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Review: Who Cares?


- Alexe Poukine returns with her new feature-length documentary examining the learning journeys embarked upon by medical staff to help develop their sense of empathy

Review: Who Cares?

Alexe Poukine is presenting her third feature-length documentary, Who Cares?, in competition at the Cinéma du Réel Festival. The film looks at how medical staff are taught the art of listening to patients; in other words, how they learn to develop humanity within their practice. In That Which Does Not Kill [+see also:
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interview: Alexe Poukine
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, the filmmaker invited women and gendered individuals who had experienced sexual violence to act out another woman’s experience, as if an echo of their own lives; a part played by multiple voices, illustrating the universality of how we experience male domination. This same empathy is called upon in Who Cares?, though this time in the field of healthcare and, more broadly speaking, medicine.

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The film begins in a training centre. Real medics contend with pretend patients – some who have lived experience of being patients at a given moment in their lives, and others played by actors. They’re presented with a succession of scenarios. Sometimes, it’s the shake of a hand that reveals how well a session has gone, sometimes an authoritative approach to asking questions prevents proper diagnosis, and silences often express awkwardness: paralysing sympathy rather than supportive empathy. “That’s your heart talking”, they say. But is the voice of the heart compatible with delivering care?

Can empathy be learned, without compounding the pain of the person confiding in us? Medical staff learn through role play. To act and to embody is to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to develop our capacity for empathy. Moreover, the terms used also hark back to films: roles, scenarios. Some simulations are even filmed and then watched back as a group in order to assess their colleagues’ performances. Putting ourselves in others’ place also means fighting prejudice: trying hard not to imagine other people’s lives and leaving them the space necessary to express themselves. “Patients lie by omission”, though mostly because they’re not given the opportunity to talk.

But this role which trainee medics learn is the role of a lifetime. A challenging role, as a result of the conditions they’ll find themselves working in. Because once the first part of the film is over - focusing on the patients’ emotions and how these can be contagious - the film explores other emotions, namely those of the staff. During a forum theatre course, acting becomes a way to express the feeling of malaise felt by the large majority of medical staff in a health system which is running on empty. It allows them to revisit work-based traumas, crises when their capacity for empathy was sorely put to the test, if not negated and rendered impossible. And all the precautions advised in the first half of the film, first and foremost the need to take one’s time, seem pretty ridiculous given the exhaustion suffered by medics. Is there a place for attention-giving and listening when the system is on its knees, when burn out in medical caregiving is becoming a major problem in the field of public health? Ultimately, the film asks questions, and questions the audience as a whole: can caregivers’ learned kindness survive a system which abuses them?

Who Cares? was produced by Wrong Men (Belgium), Climage (Switzerland) and Kidam (France). International sales fall to Andana Films.

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(Translated from French)

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