Photographed by Furaha Bayibsa
I am at an apartment in Southern Stockholm belonging to Swedish/Italian documentary filmmaker Erik Gandini.
While I'm setting up the lights for our photoshoot, I notice Erik standing beside my equipment bag eager to help me. I tell him to sit down and relax while I set up the final stand for the backdrop. I usually do the photo set-ups myself, so I have never put in much thought to how much of an effort it must look like for an outsider watching me in action, a one-woman-band, setting up lights and stands for a photoshoot. "No it's fine Erik" I tell him, but in all honesty I do want his help. Perhaps it is the filmmaker inside of him, or just the kind attentive man he is, but something tells him I am in desperate need of water, sugar, and muscles; and so only moments later he enters the room with a glass of water, a plate full of chocolate chip cookies, picks up a c-stand and helps me set up the backdrop.
When all is done he gets into wardrobe and we begin the photoshoot. Considering Erik's experience in the film industry, as well as his interactions with professional photographers, I truly appreciate how easy-going and respectful he is toward me. Being new to the film industry, I had feared the word "rookie" would be written all over my face, and that Erik would feel like his time was wasted; but what I am experiencing is the opposite. Getting the respect from someone who is as respected in the film industry as Erik is makes me feel more confident behind the camera. "We can try something else if you want to?" he says while I am staring out the living room composing frames in my head. "No it's okay, I got it now. Let's have you stand over there and close your eyes, perfect, now open them."
Erik quickly whips up a meal for us to dine before we begin the interview - pasta with broccoli - and what a delicious dish; who knew something so simple could be so satisfying? He pours himself a glass of red wine before I begin the recording.
In 2017 documentary filmmaker Erik Gandini released a documentary film entitled The Rebel Surgeon (2017) It covers the Swedish surgeon Doctor Erik Erichsen and his medical operation at a hospital in Aira, south of Ethiopia. Dr. Erichsen worked as a surgeon in Sweden before he packed his bags with his wife, Sennait Erichsen, and moved to Ethiopia to continue their work there. Together with his wife and a few local nurses and doctors, he helped over 400 patients per day while he was a doctor there. The documentary follows Dr. Erichsen and nurse Sennait Erichsen and gives us an overview of how, and why, surgeons should be viewed as artists.
I ask Erik how he came in contact with Dr. Erichsen, as well as the origin of the documentary title: The Rebel Surgeon. He explains he was doing research for another one of his documentaries, The Swedish Theory of Love (2015), and was in conversation with one of his friends who is a surgeon at a hospital in Eksjö, Sweden.
Dr. Erichsen used to work at that same hospital in Eksjö before he moved to Ethiopia, and so he was visiting to do a lecture for surgeons about his job in Aira. Erik's friend attended the lecture where Dr. Erichsen shared his methods for surgery in developing countries. He had met many doctors from wealthy countries; many of them previously worked in developing countries and they had shared their concerns with Dr. Erichsen about the lack of medical equipment. Dr. Erichsen therefore took it upon himself to come up with simple solutions and techniques to use when working with limited resources. Erik's friend shared all of this with Erik, knowing his surgical interest. He was so intrigued by this that he had Dr. Erichsen be a part of his documentary Swedish Theory of Love (2015) Once that documentary was released Erik still felt that there was an untold story left, and it was the story of Dr. Erichsen.
"A big amount of the population in the world grow up with the mindset of thinking they're the best and the world around them is rich. They grow up with the belief that their society is the most advanced one in the world, and that they can only teach, never learn. This is why I was so intrigued by Dr. Erichsen and his unusual attitude toward life and science. And you know, I think he had lost his passion [back in Sweden]. If you think about it; a surgeon, a doctor, is someone who has the most meaningful job in the world. I mean, you're helping people. It should be completely fulfilling every day; despite that he had lost his passion working in Sweden because of too much bureaucracy. Dr. Erichsen explained it as it being too sterile, too controlled; there was this obsession of doing things according to rules and regulations which took his passion away from him."
Photographed by Furaha Bayibsa
He apologizes for the long answer and laughs it off before he continues to explain how he got in contact with Dr. Erichsen. Apparently, after the conversation with his friend, Erik visited Dr. Erichsen's blog. It's an online blog where the doctor used to post pictures of his surgical procedures and give advice to other people in the medical profession. Shortly after viewing this, Erik began an email correspondence with Dr. Erichsen trying to convince him to agree to have a documentary made by him, but the doctor was a bit reluctant to the idea of being filmed. As a result, Erik - as passionated as he is - picked up the phone and called Dr. Erichsen who was in Ethiopia. He expressed his great interest for surgery as well as Dr. Erichsen's work, and soon the doctor was on board.
Erik tells me that him and his three-man film crew (cinematographer Carl Nilsson and his Italian sound operator Iacopo Patierno) were fortunate enough to meet with Dr. Erichsen and his wife in Addis Abeba and drive together from there to Aira. Doctor Erichsen and nurse Sennait were visiting Addis Abeba during the period of time of their arrival, so it was perfect timing for them all.
The five of them were together in the car for two full days driving west to Aira. Erik tells me they all felt an immediate connection with Dr. Erichsen and Sennait, so the car ride was something they all enjoyed. "He's very funny," Erik tells me with a smile on his face, as if he's back in the car with the doctor listening to him speak, "he's very entertaining. Somehow he's the perfect character for a film. He reminded me directly - especially when I saw him in action in the operating room - of a chef. Someone doing a TV program about food."
Erik continues to explain why Dr. Erichsen reminds him of the Jamie Oliver of surgery.
"Because that was his attitude toward his work. He had these terrible cases of people with terrible injuries, but he enjoyed every drop of blood, every body part he sawed off; he enjoyed it. And you could also sense it in the atmosphere in the operating room; people liked him because of that."
Dr. Erichsen had been an orthopedic surgeon for more than two decades in Sweden but had never felt like he fit in. In reality he wanted to be a general surgeon, but in Sweden he had to specialize in one area and perform surgery within that area only; something Dr. Erichsen did not want to do.
Erik goes on and tells me that he believes Dr. Erichsen was regarded as a maverick while he was working in Sweden due to his rebellious persona, and so his move to Ethiopia was something good for him. Stumbling upon this information is where the title for the documentary came to fruition; The Rebel Surgeon.
Photographed by Carl Nilsson
"He was definitely the right person at the right place because there [in Ethiopia] he had 400 patients per day, not all of them in need of surgery but many of the patients were, and he was the only one there together with another local surgeon. Because of the conditions they live in over there you either try [helping the patient], or the patient is left without any help. So with his passion and his interest in broadening his field; this was the perfect place."
I tell Erik I read a review from someone online who had pointed out that Dr. Erichsen's behavior as a surgeon raised a few questions; ethically and legally. I ask him if he ever shared a similar feeling while he was visiting Ethiopia; a feeling that Dr. Erichsen had put on the hat of playing God in Aira. Erik tells me he had a similiar feeling at a certain point during his visit to Aira.
There is one scene in the documentary where Erik, who is the narrator of the film, asks himself if Dr. Erichsen is the right person at the right place, or an iron-handed surgeon who has found his own kingdom. He goes on later in the documentary to ask Dr. Erichsen who it is in Ethiopia that is keeping him in control. The doctor responds to him in the documentary that Ethiopia isn't a lawless country; that there are rules and regulations. Dr. Erichsen also adds to his response that he had a consciousness. "And to be honest, I believed him," Erik quickly says.
"Not because I made a film about him; I know him, and I know he isn't a reckless person. I told him that he could seem really rude sometimes when he is working, and he explained to me that it was a part of the profession. You cannot be emotional when you're a surgeon. He told me this story of when his own child died... He had a bad experience in his life, his own child was stillborn. He told me he had wanted to play the trumpet at the funeral of his own child, and there [at the funeral] he realized he couldn't play because he was too sad. What he meant with that was; if you're working and you have a mission, let's say you're a surgeon, then you have to be rational while you're working; your emotions, you have to put them aside and take care of them later. So his rudeness was partly because of his focus and his need of staying sharp and not emotional, but he also explained that the culture in Ethiopia is much more tolerant. They accept their faith more, they accept that things could go wrong; it's not Sweden where you have much more time to spend with your patients. That's simply just not possible there, so it sets different conditions to how you work."
Photographed by Furaha Bayibsa
There are multiple graphic scenes in the documentary The Rebel Surgeon (2017) directed by Erik Gandini where cinematographer Carl Nilsson captured images of blood, human organs, and rotten human flesh. As a documentarian Erik tells me he always stays side by side his cinematographer regardless of the circumstances, with the only exception being if they are going out to capture nature images - then he doesn't feel the need to join. Other than that, he tells me he stayed side by side Carl through the whole production. When I ask him if it ever got too much for any participants of the film crew he instantly tells me it did, in particularly in the beginning. "If you're not used to surgery it's tough; the smell and the atmosphere of a surgical room can come as a surprise to you. It's an environment which can affect you on an emotional and bodily level."
In the documentary there are three scenes with three patients that personally made me nauseous; one of them being a patient who had cancer in his leg where Dr. Erichsen punctured a blister on his leg causing a stream of blood to pour out. I tell Erik it was difficult for me as an audience to push through those images, and I ask him if anyone on the crew shared a similar feeling as I did during their encounters with those patients. To my surprise he tells me everyone had gotten used to the environment by that point. Apparently he had brought his film crew to a hospital in Sweden prior to their visit to Aira in order to get a sense of the surgical atmosphere so they would be ready when they arrived to Aira. Erik goes on and tells me that perhaps they never really got used to it, but that there is something professional about when you're shooting a film; it causes your focus to sharpen and just as surgeons, you put your emotions aside and leave them for later. Erik also adds that Dr. Erichsen's attitude was also a big contributor to their feelings of ease when visiting the hospital.
"His attitude, his positivity, his energy, it was so calming; it had a huge effect on us. We enjoyed being with him, with the team. You know, his team loved him; they really respected him. They were really happy to work with him because he was generous, he saw them, he also taught people interesting things; I mean he's a very knowledgable man, and it helped us."
I clap my hands and tell him it's time for us to talk about the man, the spear, the monkey, and the intestines.
Erik tells me him and his team hadn't been warned about that particular patient prior to his arrival; that it was just as surprising for them as it was for the audience. They were just fortunate enough to be there and witness Dr. Erichsen in action saving the man's life. Erik tells me they were at the hospital in Aira and a young man showed up with a spear through his abdomen; apparently he had been hunting a monkey and ended up with a spear through his guts. The film crew was freaking out upon his arrival according to Erik, and many of the hospital staff were also apparently a bit shocked; all while Dr. Erichsen and some of his anaesthesiologists were calm. I ask Erik why he thinks Dr. Erichsen was so calm, and he tells me it was because the patient's pulse was there and looking normal, so he didn't feel the need to worry. The patient was strangely also calm, and Erik tells me he still can't wrap his head around it.
"You have to consider," he tells me, "that this guy had been carried there on a stretcher for hours on the road. This is not a country where they have flat straight roads, so someone was holding the spear for him for the whole journey to the hospital; but he still had to endure several hours of pain. However this is common there. Erik [Erichsen] showed us images of another guy who also had a spear in his stomach, not as long though - the handle was broken - but he had a long spear, an arrow, in his abdomen. He showed me because he [the patient] had been driven by some friends for half a day, then the car broke down so they had to spend the night with the spear in his abdomen, and then continue the day after."
I interrupt and ask him if Dr. Erichsen managed to save the patient, and Erik tells me he did.
We go back and continue to talk about the young man with the spear at the hospital in Aira, and Erik shares with me how bizarre the whole situation was. There was according to Erik a big issue regarding how the medical staff would go about to remove the spear from the young man's body. Erik remembers being at the hospital and watching Dr. Erichsen suggesting to saw it off, seeing him look for a metal saw. He shares with me that one of the concerns the staff had with finding the correct solution for removing the spear was that they were afraid of damaging any other organs if they for example decided to just pull it out from the back. They finally made the decision to saw off the handle of the spear, to cut open the chest of the patient, and to pull out the spear from the back through the exit wound.
Photographed by Carl Nilsson
While Erik is detailing the process of the medical procedure of the patient I notice a certain intrigue in him; as if he somehow is enjoying telling me this. Perhaps he can sense what I am about to ask him next for he answers my thoughts instantly. He tells me out of nowhere that he as a person is interested in surgery. He goes on to tell me he wants to share something with me, filmmaker to filmmaker. What he wants to share is a method teachers in Danish film schools use in an attempt to inspire their film students to be authentic with their artwork. "You should embrace your perversions; it's an expression," he says.
"What they mean by that is that if you have a fascination with food, bodies, or like me; surgery, you should embrace it because as an artist there is so much to gain in working with something that you're obsessively interested in. I say this because we live in a time where it's so easy to say 'I should make a film about that because I should be politically correct, I should have this character or that character; I should have a representative from the LGBTQ+ community.' You know there's tons of things people are thinking too much about. What I like about the idea of embracing your inner perversions is that it basically is saying that we shouldn't be ashamed; if you're an artist you have to be true to yourself."
Erik has prior to making The Rebel Surgeon (2017) directed other documentaries, such as the Italian hit Videocracy (2009) and The Swedish Theory of Love (2015). All three of them explore extreme topics; and looking closely to all of Erik's work you can see that he truly pushes his agenda in every piece he creates. He manages to capture rawness from the characters he's exploring as well as the topics he's covering; regardless if it's love, sex, or surgery, he always does it to the extremes. When I watch his work I get the feeling that he doesn't care if he pushes any boundaries; being careful or politically correct doesn't seem to be in his vocabulary; something which has resulted in the great success of his work. There are many great documentaries and documentarians out there, but there are few of them who dare to show us rawness, realness; not many of them out there who aren't afraid to offend someone else in order to get the truth out; Erik is one of the few out there. I mean, for starter, the trailer to Videocracy (2009) was banned in Italy; yet it was selected for Best Documentary at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). So being a filmmaker who isn't afraid to embrace his perversion has helped Erik with his great success in many ways. When I share with him my analysis I see a smile break out.
"There's this idea of the documentary filmmaker as someone who is a Mother Theresa; you know a character who does their work for the sake of the good, sacrificing themselves for the good of the world. I am interested in doing films with a message, but at the same time I really believe in documentary as an art form; and I believe being an artist also means you have to work with things that obsess you somehow. I mean, you cannot work on a project for two years, or three years, or four years even, if you don't get something back from it. If it's just this altruistic gesture of improving the world... I mean, maybe there are some people like that, but I'm not like that. I enjoyed working in the dysfunctional country of Italy for example. I enjoyed digging up dark sides of the perfect country of Sweden; I also enjoyed the complexity of a character like Dr. Erichsen who is doing something good, but he's also definitely a rebel. Dr. Erichsen even says somewhere in the documentary that if he used the same methods in Sweden they would take away his license."
He has a point with what he is saying about Dr. Erichsen and his experimental medical methods. The surgical methods he uses in the documentary to treat his patients would not in a million years be granted in Sweden. Due to the limitations of resources in Ethiopia, him and his staff were pushed to find creative solutions in order to help their patients in the best way possible. Instead of a surgical drill, him and his staff used a regular drill similar to the ones you can find in a hardware store. To keep fractures in tact he used plastic security loops to secure the bones and hold them in place. He used all kinds of equipment he could think of, something that would strip him of his license and more if he ever tried any of it in Sweden.
Erik asks me if I have seen the Danish television mini-series The Kingdom (1994-1997) by Lars Von Trier. It takes place at a hospital in Copenhagen, and the main character is Stig Helmer played by Swedish Ernst-Hugo Järegård. He is a Swedish doctor who escaped Sweden because he did something wrong and lost his license. As a result he left the country and began working in Denmark instead. That doctor is a very larger-than-life character. Erik tells me that he likes those sort of characters, and that it's the reason why he calls Dr. Erichsen the Jamie Oliver of surgery. He's intrigued by characters as such because they are not predictable. One example of this is from the documentary when Dr. Erichsen is doing an amputation on a foot all while he's having a discussion with his wife. Suddenly he drops the foot in a bucket while still in talks with his wife. That scene is one of Erik's favorite ones for the reason that it truly captures the true essence of Dr. Erichsen and his wife Sennait.
When I mention what's next for Erik, he shares that he is working on a documentary film but filming is currently paused due to the covid-19 virus spread all around the world. It's a project which revolves around the idea of what kind of relationship us human beings should have toward work. He tells me there was in the past an old idea of working for the sake of just working; but that we now live in a time where the world is changing mainly due to technology, but also because the big discussion going on about the distribution of wealth in the world.
"There are a lot of issues for many of the world's population with imagining a future with a different attitude toward work; but it's now time to do it because in the near future we won't be needed as much in the workforce due to artificial intelligence and automation."
He adds that the documentary will explore the world and how it will cope with those changes.
"What do we do if we end up having money from universal basic income for example? We will have time to do something more meaningful than to sit at an office, so the question that then arises is; are we ready for that?"
Photographed by Jens Lasthein
He goes on to tell me that the mentioned above is the topic of the documentary film, but the approach to the imagery is different. To be able to give perspective to the idea of the future he tells me his team has travelled to places in the world where they have begun to adjust to the predicted future scenario of shorter working days. He has for an example filmed in South Korea; a nation suffering from overworked citizens; a nation struggling with changing the citizens relationship to their workplace.
South Korea was a poor country which thrived thanks to the citizens' strict work ethic; but now that same working culture has begun to do more damage than good to the citizens' wellbeing. The Minister of Labour in the country has therefore begun working together with companies in the country with the goal of changing the mindset of the working culture, with the goal of pushing their citizens' to leave work early and create a life outside from work. They have advertising campaigns around the country promoting people to work less; they also have implemented a policy called "PC OFF" which is an initiative from the South Korean government forcing all major companies, state companies, and state institutions, to shut down all their computers and servers at a specific time in order to prevent their employees to keep working. Erik tells me the documentary will resume filming when the pandemic is over.
Before we wrap the interview I ask him if he has a preliminary name for his upcoming documentary film, and if the name Workhism has been put on the table yet.
"The title is After Work," he tells me, "but it's a working title so we might change it. It happens sometimes, so perhaps Workism might be something..."
Watch the full documentary film The Rebel Surgeon (2017) below.