Lost in transit: Central Station seeks a moral compass for bodies in motion

The film Central Station touches on the dark side of organ transplantation and emerges on the side of redemption. Though I occasionally suffer from transplantation issue fatigue, Walter Salles’ breakthrough 1998 feature reinvigorated me to more deeply consider the limits of lifesaving and the transmutability of bodies. In exploring those limits via this viewing experience and some related content, I was reminded that one should not be guided by moral certitude, but rather a moral compass of constant questioning and doubt. Yet our journey must also seek to connect us to others in shared humanity.

Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

I first heard about this film through Bill Ayers’ talk at an education conference, Big Ideas Fest, organized by ISKME, an institute where I also work. He summarizes the organ trafficking episode of the film, framing it with some compelling themes and questions (29:14).

Ayers describes a key moment in which the main character Dora delivers the recently orphaned Josue to an apartment where he purportedly is being taken care of before an American couple will adopt him. She uses her payoff from the “delivery” to purchase a TV. Her friend notices the new acquisition and gets Dora to grudgingly admit the means by which she obtained it. Her friend quickly realizes she might have actually sent him to organ traffickers, berating Dora for her greed and ignorance. This prompts Dora to return to the apartment and help Josue make a narrow escape from the clutches of whatever potential trafficking fate might have otherwise befallen him. Ayers says of this moment in the film:

We expect her to do exactly what she does. She retraces her steps and tries to save the boy…Because once her eyes were opened, she had do the moral thing or we would condemn her. So here’s the question for us: How are our eyes closed? What are we missing? What are we participating in that we don’t see or don’t want to see?… You cannot be a moral person with your eyes closed…Next to that…be astonished. Be astonished at the injustice of it all, be astonished at the ecstasy of it all. Be astonished and embrace it all.  And then, tell about it. Or in my vocabulary: Act.

In relation to Ayers’ remarks, it is particularly germane to bring in Nancy Schper-Hughes‘ work on organ trafficking (including extensive fieldwork in Brazil).  Her research and writing powerfully demonstrates how bearing witness to the moral trespasses of organ trafficking, following its global and local movements both as oft-told story and actual practice, and telling about it can help transplantation to reclaim morality:

Organ donors, living and dead, represent a social, political, and semiotic zero, an ideal place for critical medical anthropologist to begin. In positioning myself on the ‘other side’ of the transplant equation in order to represent the silent or silenced organ donors, I am attempting to reconstitute living donors as rights-bearing individuals and persons rather than as faceless organs ‘suppliers’…I trust that both organ donors and organ recipients will see in this project an attempt to recapture transplant medicine from the pressures of the global market and to restore it to its senses and to its original premise of social solidarity based on a shared humanity(2004).

Aligning with that restoration, Central Station itself has been touted as a film that also operates to foster solidarity. And likewise, the narrow escape from organ traffickers (perhaps the epitome of transplantation’s immorality) marks a turning point for the protagonists’ moral development. At this juncture in the film, the nascent journey of our odd couple Dora (a sexagenarian ex-schoolteacher) and Josue (a tween orphan) also begins to take flight. Rather than the ongoing centerpiece of the film, Rio de Janeiro’s Central Station and its urban mayhem becomes the key departure point. Dora and Josue are not only fleeing from traffickers, they are also on a search for Josue’s estranged father in the stark landscapes Northeastern Brazil.

Searching for the connection and direction

The recurring motif of searching for the father–both Josue’s and the Lord in heaven–is a quest for some sort of moral footing in a world where death can happen at the drop of a dime, avarice and skepticism lurk at every turn, and mutual care seems a value long gone. This evokes a sense of itinerant longing for some kind of direction, for those who must constantly be on the move, running, searching, and/or marginalized. Thus, recapitulating Ayers’ talk, his questions “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” are morally relevant for bodies in motion who seek to transform or change their station. Such questions are worth asking of both our filmic travelers and the precariously situated would-be donors in Scheper-Hughes’ ethnographic accounts. She offers a compelling explanation for why organ stealing rumors emerge amidst anxieties of unmoored lives.

One could ‘read’ the organ stealing and baby parts rumour and panic as a response to the unstable democracies now emerging in parts of South and Central America…The rumours have appeared, then, during a time when ordinary people finally became aware of the magnitude of atrocities practised by the states and its henchmen against the bodies of the poor and vulnerable..The rumour expresses, albeit obliquely and covertly, the abnormality of the ‘normal’ and chronic ‘state of emergency’ in which poor people live…the subjectivity of subalterns living in a ‘negative zone’ of existence where lives and bodies are experienced as a constant crisis of presence (hunger, sickness, injury) on the one hand, and a as a crisis of absence and disappearance on the other. The stories are told, remembered, and circulated because they are fundamentally, existentially true (1996: 8-9).

This explanation also proves useful for unpacking Central Station‘s own perpetuation of such rumors, couched in a cinematic exploration of elusive national identity and moral longing in a society wracked by inequality and jarring transition. In fact, Dora’s last words in her letter to Josue are: “I long for my father. I long for everything.” So it is this yearning for a moral compass that drives us, helps us forge an identity, and foster humanity  It is both mobility and identity that come to the fore; how we are chasing after a momentary solidarity, telling narratives so that we might stay in the picture, be remembered, exist beyond a disposable, transmutable part of us. We see this symbolically in a scene where Josue, who is left alone by the recent death of his mother, runs after the train Dora rides home. There is a switch in perspective and we see Josue sprinting to stay in view through the window, like an attempt to keep in frame on a rolling reel of film.  He has to continually move to maintain his presence in the locomotive lens.

Pieta in Brazil

The traditional Pieta configuration, in the Catedral de Brasilia. This image is reversed in Central Station. (Source: Eduardo Coutinho, Wikimedia Commons)

As a film which focuses heavily on many modes of transport, it is no mistake that people, in both body and spirit are constantly shifting. Bodies become transubstatiated into letters that finally find each other, the positioning of bodies is reversed in a Pieta tableau late in the film where Josue cradles Dora after she collapses in a throng of religious fervor, and finally their moment of encounter is photographically frozen in time as the bodies themselves diverge.

Although bodies are not stationary, just as instability and uncertainty ever-present, the question at hand is how to navigate our uncharted journeys, and the attendant unforeseen moral scruples. And perhaps we find the answer in E.M. Forster’s famous maxim in Howards End: Only connect. For our sojourners in Central Station, even though they go their separate ways, their picture together and their written words of exchange keep them connected. This is presaged by the evening when Josue is finally reunited with his family. Dora and Josue are gazing up at the constellations, seemingly reckoning with a roadmap. It is the moment when we come to realize the North Star bus which brings them to their final destination is no mere coincidence. This signals a clearer connection of the dots, forming a cohesive picture, but one where new lines may still be drawn, and old ones may be erased. A moral compass of mobility/solidarity makes itself apparent. In making out the connections, we can begin to answer “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” identifying our shared humanity in the process.

For transplant ethics as well, determining what connections are important to us can help guide the moral choices we make in transplant ethics. Transplantation may fragment bodies, but is also pregnant with the possibility of linking people together, transforming and challenging the capacity of individual bodies to stand alone, bonding two bodies that may have been entirely disparate prior. In surveying the vast tract of transplantation issues, we can see the range of difficult ethical terrain to navigate. For example, the re-commodification of the body in the ruling of a case like Flynn v. Holder stands alongside the incredible ways communities have bonded to work on outreach and donor registration or mobilized around legislation for fair labor accommodations for donors. Fledgling attention  has finally been given to holding transplant centers accountable for donor follow up care, and we are conducting complex research of how transplantation and immunogenetics are transforming notions of identity as much as they are informed by those notions. Whichever areas we choose to focus on, for those of us who seek to understand movements across bodies we must continue to tell the stories, not only of patients, but of donors, and make transparent the work of those who claim to facilitate the movements of transplantation. For many who do donor recruitment, this often can feel much like unremarkably quotidian work, but if we continually doubt, as Ayers advises in his talk, remain astonished, and proceed to share what we find, then those meditations on how we are/may be connected, like constellations in the sky, will hopefully guide us toward making the best moral decisions possible.

Works Cited

Scheper Hughes, N. 2004. “Parts Unknown” Ethnography  5(1): 27-93

Scheper Hughes, N. 1996. “Theft of Life: The Globalization of Organ Stealing Rumours” Anthropology Today 12(3): 3-11

Additional Resources

On spatiality in the film

Redemption and broken bodies

Redemption and female identity
A Central Station review omnibus

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