Never Let Me Go

I’m just back from a great conference at the University of La Laguna, on Vulnerability, Justice and Global Ethics. I have been off the bioethics frontline for a while and conferences help us all touching base again, recovering an awareness of what is going on in the field, what the main challenges are and how can they be tackled. I am really grateful to the organising committee, as well as to all the colleagues and friends whom I met in these two days, for doing all the hard work necessary for this conference to happen. This conference was particularly hospitable and well-run.My contribution was small, but the challenge was a big one. They were brave enough to ask me to select and comment a film that could help discussing some of the conference issues in an innovative way. So I decided to devote the session to watch and discuss Never Let Me Go, a 2010 British film directed by Mark Romanek, based on the homonymous 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. We watched the film with the help of a questionnaire and we briefly discussed its main bioethical issues, linking them with some of themes of vulnerability and global justice that had been discussed in the previous sessions. We were pressed for time, but those themes included at least the vulnerability of teenagers, the commodification of body parts and processes, the risks of enforced solidarity, gender issues, and the role of romantic love in oppression and exploitation.

When doing a cine-forum my goal is not simply to watch a film, but to engage in collective deliberation or at least to explore some ethical issues in an alternative way. So first I provide some background data, trying not to spoil the film to those who have not watched it, and without imposing my own interpretation. Then we watch the film. To help an active viewing, I usually prepare and distribute a form in which everyone can fill the gaps while watching. I encourage taking notes, so I never turn all the lights off — this also helps to not get too emotionally involved or carried away by the film. The form I use now is inspired in the way that Diego Gracia looks at conficts in bioethics these days. It is just a way of directing our attention to: characters and their relationships, factual information (what they do), values and feelings (in them and in us), and how all of that converges in courses of action (what they do, what they should do, what we do and should do).

Never Let Me Go is a film about how education and social interaction fosters vulnerability and exploitation in care relationships. Some would call it a dystopia, but it is a subtle one. Clones are undoubtedly exploited but they don’t rebel and there is some sort of reciprocity; donors (clones) are given some kind of hope, but are eventually deprived of their humanity because it is useful for the whole of society; the whole scheme is justified by utilitarian considerations. It is easy to watch, the images and music are beautiful, the acting is remarkable… but it is not a “feel good” movie, and many people feel shocked by it. That might be the reason why it is relatively unknown.

Besides, it is commercial film but not a mainstream one, and it is hard to place it in a given genre: it could be horror (most horrifying because neither the characters not the viewers expect to be in a horror movie!), science fiction, teenager dystopia, alternative history, British school, coming of age… It is also an existentialist film about mortality, ethically it includes a (sort of Kantian) critique of utilitarianism, so it works quite well as a philosophical film, one in which the most important thing is truth, the awful truth, and how truth is or should be the foundation for having “decent lives”, as one character (Miss Lucy) says.

Most of the characters are children/youths with filiation problems; in a way they are the result of an extreme form of surrogated parenthood — they don’t know whose parents (or “model”) they come from, so they engage in a search or quest for their “possible”, their creator as in Blade Runner. There is hardly any visible science and no religion, but two civil religions of our age are very visible in the film: Sport and the Arts. And love, romantic Love as the last hope for redemption. It is indeed a very romantic anti-romantic film, but being very British as well, most of the things are said in a tacit way, in understatement.

I didn’t have the time to read a few quotations from the book, that might illustrate some of the main themes:


Kathy: “Carers aren’t machines. You try and do your best for every donor, but in the end, it wears you down. You don’t have unlimited patience and energy.” 


“I bet it happens much more than they tell us,” Ruth said again. “That’s one reason why they keep moving us around between donations.”


Kathy to Ruth: “You kept talking like you might qualify for special treatment. … If you believed yourself special, you should at least have asked.”


“No, Tommy. There’s nothing like that. Your life must now run the course that’s been set for it.”


 Kathy: “But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then.”

  •  THE AMBIVALENCE OF THE ARTS. Throughout the film the idea of culture and the arts being an important factor in whatever makes us human appears again and again. The film both shows culture’s potential for liberation but also for acceptation of whatever is perceived as one’s fate. Actually, Kathy explains that culture (in this case, poetry) did not really interest then  per se, but merely because of its effect in human relationships:

 “when we were that age, when we were eleven, say, we really weren’t interested in each other’s poems at all. But remember, someone like Christy? Christy had this great reputation for poetry, and we all looked up to her for it. Even you, Ruth, you didn’t dare boss Christy around. All because we thought she was great at poetry. But we didn’t know a thing about poetry. We didn’t care about it.”

  • SOCIAL NETWORKS. Relationships in a closed community such as Hailsham of The Cottages are all about mimicry and interaction, being equal and being different. Also about power relations and getting what you want. An interesting example is the little market of Exchanges and The Gallery in Hailsham, a sort of social network that promotes self-commercialization, the commodification of things that we usually didn’t think they could be commercialized or distributed. As Kathy says,

“The Exchanges, with their system of tokens as currency, had given us a keen eye for pricing up anything we produced.”

  • THE SOCIAL CREATION OF VULNERABILITY. Habitus, for Bourdieu, is the set of dispositions through which people give shape and form to social conventions. They are the little lies, rituals, myths and worries that make up our social life. In the film we see a few examples having to do with the scary stories the kids tell about the woods surrounding Hailsham:

“I’m not saying we necessarily went around the whole time at that age worrying about the woods. I for one could go weeks hardly thinking about them, and there were even days when a defiant surge of courage would make me think: “How could we believe rubbish like that?” But then all it took would be one little thing—someone retelling one of those stories, a scary passage in a book, even just a chance remark reminding you of the woods—and that would mean another period of being under that shadow.”

A few final questions. In every cine-forum the discussion tends to illuminate our world by reflecting on the world depicted in the film. We are, after all, all carers and potential donors. And we all complete. When solidarity becomes exploitation?

How different is our world from the film? In the film’s world donations are publicly provided by a socialist system: a nation wide scheme (the NDP, National Donors Programme) in which the state harvests organs from clones which (initially at least) are given the opportunity of a decent life.

In our world, things are not that dark. We don’t do cloning, even if we constantly mimic each other, exactly as the film’s clones do in The Cottages. Some donations are perfectly fine, but some others are privately provided by the black market: a global system in which those who can afford it can purchase organs or babies from other human beings who have no other means to survive.

Both worlds are un-kantian: people are used merely as means. In the film’s world, arts provide a false hope. What about our world? What is the role of humanities/universities in all this?  The humanities have to do with what makes us human.

Is being human tantamount to lacking a set course? Is to be human the same as not to be disposable or usable? Or is being human simply to care and be cared? How do we learn how to be human, by mimicry or by rebellion? The clones do not rebel but they seemed to be completely human to most of the audience. How come?

The cine forum is not over… Comments and further questioning are welcome.

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