Party piece with moving story to tell

''WE DON'T often have film premieres at the Austin Hospital,'' said Professor Bob Jones, introducing a new documentary, The Dinner Party. Actor David Wenham was on hand; so was the film's director, veteran Melbourne filmmaker Paul Cox, and the cast members.

But this is a movie with a difference. Cox's hour-long documentary is the record of an ordinary event - a group of people talking and sharing a meal - with an extraordinary context.

The five men and three women at the dinner table - including Cox - have all been patients at the Austin, where Jones is director of the liver transplant unit.

Most of them met for the first time that night, but The Dinner Party captures a relaxed intimacy, as they share candid, thoughtful, wry and revealing reflections about what they went through.

Everyone's story is different; some lived for years with the prospect of needing a liver transplant, others were suddenly overcome by illness. Yet there is a core of shared experience. ''None of us would have lived without the miracle of transplantation, and we are very grateful to be alive,'' Cox says. There are complex feelings about what they have undergone; a sharp awareness of the loss that other families have suffered; a sense of relief, but also of responsibility.

Cox had a transplant in 2009. He met his partner, Rosie Raka, at the Austin; she is one of the people at the dinner table, telling her story and responding to the insights and candid observations of others. The event was shot more than 18 months ago, ''when we were all quite raw'', Cox says. There was some funding support, and friends and colleagues helped with the food, the filming and the post-production. The film is a gift to the hospital, Cox says, in recognition of the gift of life he received.

He has also written a memoir, Tales from the Cancer Ward, published in 2011, whose proceeds go to the Austin.

Wenham is enthusiastic about Destiny, the ''beautiful script'' Cox has written for a feature film, based on his own experience. Wenham - who played Father Damien in Cox's film Molokai - is set to play the lead character, a sculptor whose life is changed in a myriad of ways when he receives a liver transplant.

They hope to start shooting next year. For the female lead, Cox has a specific actress in mind, someone he is certain can bring an extraordinary dimension to the film.

The Dinner Party is intended, among other things, to provide insights into the experience of transplant recipients and to help raise awareness about organ donation.

''I know a lot about transplants,'' said Professor Jones, ''but Paul's film has given me a new perspective.'' Cox, he said, had brought a creative eye ''to something normally told in dry medical terms''.

Some 54 people received new livers in Victoria last year, most of them at the Austin. That is about a quarter of the transplants performed in Australia.

One element that is missing from the documentary Cox notes, a little ruefully, is the role of carers in the process of recovery.

''They go through so much,'' he says, ''and I should have paid more attention to them, they are so important.''

The story Party piece with moving story to tell first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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