Whether you want to understand patients’ lives outside the clinic, explore ethical quandaries, or analyze storytelling techniques, movies can provide an evocative window into the realities of the medical world.
But what to watch first?
I tapped three Stanford Medicine film connoisseurs for recommendations: Maren Monsen, MD, an accomplished filmmaker with numerous directing credits who heads Stanford Medicine’s Program in Bioethics and Film; Diana Farid, MD, the program’s assistant director, who produced the feature-length documentary "American Rhythms" and has worked as a physician consultant for TV and film; and second-year medical student Bronwyn Scott, who helped develop and facilitate Stanford’s “Medicine in the Movies” class.
Here are the titles that made their cut:
"The English Surgeon" (2007)
This film follows English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh to Ukraine, where he works with a local doctor to care for patients. “It depicts interesting dilemmas that arise when a doctor has to make choices about providing medical care when there’s not enough resources, and it explores what [a physician’s] responsibility is to patients,” Monsen says.
"The House is Black" (1963)
From filmmaker and poet Forugh Farrokhzad, this movie focuses on a leper colony in the north of Iran. “It’s so powerful, from a filmmaking standpoint, in terms of shot angles and lighting and narrative. It shows you an illness that we don’t often see in the United States,” Farid says.
"Sound and Fury" (2000)
This documentary grapples with the differences between deaf and hearing cultures through the story of three generations in an extended family. “Parents who are deaf are deciding whether or not their child should get a cochlear implant," Monsen says. "You really see the dilemma of that decision, including the pros and cons.”
Felled suddenly by chronic fatigue syndrome, a woman chronicles how she manages the condition and tells the stories of other patients around the world. Scott called the film "amazing.”
"A Beautiful Mind" (2001)
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2001, this drama tells the life story of John Nash, a Nobel laureate in economics, who lived with paranoid schizophrenia. Farid called it “an amazing portrayal of schizophrenia.”
"The Theory of Everything" (2014)
Another bio-pic focusing on a scientist, this film depicts the life of Stephen Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist, who lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Farid says, “A really accurate portrayal of ALS and its impact on a patient’s family.”
This TV movie follows a professor of English literature, played by Emma Thompson, after her diagnosis of stage IV ovarian cancer. “It’s based on a play, so there’s a lot of breaking the fourth wall (speaking directly to the audience),” Scott says.
"Birth Control Your Own Adventure" (2018)
Through creative use of symbolic close-ups, a woman talks about her struggle to find a birth control method that works well for her. “One of my favorites," Scott says. "It’s done by a filmmaker/photographer down in Southern California who is really interested in female health issues. A lot of her photography deals with aspects of female identity that’s not often revealed in society.”
"The Disability Trap" (2018)
A filmmaker with multiple sclerosis explores the health care implications of moving from New York to Texas to be closer to his son. Scott (a Houston native and University of Texas graduate) says, “It’s a comment on the health care system in Texas, which leaves much to be desired sometimes.”
"The Mess He Made" (2017)
A man waits for the results of a medical test in this short drama, and viewers wait with him. “I thought it was really powerful,” Scott says.
Videos by ZDoggMD
With an accessible, amiable style, Zubin Damania, MD, (who formerly worked at Stanford) tackles various issues in medicine. Scott says, “It’s a little more silly, but I’m definitely a ZDogg addict.”
Photo by annca