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Published September 19th 2012
Still from the Dinner Party a documentary by Paul Cox
Above is a group of people who should be dead. Except their lives were saved by others. They are all recipients of liver transplants.
It was a moving experience to attend the premiere of Paul Cox's documentary The Dinner Party. It was held at the Austin, the same hospital where these transplants took place. A hospital not accustomed to this version of theatre. The recipients and their families were in the audience as were many of the medical staff involved in their miraculous recoveries.
The Dinner Party is a simple film. On Boxing Day 2009, the well-known filmmaker, Paul Cox, received a liver transplant which saved his life. It also changed his life.
Suddenly the world was a different place where a simple smile, the glimpse of sky through a hospital window was endowed with beauty and meaning and worthy of celebration A self-confessed workaholic, Paul now found time to devote himself to another person and somewhere on his journey to recovery he met Rosie Raka, the young woman seated next to him above. Her life had also been saved by a donor.
I'm twice her age and her weight," said Paul. "I've become a lover and a giver. I have learnt that life is about giving and not about taking."
A year after his transplant, Paul Cox held a dinner party at his home where, with Rosie by his side, he gathered together other liver transplant survivors so they could tell their stories.
The hour long documentary is unscripted. It is simply a group of everyday people, like you and me, chatting over a dinner. There is laughter and near tears, jokes and a remembrance of past suffering.
There is the normal mix of introverts and extroverts. And one of the elements I really appreciated about the movie was the camera work, which gave each person equal time whether they spoke much or not. For much is inherent in unspoken glances and gestures.
Each experience was different, yet there were many similarities. Each person had knocked at death's door. Some had almost been admitted. One woman had said goodbye to family and friends, another young woman had been allowed a visit from her family dog in hospital to say her goodbyes. Both women were saved last minute when a donor's organ became available.
There is a gentle kind of voyeurism in this film. We do not care to enter this world but there is a fascination about how everyday people are changed under pressure. What is life like when your very existence depends on a phone call saying a donor's liver has become available? What are near death experiences like? A couple of the people had felt themselves crossing over. How is your life changed when you get a second chance at existence? How do you adapt to life knowing that your own life depended on another person's death.
The answer to the last question is that these people are all eternally grateful to the donors and the donor's families whose gift saved their lives. Words could not express their gratitude so thankfully the camera work, which captured certain looks, could.
Some had written to their donor families to thank them for the gift of life. One young woman had been unable to write (although she did so after making the movie) feeling that she needed to do something extraordinary with her life so that she could be worthy of the family's gift.
Yet what this film reinforces is that life itself is the gift.
As Nietzsche so famously said "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." What this film shows is that just as diamonds are forged deep underground under intense heat and pressure the human spirit is also forged by adversity.
There are absent guests at this dinner party. Perhaps a touch might have been to leave a couple of empty chairs amidst those of the eight survivors. Twenty per cent of people who need life saving transplants do not receive them. They die, too young.
This film does not state it, but the message is subtle. Perhaps we need to rethink that donor question on our driving licence.
Cox made The Dinner Party as a gift to the Austin hospital. He has also written a memoir Tales from the Cancer Ward the proceeds of which also go to the Austin. As well Cox has written a script for the movie Destiny, which will star David Wenham and is based on Cox's own experiences of recovery after his transplant.