South Africa’s first medical thriller hits at the heart of illegal organ donation

Enlisting somewhat unusual and controversial tactics to promote the film, the subject of illegal organ trade has everybody sitting up and taking notes.

Less than 2 per cent of South Africa’s population are organ donors. These alarming statistics has seen the illegal trade of organs skyrocket. Think about this for a moment: Just one person can save the lives of up to seven people by becoming an organ and/or tissue donor.

Bypass, South Africa’s – and Africa’s for that matter – first medical thriller is due for release at Ster-Kinekor cinemas on Friday, 12 May 2017. Starring household South African names such as Natalie Becker-Aakervik, Hakeem-Kae Kazim, Deon Lotz and Greg Kriek, it illuminates the reality of illegal human organ and tissue trade. It is produced by Media Village Productions and its purpose is to highlight, to those watching it, firstly the need to become organ donors and to actively contribute to the solution and secondly to understand what happens in this black-market.

“If there were sufficient legal organs available the need for a black-market trade would decrease significantly,’’ says Samantha Nicholls from the Organ Donor Association of South Africa.

To promote the movie, the production house felt the need to raise the flag and not sugarcoat the content of the movie and, to this extent have disseminated promotion material including flyers that promote organs for sale and promoting those interested to that have had South Africans rather disturbed. The flyers and the supporting website is all part of a promotional campaign for the movie designed to draw the attention to a trade that doesn’t just exist in movies.

Producer duo, and also off-screen husband and wife, Shane and Bianca Vermooten cite their conceptualisation of these tactics are not simply to promote the movie but as a means of social activism – to bring this hard-hitting issue home and to place it in the public eye. The film itself is a mechanism to address societal issues that are impacting it – and illegal human organ trade is certainly one of them.

Says Shane Vermooten, “The message in Bypass is clear: Human organ and tissue trafficking is real. It’s a reality that stalks the desperation and vulnerability of people – across the economics of wealth of poor. “From the outset of creating Bypass I had three concepts that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. Bypass was going to be in English, it was going to be a thriller and the protagonist had to be a strong female of colour. During our writing process we came across an organ trafficking case where more than 100 illegal operations had taken place in one of our national hospitals. Highlighting a common misconception that black-market organs are only traded in far off ‘African’ countries, when often it is taking place right under our noses in ‘legitimate’ hospitals.”

He adds, “Myself and the writing team wanted to take a concept that we believe in; ‘Every human life is of equal worth’. We took this concept and applied it to an issue as complex and personal as organ transplantation. This movie explores a mother’s love for her dying son and makes us question how far we would go to save our own child’s life.”

Illegal trade by numbers

The World Health Organisation estimated in 2007 that of the global transplants that take place, up to 10% were conducted illegally. In 2011, it was established that the black-market human organ and tissue traded generated illicit profits of up to USD 1.2-billion each year. The illegal organ trade markets is an ever-present threat to national legitimised organ donation systems and further erodes public confidence in organ transplantation across the globe. 

Shane Vermooten concludes that: “We want our audiences to go to the movie theatre, and have a thrilling journey from start to finish. It is important to note that Bypass is a fictional medical thriller and is no way meant to be a documentary. We pose a few questions around the issue but then we want to leave it to our audiences to take the conversation further. The Organ Donor Foundation does amazing work in this field and as a result are a perfect partner to help drive the conversation around organ transplantation and donation.”

Says lead actor, Natalie Becker-Aakervik on the movies objective: “I hope that this film creates much-needed awareness for organ trafficking and that together we can create a movement that will make a difference.” Becker-Aakervik together with her husband, Mikkel, has partnered with Norway’s Organ Donor Foundation to create awareness around illegal trade.