Friday, February 01, 2008

Dirty Ugly Things

Okwe is a Nigerian cab driver who moonlights as a hotel desk clerk. Because he was a doctor in Africa -- but not able to practice in London -- he finds himself giving what medical treatment he can to fellow immigrants. Okwe shares an apartment with Senay, a Turkish Muslim woman, who works as a maid in the same hotel as Okwe. She has a rough time of it: a visit from the immigration service forces her to quit her job in the hotel and work in a clothing sweatshop, where the boss threatens to report her to the authorities unless she perform oral sex on him. Juan, the manager of the hotel, runs an illegal operation at the hotel where immigrants sell their kidneys for something precious: a new passport, a new identity. Senay, in desperate financial need, agrees to exchange a kidney for a passport, but not (of course) before Juan forces her to have sex with him first. When Okwe hears of Senay's plan, he tells Juan that he will perform the operation in order to ensure its safety. Here is the plot twist: Okwe and Senay drug Juan, harvest his kidney, sell it to Juan's contact, and lead new lives with new passports. The victims become victimizers and visa versa. This is the basic plot of Stephen Frear's Dirty Pretty Things.
Dirty Pretty Things is basically about how things go between haves and the have-nots within the global economy, and accompanying violence, coercion (sexual and otherwise), stigma, shame, fear. The film highlights how the disempowered are caught up in a system that strips them of what little control over their lives they still have. That's where the kidney comes in. To the extent that you belong to the so-called 'less fortunate', your body is not your own, because it (or bits of it) may be one of the few things of interest to the 'global market.' Globalization spawns new niches for prostitution.
I was reminded of Dirty Pretty Things when the scandal of kidney thefts in India broke out a couple of days ago. It is not news that there are unscruplous groups persuading mostly illiterate day laborers to sell their kidneys: this has been known to be going on for years. It is not new that some impoverished Indians seek to sell their kidneys: an expression of terrible human suffering, rather than the spirit of enterprise. What is somewhat new are emerging cases of forced trade -- persons lied to, held against their will, drugged, operated on and left to their own devices. A whole network of medical professionals and institutions seem to be entangled in the gruesome business, and it looks like police were paid to look the other way.

What is the significance of this scandal? There are some who might argue that these incidents will happen time and again until trade in organs is legalized. It is simple: there are significant demands for transplant organs, criminalizing organ trade drive it underground, and those who operate (literally) in a criminal underground are unsurprisingly weak in the ethics department. But given global and regional disparities, how could a regulated, legal, 'free' trade in organs be anything other than another way for the rich to cannibilize the poor? Would a legal organ trade in circumstances of poverty really be so morally superior to the outright stealing of body parts?

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