Tuesday, November 14, 2017

DOC NYC Spotlight: Playing God

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 9th-16th.

Playing God
Directed by Karin Jurschick
Festival Screenings

There have been many mass shootings and terrorist attacks in the news lately, which represents an unfortunate state of today’s world. What transcends all political views on how to prevent such things from continuing to happen is the fact that there are those left behind seeking some sort of closure – and often more than not – in the wake of what has already happened. Something that is likely to only be considered in the face of unbelievable tragedy and loss is what the value of someone’s life is to those who have been left behind to go on without them.

Placing a dollar value on the victims of terrorist attacks, public disasters, and other similar events is a responsibility shouldered often by lawyer Ken Feinberg. Originally known for determining what should be awarded to Vietnam veterans exposed due to Agent Orange, Feinberg has worked to calculate what should be given to those affected by major catastrophes such as Deepwater Horizon, Sandy Hook, and the Boston Marathon bombing. Serving as the “special master” for those who survived or lost someone on September 11th, 2001 put him in the spotlight in a big way, earning the ire of many for the precise nature of how he works to financially measure trauma.

Feinberg makes for a fantastic film subject, since he’s not at all shy about speaking to the camera. He believes firmly in what he does, citing the math behind something like reducing pension funds gradually since the money is going to run out one way or another and his plan means that the bottom won’t fall out abruptly and completely at some point. He describes his work as “part divinity, part psychiatry, dealing with real people who died or were injured or suffered loss.” He cites staggering statistics, like the fact that over one million claims for all fifty states and other countries were filed after the BP oil spill, and over half were rejected. Feinberg’s reading of the law is also subject to controversy, particularly his understanding that undocumented workers were due compensation after September 11th.

This film won’t provide any reassurance to those distraught with how things stand in society today, but it does offer remarkable insight into the complexity of how responsibility is taken, even if not directly, for events seemingly not in the government’s control. Feinberg stands by an ethical approach to his work, but he’s most concerned with facts, repeating that people need to offer proof for what was being earned prior to someone’s death or severe injury, and also compelled by the big picture, like how much someone would have made much later in their career had it not been cut short by some event to determine financial compensation due. There’s a lot to it, and this film, which is hardly optimistic, offers a very interesting introduction to a surprisingly important conversation.


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