In 2019, the documentary filmmaker Penny Lane donated one of her kidneys as part of an altruistic donor program, meaning the organ would be given to an individual that Lane didn’t know and would likely never meet. Her motives for doing so are outwardly uncomplicated; essentially, she’s healthy, recipients are in desperate need, and, ultimately, “why not?” In making herself the subject of her latest film, Confessions of a Good Samaritan, chronicling the years-in-the-making decision as well as the battery of physical and psychological tests leading up to the operation and the recovery period afterwards, the filmmaker places herself under her own microscope in trying to understand the very nature of empathy, approaching the subject on both a micro and macro level. What kind of person willingly hands over part of their body to someone in need, why isn’t this a more common practice, and how is one supposed to feel in the aftermath of such an act of generosity?
Being interviewed mere days before her operation, Lane presents herself as sanguine while fending off anxieties about undertaking elective surgery. Single and childless — the glimpses of Lane’s homelife primarily involve her feeding her cat — the director lacks many of the external factors that often prevent people from donating their kidney to a stranger — we hear several anecdotes from people saying their spouses would threaten to divorce them or stop talking to them altogether should they go through with their donations — but Samaritan never quite addresses whether the act itself is providing something she’s otherwise lacking in her personal life. The film nibbles around the idea of deriving self-worth and personal satisfaction from such a benevolent act, but it largely plays the subject matter straight down the middle: devoting the majority of its runtime to exploring the semi-recent history of organ transplants — for example, we learn the procedure was initially limited to identical twins, the only people whose bodies wouldn’t reject the foreign tissue — while also attempting to find a scientific explanation for why some people are more inclined to respond to other people’s fears with empathy. At the same time, the film presents a segment of the donor community who argue that, facing a shortage of willing donors, society should cross the rubicon of paying organ donors, long illegal in the U.S. and morally frowned upon, yet a potentially transformative act for both a recipient and impoverished donor.
Lane’s previous documentaries are known for taking a particularly askew approach to incendiary subject matters, including presenting a sympathetic view of the religious organization/First Amendment concern troll organization the Satanic Temple, and, even more inflammatory, critical punching bag and smooth jazz musician Kenny G. But the filmmaker’s body of work is arguably working against her here, creating expectations that the film will present some sort of counterintuitive thesis for the viewer to consider when much of the film plays like an earnest act of advocacy, all but urging people to consider altruistic donation themselves (it stops short of throwing up the website for the national donor registry in the end credits). Confessions introduces talking heads, ostensibly to argue the ethics for and against altruistic donations, but there is no particularly strong argument against it. Even with one of the medical experts making the less than comforting claim that there’s a 1 in 1,000 chance of the donor dying during surgery, that’s still being weighed against the perpetual agony of dialysis patients. Further, in cherry-picking its interview subjects (they all but glow in describing how the experience of donating made them feel), the film comes awfully close to evangelizing about its subject, reserving any nagging doubts to those occasionally vocalized by the filmmaker herself.
To that end, the film is far more notable as a window into Lane’s vulnerability. For example, her consternation over not having a will (who will take care of her cat?) or having an emergency contact she feels strongly about, even confessing to making up names and phone numbers for the hospital forms. Demonstrating an admirable lack of vanity, Lane allows herself to be filmed in the immediate aftermath of surgery, calling attention to the puffiness of her face, sharing the assorted rashes and unglamorous ailments she suffered in the immediate aftermath and showing off her incision scar which dips below her bikini line. Even more revealing are the more recent interviews where — in addition to candidly admitting that she’s gained weight since filming began and that it bothers her — Lane wrestles with her own depression and uncertainty; essentially, why doesn’t she feel “better” or more fulfilled by having gone through this process? Having committed one of the most selfless acts imaginable, Lane sheepishly confronts her earlier self’s flippancy as well as the disappointment that she still doesn’t like herself more, which the filmmaker acknowledges wasn’t the point of donating a kidney but “it would have been nice to be surprised by it.” It’s a remarkably candid and complicated revelation and one wishes the film had gone even further in giving voice to that perspective. Sometimes the most altruistic acts are the ones that don’t also come with a measurable increase of the warm and fuzzies.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 11.