Hazel McHaffie

Films, fact and fiction

Do you enjoy a good film? Do you get a kick out of a good-going debate on life’s big questions? If so, the neuroethics film festival would be right up your street.Each year four prestigious organisations combine forces at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse to put on a festival of films dealing with an important issue – this autumn it’s neuroethics. Not sure what this means? Join the queue. There are those who sniff at the term as a 21st century neologism drawing from more established disciplines; others claim neuroethical issues will present real problems for society by the 2020s. But look, I’m way out of my comfort zone on this one, so here’s what the Filmhouse says:

Do we have free will, or is our behaviour ultimately controlled by our biological brains? Does morality actually exist?

Recent advances in our understanding of neurobiology have raised a number of ethical questions for human beings. Does the responsibility of an individual actually exist? If it doesn’t what are then the consequences for our legal systems and the manner in which human beings see themselves? Could they just be considered as biological robots or zombies? ’

Now that sounds like a challenge wrapped up in an entertaining way, don’t you think?

I’ve attended this ethics film festival several years and I’m always impressed by how learned everyone sounds.  After each film a panel of experts debate the issues with the audience, adding an extra dimension to the event which I’ve really enjoyed. But this year might just be the exception: I’ve been invited to join the panel for Sunday afternoon’s session. Hello? Me? Suddenly my academic credentials seem very old hat amongst the bevy of professors and leading clinicians currently billed to occupy the hot seats for the three days! But it seems I’ve been included because I write fiction in these areas. So hopefully I can stick to what I know and not come across as a complete wally.

The films promise much: Limitless (a writer discovers a top-secret drug which bestows super-human abilities on him); The Matrix (a computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and role in the war against its controllers); The Manchurian Candidate (in the midst of the Gulf War soldiers are kidnapped and brainwashed for sinister purposes); A Clockwork Orange, (in a futuristic Britain a charismatic delinquent is jailed and volunteers for an experimental aversion therapy). And they include big stars like Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington. I haven’t seen any of the films, so whatever else, I’m expecting to have fun when I’m not actually squirming on the front seats – well, maybe fun’s not the right word … sounds – and looks – like scary stuff actually.All my life I’ve been plagued by an overactive imagination, and I’m quite sure my mother would have categorically banned me from this kind of viewing. But one has to grow up and take responsibility for one’s own choices at some point … or would neuroethics refute this notion?

Whatever. As you know, I’ve recently been asked to send one of my own novels to a film company, who’re considering making a feature film out of it. So I have a vested interest in the dramatisation of novels at the moment. I’d say that’s a good enough reason to overcome my qualms and be prepared to be scared out of my wits.

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