Last year I was told about a great film that had recently come out about the use of human cadavers used in science. I know its weird that this sort of thing interests me but I’ve come to terms with it.

The film, Donated to Science, is a documentary style film following students of the Otago Medical School (University of Otago, New Zealand) through their first year of medical school and, importantly, their first encounters with cadavers and human dissection. Whole human dissection has been phased out at some universities in favour of partial dissections and plastic or computer models but many think the process of human dissection is vital and underpins a good medical school training.

I managed to get in contact with the film-maker Paul Trotman and ask him a few questions about the film and the experience.

A longer clip can be found here.

JB: Could you give a short bio of how you came to start making science and medical films?

PT: I wnt to med school back in the 80's and as I went through I did stuff like student radio and revues, and I got more and more interested in the media. Once I qualified I went to the UK where I wrote sit-com pilots for BBC radio and produced a couple of Edinburgh festival shows whilst paying the bills with medical locum work. When I came back to New Zealand, a friend was working at NHNZ a big documentary production company here and asked me to help with an idea on animals and health. It didn't go anywhere, but the next idea did.

What was the inspiration behind ‘Donated to Science’?

I was working on a documentary about organ donation and we were filming a recreation of an actor taking the same journey a donor would take from car accident to hospital to donor, and interviewing relatives and people who would deal with the body along the way, and it just came to me - hey, what if we interviewed some real body donors and then followed their bodies and intercut the interviews so that they were commenting on their own body as it was being dissected... but nobody would let me do it. Then I was chatting to a friend in the Anatomy department, and she suggested that I talk to the Professor of Anatomy Helen Nicholson. Much to my surprise, she thought it was a great idea.

How common is cadaver dissection in medical schools?

Most med schools do some, but in a lot it is what are called pro-sections (pre dissected pieces) or just small bits. Many fewer do whole body dissection over a long period like they do at Otago.

When cadavers are not used what are the alternatives?

Plastic models, computer models.

How many potential donors did you interview the film and how did you get in contact with them?

We filmed 7 potential donors, three of whom ended up in the film.

From your research why do people donate their bodies?

A few reasons; wanting to advance science, wanting to give something back for healthcare received by themselves or a relative, or just not wanting to have their funeral and body a burden on their family.

How did donors react to telling their story?

The donors saw it as a chance to get more people to donate bodies, to tell their story and really promote something they felt strongly about.

Was it easy to convince the medical school and the students to take part in the film?

Yes - I was hugely surprised because I thought there was no chance of them ever letting me do it. It was partly that I was a graduate of the same med school and people there still knew me, partly that they had just been approached for information about what actually happens to a donated body, partly Helen's feeling that it was time to tell the public more about what happens in the dissection room.

How many students were involved?

We stood up in front of the class on their first day and asked for volunteers. About 35 did so. I spoke to each of them and settled on 25 who I interviewed on camera, based on that I settled on 20 who we followed. 3 dropped out over the two years and of the remaining 17 we used 10 in the long version of the film and 8 in the short (TV) version.

How did the students change during the filming process?

In many ways, mostly they grew up, got over their fears and their phobias. A few didn't change at all.

How long were you filming to put the project together?

Filming was over 3 years - from the first donor interview to the last student filming, but it was by no means every day, there were sometimes gaps of several months with nothing at all.

Why make the film? What do you hope get from the film? and what do you hope others will get from the film?

I didn't really have an agenda... I wanted to make a good film, that took people somewhere they'd never been, on a journey few get to experience. I wanted to surprise people - I felt people would expect a gory, slightly exploitation-ist film and wanted them to be surprised see a deeply moving emotional journey. I didn't set out to make a film that made people want to donate - I think if you do that you run the risk of coming over all lecture-y.

What has the response been like?

Absolutely amazing. Incredibly positive both from within the medical school and the medical profession to reviewers and the general public. The whole country was talking about it the next day.

Do you have any more films in the pipeline?

Yes, we're currently working on a sequel - following the same students through their clinical training on the ward. I'm also working on a little film about end of life decisions for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) patients, and I've just finished a film on the Xenotransplant trial here, using pig cells to treat diabetes.

Has the film been widely released? If people want to see the film what’s the easiest way for them to do so?

It's been shown on New Zealand TV, and BBC4 have indicated that they wish to show it (Update! It will be shown later this year around December 4th, watch your local listings). Only a few small sales other than that... It's such a confronting film that I think people are worried about programming it, although it paid off here - it rated very well and has been nominated for several awards. I've had the same problem with film festivals - even ones specialising in science films have found it just too hard. We have had quite a few DVD sales, especially to med schools, and I'm currently looking for a formal distributor to get it in to all the medical bookshops.

Thanks to Paul for being the subject of my first ever interview and if you want more info head over to PRN Films.

P.S. Some time after the initial interview Paul informed me it had won Best Director at the Documentary Edge Festival where it was also nominated for Best Feature Documentary. It has also been nominated for Best Popular Documentary at the QANTAS Awards.

All images in this post provided by Paul Trotman for accompaniment of this post only.