Lebanese oncologist receives standing ovation at Cannes Film Festival


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It is not uncommon to see non-professional actors appearing at the Cannes Film Festival. But those who do don’t often come with a medical degree.

In In his lifetime (Peaceful), the new film from French director Emmanuelle Bercot, a man refuses to accept his terminal illness. The cancer specialist who holds his hand through this torturous process is played by real oncologist Dr Gabriel Sara, a Lebanese-born doctor who has lived in New York for 40 years.

Acting against established French stars Benoit Magimel, who plays Benjamin, “a failed actor” with incurable stage four pancreatic cancer, and Catherine Deneuve as his controlling mother, Crystal, the good doctor holds more than the his own, playing his role with humanity and honesty.

On the Saturday premiere at the festival’s lavish Lumière Theater, the cast and crew received a standing ovation. “At first, I didn’t feel like it was for me,” Sara explains modestly. “I always felt we were a family on this film. We feel so close to each other.

He says he is delighted that “the real Eugenie”, the nurse with whom he works closely in his office, has met the actress Cécile de France, who embodies his colleague on the screen, with such empathy.

“Cécile has the same attitude and the same vibrations,” he says. “When I was sitting next to her talking to my patients, I felt like I had my real Eugenie next to me. “

Sara first met Bercot at a New York screening of her 2015 film Stand up straight, which also stars Deneuve. A film which deals with the legal system in France, and the attempt to save a young delinquent, it immediately touched Sara.

“He came up to me,” Bercot remembers, “and said,“ I saw such wonderful humanity in your film, I thought you might be interested because I work in the trenches.

Bercot was delighted, especially because she already had another idea for a film in the making: about a mother who loses her son to cancer. A year later, she began to consult Sara on the film. But it wasn’t until the movie entered the casting process that she decided to ask Sara to play the role of Dr Edde.

Sara had to take a crash course in acting. “At first, it was hard for me,” he admits. “I had to memorize my lines perfectly, so I didn’t have to think about it. And I learned that being an actor is really experiencing emotion. It’s work emotionally, not intellectually.

Likewise, her co-stars were deeply affected by working with Sara. Magimel describes it as “an exceptional meeting for me in my career”.

Sitting at the Marriott Hotel in Cannes, Sara immediately exudes the same warmth as her character. He’s also a perfectionist, it seems, and realized that once those lines of dialogue melted into him, he could become Dr. Edde, a character close to his own personality.

“Once I figured that out it just got easier for me. But I have never been perfect. I made mistakes. So many times I screwed it up. They had done the same thing 10 times, and it was almost perfect and then I made a mistake. So it was not easy for me, realizing that it was me who was delaying the whole movie.

Some may wonder why a successful doctor with enormous responsibility would submit to this experience, but Sara felt a deep need. “I know Emmanuelle wrote the screenplay, but I feel like I’m part of it. In a way, I am responsible for carrying this message.

Rather, he thinks the film is about truth and acceptance. Much like Dr. Edde does with Benjamin at the start of the movie, a doctor shouldn’t pretend that a terminal illness is curable.

“I have the impression that when you don’t tell the truth, you insult and abandon the patient. We think, “He’s not good enough to hear the truth. We infantilize it. When we do not speak the truth, we take away the chance for the patient to be treated with dignity and humanity.

Sara received her first medical training in Beirut, before completing her doctorate in medicine in Paris. He moved to New York in 1981 and is now the senior attending physician in the Mount Sinai West Department of Medicine.

“As an oncologist, I think we need to heal people’s souls,” he says. “We treat their cancer with chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy and all that. They can work. But who is trying to heal that person’s soul? Do we think about it? He’s a patient, not a machine or a number. We really have to look at the whole person. I cannot treat a breast. I treat the patient and then the family as well.

In the film, Dr. Edde plays music with his patients. It’s another nod to Sara’s groundbreaking work. In 2005, he started the Helen Sawaya Fund, named after the late wife of a close friend who died of cancer at the age of 36. The purpose of the fund is to help cancer patients through art, music, reflexology and even a travel program. Of particular interest to Sara is using music for pain relief.

“Music can heal, music can fix things,” he says. “I have patients whose nausea disappeared with the music. You have stroke patients and it gets better with music. He does not cure it, but improves it. The power of music is therefore enormous.

Sara has won awards and has written books on the subject. He also enjoys personally playing music with his patients.

“I was like, ‘Why not be a part of it myself? And that kills that idea of ​​the doctor being this unreachable superman. I am not a superman. I am like everybody else. And I want people to feel that; I don’t want them to think I’m different. “” And music brings us closer together. “

The same can perhaps be said of his work in In his lifetime.

Updated: July 13, 2021, 9:11 a.m.

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