improvisation Surgery

The Rebel Surgeon
Regissør: Erik Gandini

Swedish surgeon Erik Erichsen was fed up with social isolation and heavily bureaucratized working days in Scandinavia. He now spends his time developing his own form of creative surgery in the Ethiopian countryside.


One would think that only a purely humanitarian impulse could cause a Swedish surgeon to abandon middle-class life in Sweden and move to the small town of Aira in Ethiopia. But the reason why Dr. Erik Erichsen and his wife Sennait did just that was not just an urge to save others. There was also an urge to save himself from the social isolation of Scandinavian everyday life, and the bureaucracy that lay like a clumsy hand over his work at a Swedish hospital. The Rebel Surgeon tells the story of Erichsen's new life, replacing comfort and new technology with a new meaning – in his personal life as well as in the workplace.
The story of Dr. Erichsen was largely touched upon in Erik Gandini's previous film The Swedish Theory of Love (2015). The film focused on Swedish society, and more specifically, the endemic social isolation that resulted from the idealization of pure individualism. Sweden ranks very high on the scale of individual happiness, and is a prosperous country where everything is safe and well regulated – and where people are terribly lonely. The almost dystopian film language in Theory of Love, combined with the story of how such a society has come into being, raises the question of what happiness really is. How will the future unfold in a place like this? Such questions reverberate in much of the western world.

Poverty and the ruthless suffering of people are part of an ordinary working day.

With small resources but strong social ties, Ethiopia emerged as the opposite of everything Sweden had to offer. Dr. Erichsen was presented in Gandini's film as someone who did not endure dysfunctionality in Swedish society, and therefore moved to a place where one is always surrounded by people, no matter how difficult everyday life can be. The story of a man who returned to the very basics of life managed to touch upon a heartfelt longing shared by many in the West. The viewer was left with a desire to know more.

Surgery as an art. In The Rebel Surgeon, Dr. Erichsen's story is finally treated with the thoroughness it deserves by director Gandini, and the film explores the Doctor's personality, family and inner forces. In addition to the criticism of the social fragmentation in his home country, Erichsen felt that working as a surgeon in Sweden offered too little practice and too much paperwork. At the opposite end of the scale, the lack of regulations in Ethiopia means more time for clean surgical work, and the lack of resources opens up for creativity and resourcefulness.
The Swedish doctor is respected and well known in the local community. A highly qualified physician is extremely valuable in a country with only four surgeons per 100 population, and many of Erichsen's patients return to thank him for their lives he has saved. The poverty and the brutal suffering of the people who live here are part of a normal everyday life for the nation's doctors. The camera follows Dr. Erichsen through his busy work day to show what routines and challenges he encounters in everyday life, as well as to give an impression of the people in his life.

An inexpensive battery drill, hose clamps, bike spikes and fishing ropes do the job for standard medical equipment.

Many of Dr. Erichsen's patients arrive at the hospital in critical condition. Time is crucial, and surgery – often extreme surgery – is for many the only chance to survive. The large number of patients and the serious situation they are in do not allow for hesitation. The doctor mobilizes all his skills and knowledge, but often this is not enough. A certain degree of creativity is needed to get the most out of nothing when the patients would otherwise have died.
Dr. Erichsen's surgical solutions would probably be considered rather dubious in the West – but they work. An inexpensive battery drill, hose clamps, bike spikes and fishing ropes do the job instead of traditional medical equipment. Explaining how these things work, Dr. Erichsen transforms into a kind of eccentric medical wizard, with a huge enthusiasm for the art of surgery and a childlike enthusiasm for improvisations and discoveries.
There is something close to a revelation to see what the doctor gets, if you have never imagined that surgery can be detached from the sterile, white environment we associate with. His peculiar approach makes the doctor both a problem solver and an impressive artist, while taking medical practice away from a clinical bubble and bringing it down to earth; place it among people, explain it with simple words and execute it using simple tools. In Dr Erichsen's world, improvisation is vital.
But Dr. Erichsen is no savior, and fortunately the film succeeds in resisting the temptation to romanticize his life. Instead, it gives way to the unconventional and dedicated man he is. We come close to life in Ethiopia as seen through the eyes of one who had everything except close human ties – which is what makes sense to life when it comes to play. Dr. Erichsen's story makes you wonder what it takes to create the closeness he found in Ethiopia, in a society like ours.

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