An excerpt from the booklet essay by Trevor Johnston
Viewing The English Surgeon now in spring 2023 is a different experience from seeing it when it first appeared in 2007. Putin’s destructive military operation in Ukraine and the devastation it has wreaked on people and places, can’t help but leave us wondering how much of what we see in the film is still intact, and how many of the locals passing through its frames are still with us. For all the terrifying ravages that time has enacted on Ukraine however, the film itself remains forthrightly timeless, since the moral dilemmas at its thematic core will always never seem dated. It’s something which sets Smith’s film apart from many of the documentary features in recent circulation, where the journalistic imperative comes first, and the film’s impact is tied to the purported significance of its subject matter, exposing injustices in the social, political, environmental or even historical sphere. Not insubstantial work can, evidently, derive from a film-maker driven by conscience or an ideological agenda, yet the ultimate effect of being told as a viewer that bad things are, like, bad, doesn’t quite provide the telling charge of compassion or indeed the broader view on a daunting moral landscape that Smith’s expertly achieved offering has in store for us.
As a filmmaker, Smith himself had quite a journey to reach this point of accomplishment. Hailing from Melbourne, he mixed with the likes of musician Nick Cave (their long collaboration offering dividends here in the beautifully reflective score co-authored by Warren Ellis) and future movie director John Hillcoat while still at film school in the city. There an abiding impression was formed by the good offices of a tutor who quite literally locked the students in a room and projected sundry 16mm classics of the America avant-garde. Smith was entranced by the images which the legendary Maya Deren captured in Haiti and vowed that some day he would make it himself to that oft-benighted corner of the Caribbean. In 1987, he was working there as an assistant to two Haitian filmmakers reporting on the country’s first general election after the corrupt Duvalier dynasty, which erupted in bloodshed and saw Smith himself wounded in the aftermath of a massacre of 23 people they had uncovered. Fortunate to survive, he subsequently recuperated in London, but driven by years of PTSD he eventually felt compelled to film his journey back to Haiti to find the perpetrator who pulled the trigger. The result In Search of a Killer later screened in BBC2’s ground-breaking Video Diaries series in 1992, the whole cathartic experience inspiring in Smith a sense of the power of on-camera testimony, both to capture life-changing moments and to allow the viewer to participate in them. Thus was born his abiding faith in the power of observational documentary, honed by working in British TV over the next decade. Credits include the Grierson Award-nominated series Danger! Unexploded Bomb, focusing on the exploits of WW2 bomb disposal teams, and an episode of the 2004 season of the BBC’s long-running surgical docu-series Your Life in Their Hands which first paired him with Henry Marsh. Their collaborative working relationship then sparked the idea of filming Marsh’s work in the Ukraine, where access for the cameras would be easier to negotiate than in the UK. Thus, Smith’s first feature-length project moved towards production.
It’s an observational doc, so all you have to do is turn up with the cameras and observe, right? Far from it. As Smith maintains in his subsequent career as a doc development guru and mentor to aspiring film-makers, the most important work is always done before you turn the camera on. At its best, like this prime example, observational documentary should appear to grasp reality in flight before our eyes, yet such seeming spontaneity is pre-conceived, shaped and structured in such a way that the shooting of it should be an attempt to match up to the film-maker’s already planned-out narrative template. The moments of reflection we hear from Mr Marsh in the midst of the action, which do so much to define the piece’s thematic contours, come from Smith the interviewer knowing exactly what he needs Marsh to say at any given moment for the sake of the overall narrative through-line of the film. Indeed, The English Surgeon is so expertly constructed you can actually pick it apart as if it were a fine example of dramatic screenwriting.
Trevor Johnston's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.
i. An update on the film with Henry Marsh (2009)
ii. Royal Television Society - Geoffrey Smith: A life spent telling stories
iii. 2023 interview with surgeon Henry Marsh
iv. PBS interview with Geoffrey Smith