Emmy Winner Geoffrey Smith on The English Surgeon

Posted on September 29, 2010

Filmmaker Geoffrey Smith has made more than 22 films throughout his career and has collected numerous awards for his work. On Monday night, he picked up an Emmy for The English Surgeonhis film about a British neurosurgeon who confronts the dilemmas of the doctor-patient relationship on his latest mission to Ukraine. The documentary was supported by ITVS International (speaking of, the deadline for our 2011 International Call has been changed to December 10, 2010). Smith spoke to BTB about the Emmy, the film, and the ITVS funding that helped from the start.

First off, congratulations on the Emmy! What can you tell us about Monday night’s event in NYC? 
Thanks! It was very wet in New York City. Central Park looked very British and so I felt right at home. It was great to see all of my colleagues.

While individual filmmakers are honored, the most important part for me is that public broadcasting, PBS, P.O.V., and what ITVS does is honored and validated, too. It’s really important that the people who believed in our film from the beginning get the recognition. 

Gives us a little bit of background on the film and how you got involved in making The English Surgeon. 
The English Surgeon is a moral fable, really. It’s not trying to document anything — it is trying to move away from the classic idea of being a literal recorder. It’s about one man’s struggle to do good things. And as a consequence, that appeals to everybody because we all struggle to do the right thing. I wanted to use Henry Marsh’s story as something we can all relate to. It’s a different type of documentary in one way because it’s conceived, scored, structured, and cut like a narrative drama. Henry’s story is so dramatic, so my thinking is — why not bring the devices of cinematic filmmaking to this documentary?


Your central character, the surgeon Henry Marsh, talks about the nobility of failure and how that lends him the ability to succeed in his work. Can you explain what he means by that? 
There’s a famous quote about surgeons, “Every surgeon carries about him a little cemetery, in which from time to time he goes to pray, a cemetery of bitterness and regret, of which he seeks the reason for certain of his failures.” The truth of it is, their struggle to do good things is a moral contract with the patient because, particularly with brain surgery, there are no easy answers. Anything could happen. And the consequences of something happening when you’re operating on the brain are truly frightening. You’re tampering with the essence of what makes that person who they are. You can change their personality; you can change their soul. So the responsibility is huge and yet, if you don’t operate, they can think of themselves as a coward who didn't try to save a life. Caution is an inherent dilemma in brain surgery. You have to rise above the failures to have the successes that we all want.  Therefore, there is a certain nobility, if you use it wisely. In the film, Henry is barely over the death of a young Ukrainian girl, whose death he feels responsible for. He uses the nobility of failure as a way to remind him how fickle and transient success is and yet at the same time, how necessary it is to keep trying even if you fail. 

How did ITVS International support you in making this film?
International Call is seen by foreign filmmakers as this unbelievably liberal beacon of hope that shines forth from America. And honestly, not that many things shine so brightly to us from America! To enrich the American viewing experience you have U.S. money targeted at foreign stories by foreign filmmakers — that's a very enlightened position to hold. We look up at International Call and ITVS with great reverence and awe, even though the process is very nerve racking given the number of stages you have to get through. As a successful applicant, the funding enabled me to complete my film. I had run out of money nearing the end of editing, so the ITVS funds were like a savior. Really and truly they were. And on top of that, you're introduced to all of the other things ITVS does for you like the tremendous outreach support around your picture. So, it's a fantastic institution to apply to, not just because of the money, but for all of the things that happen too. 

This year’s deadline for ITVS International has been moved to December 10, 2010. What advice do you have for international filmmakers who are applying? 
I would encourage everybody to think about their audience and play devil’s advocate with their own proposals. What is it? Why should we care? Why should any audience care or want to stick with your film? People making films should want to communicate with an audience, the biggest one possible. So I would encourage you to pull apart the proposal and see it from the point of view of the audience and the commission. And make that trailer with all the means you have and all the passion you can muster. Remember, the trailer is to show all the magic you can’t write on paper. GOOD LUCK!!! Enjoy the clip below from GeoffreySmith's The English Surgeon and join our International Filmmaker networking group on Facebook!



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