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article imageReview: ‘Playing God’ is a tough job at Hot Docs Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Apr 30, 2017 in Entertainment
The Hot Docs selection ‘Playing God’ looks at the unenvious job of putting a dollar value on the loss of life and justifying the difference in amounts.
Most people know, understand and have maybe even experienced the direct consequences of tragedy, particularly death. However, when it’s linked to a larger event such as an attack or accident, the complexity of the aftermath increases. One’s personal journey becomes a public event with strangers inquiring about the intimate details of your lives to satisfy their curiosity… or to assess the measurable damages caused by the incident. But how does one decide the worth of a human life? And who has the daunting task of making that decision? In the documentary Playing God, audiences meet a man whose occupation is simultaneously revered and hated.
Attorney Ken Feinberg is employed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to calculate the compensation provided to victims of some of America’s greatest tragedies, including 9/11, the BP oil spill and Agent Orange, which was deployed in Vietnam during the war. While the exact math is not revealed, the rationale applied to the distribution of funds is shown to be unemotional and logical; conversely, it must be unimaginably difficult to explain to a grieving loved one that one person’s monetary value is higher than another’s. While Feinberg is stoic throughout, he appears to handle the stresses of his position privately. His latest case involves determining if a group of pensioners are being unfairly gouged by a government plan to cut their payments by up to 60 per cent.
Feinberg provides director Karin Jurschick unfettered access to him and the town hall meetings he leads related to the pension case. The purpose appears to be to show the “Master of Disaster” is not a cold-hearted monster with no sympathy for the victims; rather he’s agreed to do a difficult job and he tries to do it as fairly as possible. Since most of the high profile cases concluded several years ago, it’s not possible to capture Feinberg’s interactions with the claimants; however, they’re dissatisfaction is made clear in individual interviews. His job appears to require two personalities: the openly sympathetic one that promises to do right by the claimants, and the numbers man who does what is contractually and legally required. Jurschick offers a fascinating and humanizing portrait of this complicated but necessary position in capitalist society.
The world premiere of Playing God is screening as part of the “Special Presentations” program at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
Director: Karin Jurschick
More about Playing god, Hot docs, Documentary, Kenneth Feinberg, Hot Docs 2017
 
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