Documentaries often reveal as much about their subject as they do the documentarian capturing it. We get a sense of who they are and what they value based on the editing, the structure, and the overall energy of a film (comedy, thriller, drama, or perhaps a mix). A film like Confessions of a Good Samaritan, the latest project from Listening to Kenny G (2021) director Penny Lane, is a tale exploring the history of organ transplant and the relatively recent development of altruistic donation that reveals a personal journey Lane herself undergoes as a kidney donor. Entertaining and cheeky, while also heartfelt and raw, Lane does more than open herself up literally, she welcomes the audience inside metaphorically and, through the process, may find some healing for herself while inspiring others to donate, too.
Good Samaritan is a story told with two confessionals serving as the introduction, the exploration, and then the post-mortem. During the portion with the first confessional interview, Lane unwaveringly holds herself accountable to this idea of altruistic donation and the complex feelings that it brings up in herself and others. Only a few times does she answer prompts from an off-screen member of her team. Otherwise, it feels very free-flowing, stream of consciousness, and, therefore, very raw. Lane smartly segments this first confessional into a variety of parts so as to intercut it with interviews with other individuals such as experts in organ transplants, psychology and neuroscience, and bioethics, as well as several altruistic donors, and with testimonials from Lane like personal diary portions that also serve as a nice transition to look into the background of organ donation and its complex history. This allows the audience to get a better sense of just how recent the process of organ donation is, as well as to address the fact that opting to donate an organ, while you’re still living, to someone you don’t know is concerned taboo in society. The second confessional with Lane occurs well after the surgery is complete, serving as a sum-up of what she went through and allows for an opportunity to reconsider her perspective pre-surgery and whether or not her resolve regarding the choice has shifted. There’s plenty of introspection that accompanies the fact-finding aspects of the documentary, balanced with a good helping of levity.
Just about everything in Good Samaritan is delivered with a bit of cheek, an aspect likely to soften some of the powerful emotions Lane is processing on-screen. It begins in the opening shot with the screen nothing more than an iOS desktop that is slowly populated throughout the film. With this as the easel, Lane is able to pull up videos, still images, or diary logs, each made to look as if she’s pulling them up or as if they are created spontaneously. Separate from the confessionals, the use of the desktop-as-easel generates a feeling that we are cohorts on this journey with Lane, researching and speculating, feeling confident in our choice one moment and absolutely flabbergasted by the data we find in another. Lane doesn’t necessarily generate intimacy this way (though it’s hard not to feel as though we’re seeing something quite private in public), but it does create a sense of comradery and community. As someone born in 1980, the idea that organ donation is both new and controversial is staggering considering the option to donate organs has been on every license application I’ve ever filled out. Not once have I had the sense that refusing to donate an organ might be something odd or strange, yet, through Lane, we see how untrue this is. Not only that, but the idea that someone would just donate an organ (while alive) to someone unknown creates the kind of cognitive dissonance within even the best people that loneliness and isolation is not uncommon as someone undergoes the process of altruistic donation. In this way, we become part of Lane’s (albeit small) team, her community, rooting for her silently in our seats despite having absolutely no influence on the outcome.
Through the comedy of research presentation, through the disquiet of historical facts, everything comes down to Lane. She’s not just the director of the piece, she’s the subject. She quickly establishes in the start that she decided to donate her kidney first before opting to make a film about it. One can tell that this was the plan from the way Lane allows herself to be captured and presented, even with editor Hannah Buck (Vision Portraits) finding ways to trim confessionals or creating smooth transitions to the next factoid, interview, or new aspect of Lane’s journey. There’re several lengthy monologues Lane gives, the camera capturing every microexpression, every dart of the eye, every repetition of word, so that one wonders if Lane gave any thought to what she was saying as the thread of ideas grows a little jumbly before smoothing out. This is not to denigrate Lane; rather, it’s an observation of someone very much in the moment trying to explain themselves to someone else (the camera as a proxy for the audience) even though they don’t need to at all. One might read these moments as the ramblings of someone uncertain of their own motives, but I’d argue that it actually takes more guts to try to explain yourself where no reasoning is actually necessary. But as she does put herself out there for audience examination, a sense grows that perhaps Lane decided to do this, not just because she’s a good person, but because she wanted to prove to herself that she is. Sadly, there is no fanfare in real life when we do something of meaning, it all just carries on. So between the anxiety and anticipation and the post-op, Good Samaritan shifts from being a story about those who give to strangers where they can into the reason why Lane herself decided to. This is the beating heart of the film and it’s far more ambiguous than the rest of the documentary, but it’s powerful nonetheless. Sometimes we do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do and sometimes we do it for that reason and because we feel like maybe, just maybe, it’ll help us, too.
The term “good Samaritan” is a parable, a lesson in how it shouldn’t matter your faith, gender, race, or creed, you should always help someone in need. You should do it because it’s the right thing to do, not for some reward. If my read on Lane’s film is accurate, I don’t think the reasoning lessens the donation or makes it any less altruistic. Seeing her journey, gaining all the information as to how many individuals are seeking organ donations (roughly 20,000 on the kidney donor list, they say), one does begin to think as to whether they could handle the psychological strife of donation just to help someone. If this film can inspire that kind of act, Lane’s emotional public autopsy will be worth it.
Screened during SXSW 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.