Hard to Believe (2016). 56 minutes. Directed by Ken Stone, Irene Silber. Produced by Kay Rubacek. Featuring Ethan Gutmann.
Thousands of people currently await organ transplants. They wait for kidneys, livers, corneas, and even hearts. It’s an arduous wait and one that often relies on chance; the donated organ needs to come from the newly deceased, be a biological match to the recipient, and be in excellent condition. Organ recipients need to be ready for transplantation at a moment’s notice lest their chance for intervention dissolve.
In an interview with filmmaker Ken Stone, Dr. Jacob Lavee shares a revelation. The film cuts between a suited, professional Dr. Lavee telling his story and footage of him at work reviewing patient heart tests. He shares that a patient once announced that he’d be traveling to China in two weeks to receive a heart transplant. The patient’s insurance company had set up the operation and instructed the patient to make the trip. Dr. Lavee was astounded by the announcement. He questioned how anyone could promise a donor heart to a patient on a set date in the near future. Donor hearts are available at a moment’s notice, not on a forward schedule.
The title of the documentary Hard to Believe is a tip off to the unbelievable practice of organ harvesting. The film, directed by Irene Silber and Ken Stone and produced by Kay Rubacek, explores the alleged practice of pre-selecting non-consenting donors for their organs by the Chinese government. Author Ethan Gutmann plays the central figure in the film. His investigation into organ harvesting in China drives the narrative forward as he uncovers evidence of the practice.
The documentary itself is a journalistic exploration of the topic that utilizes sit-down interviews interspersed with images of protests, legislative sessions, and archival footage from China. Featured interviewees are also shown in context: a cardiologist looks through patient records, a bus driver navigates a city, and a woman looks at photos of her father. While the film does not share visual evidence of human organ harvesting, it provides aural evidence in the form of taped phone conversations. Interviewees are the main source of information in this documentary and are esteemed with well-lit, professionally directed interview settings.
Hard to Believe occupies a non-fiction space that spans both documentary and investigative reporting practice. Broken into discrete sections, the film covers stories, perspectives, and actions that seek to reveal the alleged truth of organ harvesting as practice in China. As accessing documents, films, or other materials from China that can implicate the government is nearly impossible, the documentary relies on first-person narratives that describe questionable medical interventions ranging from organ tests to heart removal.
At the beginning of the film, a male narrator exhorts the viewer to think of the film as a murder mystery. This is a complicated request. While organs are being delivered to patients, there’s little to no evidence of missing or murdered bodies. The idea that murder is even happening in relationship to China’s donor industry is veiled by secrecy. What the film does do is follow a trail of hints and possibilities that suggest political or social prisoners are indeed murdered for their organs. These hints come in several forms. One is a beautifully lit interview with a possible witness to government administered murders—a former Chinese physician. The interviewee, now a bus driver in Britain, is direct, warm, and astute in his interview. He recalls removing the heart of a prison inmate who suffered from no obvious medical maladies. The interviewee is steady as he recounts the story, later pausing to contemplate the horror of the task accomplished. In China, he was simply following orders. He goes on to reflect on and reframe the task. Another hint is audio recordings of phone calls. These phone calls play as subtitles appear on the screen. The contents of these calls reveal exchanges between a physician and a doctor about selecting healthy prisoners for organ harvesting.
Gutmann’s research suggests that particular groups are targeted and imprisoned in China. In interviews with survivors of such imprisonment, he learns that medical physicals of inmates may go far beyond an examination of inmate health. For example, former prisoners report that medical tests seem to measure organ and system functionality.
Gutmann’s research also puts him in touch with those in the international community committed to ending human rights violations throughout the world and in China. As evidence from Gutmann’s sources mounts, human rights groups implore countries to enact legislation to ban insurance companies from working with countries whose methods of donor organ recovery are suspect.
Hard to Believe is a foray into the relatively unseen world of organ harvesting. What the film does best is introduce viewers to the topic and generate an awareness of the issue. As awareness of the topic does increase, the film directors can take credit for creating a megaphone through which the topic is amplified. Certainly, the film is posed to spur further international conversations and legislation around the practice of human organ harvesting.