The Rebel Surgeon.
One might think only a humanitarian impulse would make a Swedish surgeon leave his life behind and move to Aira, Ethiopia. But the reason why Dr. Erik Erichsen and his wife Sennait made this move was not only to save others, but for the doctor to save himself from the social isolation and the bureaucracy that entangled his work in a Swedish hospital. The Rebel Surgeon tells the story of his newfound life, in which he has replaced comforts and new technologies with new meanings –in his personal life as well as in his profession.
Dr. Erichsen’s story was also briefly featured in Erik Gandini’s previous film, The Swedish Theory of Love (2015). That film turned the spotlight on Swedish society, and the endemic isolation and social disconnect caused by an idealisation of individualism, Ranking very high on the scale of individual happiness, Sweden is a wealthy country where everything is safe and regulated – and in which people are terribly lonely. The almost dystopian cinematic language of Theory of Love, combined with the history of how such a society came to be, call for questioning what happiness actually means. What will the future look like in a place like this? Such questions certainly resonate within most of the Western world.
With little resources but with strong social bonds, Ethiopia was featured in the film as the opposite of everything Sweden has to offer. Dr. Erichsen made an appearance as the person who just couldn’t stand the dysfunctionality of the Swedish society and moved to a place where no matter how difficult things get, one is always surrounded by people. After being confronted with everything that is recognisably wrong in Sweden and in the Western world, the story of a man who went back to basics tapped into a deep longing experienced by many westerners. The viewer was left wanting to know more.
The art of surgery. In The Rebel Surgeon, director Gandini gives Dr. Erichsen’s story the depth it deserves, and explores the doctor’s personality, family, and inner drives. In addition to his criticism for the social disconnect back home, the doctor feels that working as a surgeon in Sweden was less practice and more paperwork. At the opposite end of the scale, the lack of regulations in Ethiopia means more time to do surgery, and the lack of resources meant opening up to creativity and resourcefulness in the profession Dr. Erichsen loves.
“The poverty and the rawness of people’s sufferings are part of a regular work day.”
He is respected and well known in the local community. Many of his patients come back to see him after he saved their lives. A highly skilled doctor is extremely valuable in a country with only four surgeons in every 100 000 inhabitants. The poverty and the rawness of people’s sufferings are part of a regular work day. The camera follows Dr. Erichsen through his fast paced workday, to reveal his routine and challenges, and the people in his life.
Many of Dr. Erichsen’s patients come to the hospital in a critical condition. Time is of the essence and surgery – often extreme surgery – is their only chance of survival. The high number of patients, and the acute state of their conditions, leaves no space for hesitation. The doctor mobilises all his skill and knowledge, but often finds that it is not enough. A certain degree of creativity is vital to make the best out of nothing for patients who would otherwise die.
Dr. Erichsen’s solutions would be seen as highly questionable in the Western world – but they do the job. A cheap power drill, hose clamps, bike spokes and fishing lines do the job of the conventional medical supplies. While explaining how each one works, Dr. Erichsen turns into a sort of quirky medicine wiz, with a devotion for the art of surgery and a childlike excitement for improvisations and discoveries.
“A cheap power drill, hose clamps, bike spokes and fishing lines do the job of the conventional medical supplies.”
There is something revelatory in seeing what the doctor achieves, if you have never considered surgery could be taken out of the white sterile environment with which we associate it. His approach makes a doctor both a problem solver and a skilful artist, and in a way it takes medical practice from a clinical bubble and brings it back to earth, grounds it among the people, formulated in simple words, using simple objects. In Dr. Erichsen’s medical world, improvisation is vital. And it saves lives.
But Dr. Erichsen is not a saviour and thankfully, the film successfully avoids the dangers of romanticising his life. Instead it offers the stage to the unconventional and dedicated man that he is. We get a close look at Ethiopian life seen through the eyes of someone who’s from a place that has everything except close human bonds – which is what ultimately gives everything meaning. Dr. Erichsen’s story leaves you wondering what it would take to create the kind of connection he found in Ethiopia, in a society like ours.