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Interview with Ric Bienstock

Tales from the Organ Trade

HBO

What first drew you to the subject of the black market organ trade?

Ric Bienstock

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, Id do anything to get her back -- Id 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 ones kidney -- must be happening on a regular basis to have that as a colloquial way of speaking. Theres 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?

HBO

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?

Ric Bienstock

It was very challenging to tell the whole story of what drives people to go and what drives people to sell. It wasnt 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.

HBO

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?

Ric Bienstock

Theres 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.

HBO

Did your journey with Organ Trade challenge any of your personal beliefs on the subject?

Ric Bienstock

To be honest, this film took me on a real ethical journey -- more than any other film Ive 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 cant 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.

"... this film took me on a real ethical journey ... 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."

HBO

Tales of the Organ Trade largely focuses on people in poor nations selling their kidneys. But did you find that people in the West were selling their organs too?

Ric Bienstock

Theres a guy in the film who was selling his kidney on Craigslist. The reason I put him in is because its important to know that this is happening on our soil. Its just transacting in a different way. I suspect -- though you can never be sure -- that the hospital must have had an inkling of what was happening. Heres a guy whos unemployed, giving his kidney to a total stranger. You wont get hospitals to talk or admit to that.

HBO

You spoke to a doctor, Yusuf Sonmez, who is wanted for his participation as a surgeon in the black market organ trade. Why would he want to appear in the film?

Ric Bienstock

There was no upside for him. In fact, when I talked to him initially, he said, Why should I do this? I told him, I cant tell you an upside, but if I just wanted to vilify you, I could do it with stock footage. I just want to get your side, thats all. When I asked him why he agreed to do the film, he said it was because his mother liked me and trusted me. I thought that was funny -- thats why I put her in the film. What I found most interesting about him is that he is a brilliant surgeon. Even his detractors say the guy has golden fingers. So I just wanted to get a little bit inside his life. Is he only motivated by money? Is there any ideology behind it? There are no clear answers.

HBO

Do you have any hopes for what audiences might take away from this film?

Ric Bienstock

I hope that they experience the same thing I did, which is to really ask themselves ethical questions. Its not a film that you walk out of and go, Oh, thats so terrible. What can I do to help? Its a film you walk out of and you keep debating the issue because were talking about fundamental human values. If it sparks a conversation, hopefully we can find a solution to the problem.

Tales from the Organ Trade

Docs Fall Series