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  • No Guts, No Glory: The Medical Film Symposium
  • Liz Coffey (bio)
No Guts, No Glory: The Medical Film Symposium; January 20-23, 2010, Philadelphia

It wasn't all blood and scalpels at the first (and, it is hoped, not the last) Medical Film Symposium in Philadelphia. The symposium itself ran a full day, with screenings the three nights prior attended by a healthy crowd of nearly a hundred students, archivists, and academics and a few medical types. What does one expect from a medical film symposium anyway? One might first think of surgery films. Or maybe the phrase conjures up the classroom with 16mm films explaining reproduction to awkward teens. Perhaps you envision a film of blood pulsating through the body. These are, of course, apt examples of medical films, but even these examples do not cover the range of films addressed at the symposium. As it turns out, the genre is much broader than most of us think.

The first screening, held at Philadelphia's International House on Wednesday night, eased us into the proceedings with a new print of an American film, A Man to Remember (1938, 35mm, black and white, English with Dutch subtitles, eighty minutes), presented by Nico de Klerk of the EYE Film Institute Netherlands. The film, lost in America owing to a murky combination of 1950s blacklisting and copyright issues, was discovered as a Dutch-language print in the Netherlands. This RKO title, directed by Garson Kanin and written by Hollywood Ten legend Dalton Trumbo, takes on issues of capitalism, greed, and the duty of doctors. Widower Dr. John Abbott arrives in a small town with his young son in tow. He is looking for work, and the town could use a doctor for the poor. The doctor manages to eke out a living without charging much money to care for the least fortunate. He manages to have a hospital built for his community, raises his son to be a doctor, and takes in an orphan girl who is abandoned on his doorstep. A Man to Remember has shades of Capra, but its low-budget and nonmaudlin approach makes it an RKO gem, celebrating the not-so-common man who sees and does what is morally right. Certainly not everyone in the audience expected the opening of the Medical Film Symposium to feature a Depression-era Hollywood look at a small-town doctor, but it proved a remarkably effective choice, giving the audience a hint of the unpredictability of the program ahead of us, turning our attention to the ever-present crisis in American health care, and opening our hearts to the importance of ethical behavior in times of economic distress.

The second evening of the symposium's screenings, "Experimental Medical Films," was curated by experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer. During the question-and-answer session, several people remarked on the observation that all the filmmakers in this program were women. Perhaps not surprisingly, that all the other films shown at the symposium were (presumably) made by men was not remarked on. This was a unique night devoted entirely to the voices of female filmmakers in a program curated by a feminist filmmaker.

The first film screened was by Karen Aqua, Twist of Fate (2009, 35mm, color, sound, nine minutes), an animated crayon interpretation of what cancer was doing to her body. The film made colorfully joyous work of the secret workings of cells, even as they destroy. Aqua's work does not usually focus on her body, but her fight with cancer inspired this personal journey.

In an odd move, the next two films were by the evening's curator. A Horse Is Not a Metaphor (2008, BetaSP, color, sound) was a thirty-minute experimental video chronicling Hammer's battle with cancer, thematically meshing with Aqua's film. It was difficult not to compare the two. This piece took a wildly different tone and form, coming as it does from a formalist feminist experimental filmmaker. Whereas Aqua's film was beautiful (color, 35mm film), Hammer's was grating (video, frequent overblown whites, handheld camera). Some might say the topic of cancer lends itself to a grating visual style, but the animation was...


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