Documentary-maker Geoffrey Smith: interview
Dave Calhoun speaks to Geoffrey Smith, the director of ’The English Surgeon‘, a documentary about a London neurosurgeon with a sideline in brain surgery in Ukraine
He also said that Geoffrey Smith’s film was ‘crying out for a proper cinema release’. That hasn’t happened – but next month audiences in London will be able to see Smith’s arresting and sensitive documentary at a series of special screenings across town.
‘The English Surgeon’ is a simple story that provokes all sorts of thoughts about medical responsibility, the European poverty divide, altruism, and, during one tense episode of brain surgery, even consciousness itself. Since the early 1990s, Dr Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon based at Atkinson Morley’s Hospital in Wimbledon, has been making at least two trips a year to Kiev, in Ukraine, where he works closely as a volunteer with Igor Kurilets, a doctor who runs a private neurology clinic having previously worked for the state system and faced persecution for his criticism of its failings.
Marsh – a warm, eccentric presence – supplies Kurilets with disused NHS equipment, offers him diagnoses over the internet and phone, and performs operations alongside him. ‘Those guys don’t sleep much,’ says Smith. ‘They see patients until ten or 11 at night.’
Smith met Marsh in 2003 when he was commissioned to direct an episode of the BBC series ‘Your Life in Their Hands’. He filmed the doctor in London and they got on well: they have a shared interest in Ukraine, where Smith spent time in the 1980s.
‘He is firstly an artist and then a surgeon,’ Smith says of the doctor. ‘He’s willing to look at surgery and surgeons. He’s prepared to be vulnerable. That’s why audiences like him. He’s the very opposite of the arrogant, repressed surgical model.’
Smith convinced the BBC’s Storyville strand that there was a second film to be made about Marsh. He shot ‘The English Surgeon’ in early 2007 and the film follows the doctor as he operates on Marian Dolishny, a young man from rural Ukraine who has a brain tumour. ‘He was effectively abandoned by his parents and the local village collected money for his expenses and journey,’ says Smith. ‘I went to see him and fell in love with him. He’s poor but saint-like.’
We watch as Marsh and Kurilets decide that the safest way to remove Dolishny’s tumour is to operate under a local anaesthetic while the patient is fully awake. The most tense chapter of the film arises as Marsh sucks the growth out of Dolishny’s exposed brain while the patient calmly comments on a scratching sensation. ‘How long does it take to get through?’ asks Dolishny as we see his scalp being pulled back and his skull excavated. ‘I now understand why boxers can last so long in the ring.’
Dolishny’s case provides the film’s spine and its most memorable moments – but the stuff of everyday diagnosis is equally intriguing, as is Marsh’s benign individualism and a return visit to a tragic case of several years earlier. Smith proves a skilful storyteller. He narrows down context to its essentials and is a sly dispenser of information. A quiet score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis adds to the treatment. Smith is rightly enthusiastic about the dramatic potential of medicine.
‘It’s an incredibly useful metaphor. It gives you an ability to cut through to a scenario that everyone understands and allows you to go through to the larger moral dilemmas and territories. To me, it’s a great dramatic device.’
‘The English Surgeon’ screens at the Phoenix Cinema in Finchley on March 1, at The Wellcome Trust, 183 Euston Rd from March 13 to 15, at the ICA on March 20, and at the Renoir on March 25.
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