TV Review: “Tales From The Organ Trade” Is Required Viewing


Review by James McDonald

A look into the underground world of trafficking human body parts.

As I sat down to watch “Tales from the Organ Trade”, my gut feeling was that it was not going to revolve around musical instruments. And I was correct. Instead, it is a gritty and unflinching descent into the shadowy world of black-market organ trafficking: the street-level brokers, the rogue surgeons, the impoverished men and women who are willing to sacrifice a slice of their own bodies for a quick payday, and the desperate patients who face the agonizing choice of obeying the law or saving their lives. As the film played out in front of me, it asked many questions. If someone I loved dearly, needed a kidney transplant and I was a perfect match, would I donate one of mine? There’d be no hesitation whatsoever, yes, I would. Okay, let’s say I was struggling financially, and my family and I were drowning in debt and someone came to me and offered me $20,000 for one of my kidneys in order to help another person whose life depended on it, would I give it? Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. After all, it’s not like someone put a gun to my head and forced me to take it. An offer was made and I accepted. It would benefit me and it would almost certainly benefit the recipient.

That’s one of the many questions the filmmakers ask as we meet various people from around the world. Some live in abject poverty in the Philippines while others live in Denver and Toronto and could be our next-door neighbors. And what’s so interesting is that you would think that in under-developed nations, people would be forced into this trade but the simple truth is that they are not. They give willingly. One gives a kidney because he and his family live in a crawlspace underneath someone else’s shack, with no electricity but with the money he receives, he is able to buy some land, build a small house and feed his family. Is that so terrible? Walter lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife and if he finds a suitable donor within the next one to two years, he should be able to have a long and prosperous life, otherwise, he could be dead inside of eight years. This is not a tale of shady dealings and barbarism, but rather, a detailed and intricate story that requires you to analyze your own moral and ethical beliefs. The film makes a point that notwithstanding the subculture between those anticipating transplants and donors who live in abhorrent destitution, they share a mutual understanding: both groups suffer from poor quality of life. Walter contemplates an overseas transplant, and, in his given condition, states, “It’s not living, it’s existing.”

The filmmakers also manage to track down and interview Yusuf Sonmez and Zaki Shapira, fugitive doctors wanted by Interpol who were accused of criminal activities such as “trafficking in persons and unlawful exercise of medical activity” and who operated a clinic called Medicus in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. A raid on the Medicus clinic discovered that the organ harvesting ring had been bringing in poverty stricken patients from countries such as Turkey and Russia, promising them 15,000 euros, and then selling their organs for upward of 100,000 euros. Both men are given the opportunity to give their own diverse standpoint on the topic of organ harvesting and transplants which really opened my eyes. The film shows us that this is happening, right now and not just in under-developed countries but also in our own back yard. As the film’s publicity materials put it: “This is a world where the villains often save lives and the medical establishment, helpless, too often watch people die. Where the victims often walk away content and the buyers of organs – the recipients – return home with a new lease on life.” Very highly recommended.

Airs on HBO November 4th


James McDonald
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