as so heinous?
The film fully traces the process for both an organ seller and an organ buyer. Were you hoping that viewers could understand the position of both parties?
It was very challenging to tell the whole story of what drives people to go and what drives people to sell. It wasn’t possible. I ended up meeting, interviewing, and following a bunch of different people that all contributed something different to the film and enlightened me. For instance, the woman on dialysis, Mary Jo. I understood dialysis kept people alive while they were waiting for a transplant; why would they want to go overseas? Well, you have to understand how devastating that life is and how difficult it is to have a normal life to really understand what really drives someone to do it.
The idea of buying organs from desperate people in poor countries is obviously controversial. Did you have any preconceived notions on the subject before you started?
There’s no question I went in with a bias that there is something repulsive about the organ trade. But when I started meeting the people, I had no judgment. When I met Raul and Walter, who both got kidneys in different ways, these two did not have a choice. For them it was either find a donor or buy a kidney. I just felt that I was going to tell this story, get as inside as I could with as little judgment as possible, and just see how it played out.
Did your journey with ‘Organ Trade’ challenge any of your personal beliefs on the subject?
To be honest, this film took me on a real ethical journey -- more than any other film I’ve done. I started thinking: Wow, if I was desperate, even though I think the idea of buying a kidney is repulsive, I might do the same thing. You can’t blame someone for doing everything they can to live. It just became much more morally murky and complex and nuanced. I wanted to take viewers on that same ethically ambiguous journey that I went on while I got deeper and deeper into the subject.