In teaching a course on "Bioethics in Film" in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University over the past four years, I have become ever more convinced of the power of this medium to bring bioethical issues to the fore while nonetheless situating them, appropriately, in the deeply nuanced contexts in which ethical issues make--or fail to make--sense. Our one-credit course was initially conceived by the program manager from the Center for Biology and Society at ASU, Felicity Snyder. Felicity is not an academic but she is a film buff and she foresaw a wonderful opportunity to bring awareness of bioethical issues to a broader cross-section of students by focusing on film. We designed the course as a forum for the identification and normative discussion of ethical, societal, and political issues as represented through film. Each semester we have a different theme and we select different sorts of films to capture a diversity of moral issues and dimensions and to appeal broadly to our students.
One might expect that I would become jaded after delivering this course semester upon semester but I continue to relish my role; one that allows me to watch and reflect upon so many different films. Although I am not a film critic, I know that movies these days can be formulaic and/or all about special effects, sometimes at the expense of substance and subtlety. Once in a while, however, a Hollywood blockbuster stands out for its ability to focus on key ethical themes. For example, I think of Minority Report and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as exemplary in this regard. In addition, documentary films can also serve the same purpose when students' attention is drawn to the biases (or, more neutrally, the agendas) of documentary filmmakers. We screened both Randy Olson's Flock of Dodos and Ben Steins Expelled to showcase competing perspectives in documentaries about intelligent design and evolutionary biology.
Fortunately, certain studios, as well as independent and foreign films, have been as treasure troves for us. The Spanish film Mar adentro (The Sea Inside) is a brilliant resource for mooting the ethics of euthanasia and assisted suicide and we are about to use a Japanese film, Ososhiki (The Funeral), in our dying and death series this semester. Miramax and BBC Films have proven to be exceptionally valuable with movies such as Dirty Pretty Things, which we have used to explore the ethics of organ procurement and transplantation, and Iris, the center point of our series on mental illness and brain disease. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is another Miramax and BBC joint production and it is, to my mind, the most powerful to date. It is exactly this kind of film that keeps me from being jaded. It reinvigorates my spirit and restores my faith in the power of film to reveal and to stimulate reflection upon the beauty and the frailty of our human condition.
The film is based on the book of the same name, authored by John Boyne and published in 2006. (The book is next on my reading list.) In watching the film, I felt inexplicably uneasy; afterward, I realized that it is rarely the case that I am compelled both to laugh out loud and to sit speechless in stunned silence, horrified...