Human bonding

    HEALTHCARE: Marie-Eve Hildbrand's Visions du Réel opening film looks at the human dimension of a rapidly changing health system.

    Healers begins with the idea of the self, merging the classical philosophy of Blaise Pascal with the contemporary view of the human organism. I am the middle, somewhere between nothingness and infinity. And I am an organism, made up of billions of cells, living together with billions of bacteria. «Without others, without being seen, heard, touched, I do not exist. Alone, I die.»

    One particular human bond is cautiously presented throughout. With the words of director Marie-Eve Hildbrand who followed her father, a medical doctor, trying to understand «the bond that he has forged with the unwell – a bond that is invisible to the naked eye, and yet crucial when treating patients.» To make the invisible visible has always presented a particular challenge to filmmakers. With language, one can talk about the things that don’t exist, but how to show what can’t be seen? Smartly, the director didn’t look for the signs directly. Instead, she carefully and attentively reconstructed a set of realities that make up this bond: the spoken words, look, touch, various diagnostic devices, feelings, and fears.

    Filming took place between November 2018 and March 2020, before the COVID-19 outbreak. This scary contagious disease made, quite unexpectedly, relevant by the film’s protagonists, especially their bond with the unwell. Due to the fear of the contagion and the rhetoric that demanded not only «physical» but «social distancing,» every human bond became suspicious. For the COVID-19 patients, isolated even from their closest relatives, the healers became their whole world. The bond that not long ago was mostly the concern of a medical student’s professional training, suddenly became everyone’s affair. The Healers easily bears this special attention. Even more – it helps us better understand this bond.

    Healers, a film by Marie-Eve Hildbrand
    Healers, a film by Marie-Eve Hildbrand

    The one and the others

    The film is organised into two parallel narrations about a medical doctor leaving his established private practice and a group of young medical students learning the profession to start their own. This simple structure proves to be very effective. It helps to show their differences. For example, while dr. Hildbrand brilliantly commands his bond with patients, the students slowly learn about it. Other times, their paths converge like they both must confront the need to also take care of their own health. This parallel structure helps provide two types of knowledge, the practical, represented by dr. Hildbrand’s daily contacts with patients, and the theoretical, shown via the students’ routine training, with topics and methods that sometimes prove to be quite surprising.

    To make the invisible visible has always presented a particular challenge to filmmakers.

    Equally simple and effective is the visual strategy. On the one hand, even the smallest detail is carefully designed, starting with the bright colours of teaching tools and anatomy room equipment. But the film’s visual approach overall is very simple, and the camera mostly rests quietly on the protagonists’ faces. Due to this concentration, often a particular concern can be sensed. Considering that numerous film crew was present during contacts that commonly take place in complete privacy, this concern was most probably a result of the crew’s presence. But, even if so, it does not obstruct the film’s effective communication. On the contrary, it further contributes to it, as it underlines the human aspect and helps in making the bond between healer and unwell more visible.

    Healers, a film by Marie-Eve Hildbrand
    Healers, a film by Marie-Eve Hildbrand

    A rare and precious bond

    This should be of no surprise. Over the last year, human contact has largely been reduced to a binary yes-no logic. But actually this is a very complex, highly structured matter. To stress this, the sociologist Richard Sennett compared the human being with a cabinet of horrors and claimed that for successful public communication, the doors of this cabinet should better remain closed. There is one moment in Healers when the viewer can sense a similar concern from dr. Hildbrand as he tries to learn about his patient’s condition without overstepping the limit of their intimacy. More openly visible, of course, is the concern on patients’ side, in their vulnerability but also when trying to express their gratitude.

    The trace of something between concern and awkwardness that shapes the protagonists’ faces throughout the film is a clear mark of attentive and carefully measured proximity. This concern might be typical for contact between strangers that suddenly reaches the most intimate parts of their existence but is also a part of human bonding and socialising in general. Thus, it significantly contributes to making this bond visible, that the director filmed her own father through the last months of his practice. A bond, that due to the pandemic became rarer and more appreciated at the same time. The film is also a precious reminder that, even if the need to bond is part of human nature, building it requires particular skills that we might have lost over the last year. Skills we will need to learn again after the pandemic is over

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    Melita Zajc
    Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.
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