Penny Lane would give a kidney to make a documentary. Lane approaches documentaries with a particular worldview that is always fruitful, and investigative, poking at the fun angles of the subject. Still, she also knows the value of getting real and when to — in this case, literally — sacrifice herself for the merit of her story. Following Penny Lane’s donation of one of her kidneys to a stranger in need, her latest film profiles the kidney donation industry, why need greatly outstrips availability, and what it means to give freely to a stranger. What outcome do we need for ourselves to give freely to someone who may need something we do not need? Should everyone be prompted to donate themselves more freely to a cause that has such high demand and so few donors? Perhaps there’s even a stranger than fiction history to kidney donation.
If anyone is going to find the story, it’s Penny Lane. Between profiling the Satanic Church in one of our generation’s greatest documentaries (Hail Satan?, 2019), she has also incisively documented the relationship to Kenny G’s accessible but largely despised saxophone music (Listening to Kenny G, 2022) and originally made her feature debut at SXSW with a profile of home videos by Nixon staffers (Our Nixon, 2013). What her research always finds are the curiously funny corners of seemingly serious topics. She is a gem in the documentary industry which is coming around to quirky exhibitions of outsider topics but largely produces them in a fruitless way with basic populist impulses. Penny Lane’s work, in direct contrast, is self-aware and knowing studies with compassion for the right people in the stories. This time, this compassionate sense of understanding is turned inward to explore an outward-facing subject by giving away a body part to see what that is like and how it goes.
What it’s like to randomly give away a kidney is a journey of self-doubt, many screenings to work out why someone would do this and if they are under duress, and a mental wellness profiling that would have anyone asking, well, am I really okay and right for this? How it goes is that there is a lot of uncertainty. People around Penny Lane and appearing in her documentary, give all kinds of different death rates for kidney donation procedures. Maybe one in a few thousand die. Or maybe it’s one in one thousand. Try it and see.
She tries it. What we get to explore through her journey is a reflection not just on kidney donation but on the altruism of donors in general. If we give selflessly, we may not care too much about the result. But do we want to profile who we are giving to? Would we want our kidney living on in someone’s body we disagree with? Would we want some contact with this person who carries on a part of us? Perhaps we would want to give it to someone we would never be friends with and make sure it’s just an act of altruism separate from a required result. What would it even mean to be a Good Samaritan?
Penny Lane listens to a church lecture. It ends with a call to come to the front of the church and accept Jesus. A step too far for her. But she decides it’s worthwhile to label such a freely giving decision as an altruistic act of kindness. Many of us just want to be good people and there is this hanging irony over the movie. Watch as she donates freely expecting no result but also makes a movie about it. It’s a conflict of interest. Doesn’t she financially and creatively gain something from the donation of her kidney? Does making a kidney donation to someone in need into a creative project then invalidate the act of giving anyway? Are you aware of the root history of kidney donations stemming back to a Nazi doctor and the experiments required to finally make it all work? What are the ethics on every side of the conversation?
These are the ideas another documentarian would not find and Penny Lane always does. That’s why she’s one of my favorites to watch and recommend. Her ideas are big and situated with her heart and kidneys in the right place. She gives herself totally to her projects and produces provocative work that comes with… not so much a direct call to action but a call to rethink our understanding of a subject. We become aware of the shifting politically progressive priorities of the Satanic Church. We realize that the reputation of Kenny G. overshadows the person behind the music and that they have some residual feelings and thoughts about our public consensus on their music. We see an uncommon experience, to give part of your body freely and randomly to a stranger just to make a movie about it and exactly what it means when you do that. All of this makes her a documentarian treasure. I recommend watching everything she makes and has made.