| 90 min
Prizes and awards
Memento mori is an evocative cinematic journey alongside the living and the dying, bringing to the screen a human drama never-before captured on film. With remarkable access to Canada’s busiest organ-transplant hospital, we witness one of the most profound experiences in any human life: the loss of a child, and the agonizing decision this tragedy demands. Created by two acclaimed Canadian documentarians, director Niobe Thompson and producer Rosvita Dransfeld, Memento mori grips the viewer in a relentless, emotional embrace—propelling us from moments of unexpected joy to unbearable heartbreak—until the very final frame. An arresting tour de force of vérité filmmaking, immersing us completely in a world few of us understand but which we’ll all one day encounter.
With astonishing access to the most intimate moments of life and death, Memento mori brings viewers face-to-face with stories and characters rarely or never-before filmed. Matthew is the 28-year-old victim of a senseless tragedy, fighting for life surrounded by his shocked parents and family. A floor away, a newborn baby is also fading, while her young parents pray for a miracle. Fathers and grandfathers sit in agonizing limbo, hoping they will have a future with their children if the right organs turn up in time.
High above, chartered jets crisscross the skies, bearing precious organs and teams of surgeons from one side of the continent to the other―part of the fascinating and hyper-expensive system for cheating death that is organ-transplant medicine.
But these considerations are far from the minds of Matthew’s family. They must confront the worst possible outcome to their trial and find, if they can, some goodness in it. Memento mori follows Matthew’s family through the most trying week of their lives, and beyond, to face a strange new reality. They know nothing of the families on the other side of the hospital wall, but the viewer moves from their grief to witness the unspeakable relief and joy that a tragedy like Matthew’s can release.
In a transplant hospital, every facet of the human experience—joy, anguish, pain, and a profound appreciation for the beauty of life and the inevitability of death—is concentrated in one building and let loose to roam the halls. Filmmaker Niobe Thompson was able to capture the human side of transplant medicine in unprecedented detail and with unvarnished honesty. We follow as organs are rushed by air and ground ambulance to the hospital, while the ticking clock threatens to slam the door on these efforts. Through long nights in the surgical theatre, in small meeting rooms inside the ICU, and at the patients’ bedsides, we witness the painful decisions that lead to life—and to death.
Memento mori is a remarkable artistic achievement, managing the dangerous power of un-restricted access to humans at their most vulnerable with genuine sympathy and commitment.
There is also a 52 minute version called Vital Bonds:
Canada’s organ donation rate is the lowest in the industrialized world – and every organ lost is also a life. For the first time ever on-screens, Vital Bonds gives viewers unprecedented access to the powerful real-life human stories of organ donation in Canada. Following a traumatic brain injury, the family of 28-year old athlete Matthew makes the decision to donate his organs. A two-week old baby girl named Harlow receives a donor heart from the far side of the continent. These are just some of the life and death stories covered with unflinching authenticity to show the lasting impact and major importance of organ donation in Canada.
We’ve all heard about the organ donation crisis. Even in wealthy countries, doctors lose patients who could have been saved with a transplant. In Canada alone, one in four on the lung wait list die in want of a transplant. Over 4,500 Canadians are waiting for kidneys. Every day, four of them die.
For the first time ever, the new one-hour documentary Vital Bonds brings audiences into Canada’s busiest transplant center. Here, viewers witness the human impact of both the giving and receiving of organ donation. Viewers get to see first-hand how the process can affect everyday Canadians like themselves.
The documentary gives unprecedented access to surgeries and intensive care units with unflinching authenticity. It allows viewers to see the realities of life for ICU patients on transplant wait lists. Audiences witness the decision making process around a loved one’s death. They experience the critical, time-sensitive movement of human organs between donor and patient via jet and ambulance – and see a family’s relief upon hearing an organ is available.
The storytelling includes several powerful never-seen-before fly-on-the-wall sequences. One story is the story of a family coming to terms with the sudden loss of their beloved 28-year old son Matthew. The cameras follow every heartbreaking development as a life-saving struggle yields to tragedy. Viewers witness the agonizing journey this family takes with their son, and stand alongside them as they confront the fateful decision to donate his still-living organs so that others will have a second chance at life.
Interwoven with emotionally raw personal narratives, viewers witness surgeons and scientists pushing the medical boundaries of what’s possible. While saving lives today, these techniques also offer the promise of solving the organ shortage and ending organ rejection tomorrow.
Director and writer Niobe Thompson has won four Gemini and Canadian Screen Awards for his visually arresting and playfully intelligent science and nature documentaries, which include The Great Human Odyssey (2015), The Perfect Runner (2012) and Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands (2011). A Cambridge-trained anthropologist turned filmmaker, Thompson works on both sides of the camera and is known for his fascination with the human journey, from our evolutionary origins to the present day. He has a reputation for turning his body into a living laboratory, bringing science to life in ways that delight, inspire and often shock his audiences. He is as comfortable chatting with Siberian reindeer nomads and breath-hold diving with Badjao free divers as he is inside an archaeological excavation.
Memento mori is Thompson’s first collaboration with producer Rosvita Dransfeld and the National Film Board of Canada. His background as a social anthropologist was a vital ingredient in building intimate and trusting relationships with patients and donor families, in order to bring their stories to the screen with honesty and sensitivity.
Producer / Exec. Prod. (ID: Productions Inc.)
Photo : ID: Productions Inc.
German-born producer Rosvita Dransfeld is an internationally renowned documentary filmmaker who crafts powerful explorations of the human condition. Her films include Who Cares, The Dogwalker and Broke, winner of a Gemini award and the prestigious Donald Brittain Award for Best Social/Political Documentary.
Dransfeld has become one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary producers. POV Magazine has called her “a modern master of vérité.” She insists on using only natural lighting and low-impact filmmaking, ensuring that the film crew understands where the story lies. Her goal is to reach deep into the heart of worlds too often hidden from view, and to do so in ways that connect the audience to the subjects on screen and provoke reflection from both.
Her ability to capture the full humanity of her subjects and place them at the centre of her stories garnered recognition from North America’s largest documentary festival and market, Hot Docs, which organized a retrospective of her work in its 2016 Focus On spotlight.
For the production of Memento mori, Dransfeld joined forces with writer and director Niobe Thompson, who was able to bring a distinct sensibility to the subject matter and combine human drama with visually striking cinematography.
Photo : Debbie Boccabella
With over 65 producer credits, Bonnie Thompson is a veteran National Film Board of Canada producer, working with Canadian media makers and producers on a slate of documentary, interactive, and animation productions. Thompson’s productions have been screened nationally and internationally on television screens, on the web and in festivals, winning many nominations and awards.
Recent production highlights include the feature documentary, Angry Inuk which won the 2016 Hot Docs Audience Award; the Oscar and CSA nominated short animated film Wild Life; and the acclaimed Webby and FWA award winning website Bear 71.
Producer & Executive Producer
David Christensen is a Producer and Executive Producer at the National Film Board of Canada’s North West Studio, one of the NFB’s six English language studios. Some of his recent films include If I Was God, recently Oscar-shortlisted for Best Animation Short, the NFB co-produced feature documentary Hadwin’s Judgement, which premiered at the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival, and the feature film The Forbidden Room, directed by Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson and winner of the best Canadian Feature by the Toronto Film Critics Association.
Other works that David has produced include the acclaimed documentary Everything Will Be, a devastating co-production about Indian Residential Schools entitled We Were Children, the Oscar-nominated animated short film Wild Life, and Bear 71, an online interactive web documentary that was named FWA Site of the Year. He is also very involved in emerging filmmaking and digital programmes for Nunavut filmmakers.
David Christensen for NFB
Bonnie Thompson for NFB
Director of Photography
Dylan Rhys Howard
Location Sound Recording
Audio Post Production
Johnny Blerot Sound Inc.
Sound Design and Mix
Additional Sound Design
Colour Grading and Online Masters
Joe Owens, CSI
Dr. Jim Kutsogiannis
Carl and Leslie Babchishin and family
Judy and Jason Bergen Family and family
Patricia Fisher and Adrian Hodgett
Willis Wood and family
The Veyda Family
Lee Sanderson and family
Dean and Lana Dukart
Alberta Health Services
University of Alberta Hospital, Stollery Children’s Hospital & Mazankowski Heart Institute:
Site Administration & Communications
Level 3 & Mazankowski Operating Rooms
Human Organ Procurement and Exchange Program (HOPE)
Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit
General Systems Intensive Care Unit
Pediatric Intensive Care Unit
Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit
Staff of 5C4
Royal Alexandra Hospital –
General Systems Intensive Care Unit
Foothills Medical Centre, Calgary
Edmonton Ground Ambulance
Montreal Children’s Hospital
Sunwest Aviation, Calgary
STARS Air Ambulance Edmonton
ATI, (Alberta Transplant Institute)
CNTRP, (Canadian National Transplant Research Program)
Dr. Lori West Dr. Darren Hudson
Dr. Sam Shemie Dr. Derek Townsend
Dr. James Shapiro Dr. Norm Kneteman
Dr. Ivan Rebeyka Dr. Bob Broad
Dr. Daniel Kim Dr. Scott Livingstone
Dr. Simon Urschel Dr. Timothy Caulfield
Dr. Holger Buchholz Dr. Darren Freed
Dr. Dominic Cave Dr. Jayan Najendran
Dr. Vijay Anand Dr. Gerry Todd
Dr. Paul Kantor Dr. David Bigam
Dr. Monica Henry Dr. Nikul Sharma
Dr. Mary vanWijngaarden-Stephens
Special thanks to:
Alberta Health Services
University of Alberta
Kidney Foundation Northern Alberta & The Territories Branch
The Alberta Transplant Institute
About the NFB
The NFB is Canada’s public producer and distributor of award-winning documentaries, auteur animation, interactive stories and participatory experiences, working with talented creators across the country. The NFB is taking action to combat systemic racism and become a more open and diverse organization, while working to strengthen Indigenous-led production and gender equity in film and digital media. NFB productions have won more than 7,000 awards, including 12 Oscars. To access this unique content, visit NFB.ca.