Film review: Save Sandra – gruelling, important film with its unflinching gaze into dealing with a devastating diagnosis- screening online, at the European Film Festival (South Africa) -October 14 -24, 2021

What: Save Sandra (Belgium) – in Dutch/Flemish, with English subtitles
Directors: Jan Verheyen and Lien Willaert
Starring: Sven De Ridder, Darya Gantura and Rosalie Charles

Available to view: European Film Festival (South Africa) -October 14 -24, 2021
Where: Tickets: No charge – tickets are free Access: The online screening of films are geo-blocked for viewing in South Africa only.    Genre: Drama  Running time:  102 minutes    

One minute and your six year old daughter is well, happy and skipping along. She has a wonky leg and some tests are done. The shock diagnosis comes in that she has MLD, a muscular disease [Metachromatic leukodystrophy- which may manifest when both parents carry a recessive gene]. Save Sandra is based on a true story: Belgians, William and Olga Massart, were given the devastating news that their only daughter Sandra (6) had MLD and were told that she had about a year to live. Sandra’s father, William (Sven De Ridder) reads about a promising therapy which is in a trial phase. When the couple are told that Sandra is too old to be part of the study, they set about raising the money to buy the treatment. The film is harrowing to watch as we see William embroiled in a battle against the pharmaceutical industry – trying to save his daughter- from getting worse.

The film is brilliantly structured as a thriller – but it is intensely uncomfortable. It is agony to watch: How will it “end”? Will William “win” his battle against the pharmaceutical industry? His quest is relentless. He won’t give up. Meanwhile, Sandra’s condition worsens. We see her in a wheelchair and it drags on– with the Belgian public and media weighing in. It becomes a hopeful Christmas story and then that story implodes into itself. In the quagmire, the family gets vilified and accused of conning the public out of money. What have they donated for when no treatment is taking place and anywhere aren’t they deluded in thinking that this new treatment will save their daughter? They are accused of “therapeutic obstinacy” – refusal to face the reality of the disease and accept the situation. William’s mother suggests that they give up, let nature takes its course and have a replacement child. I am not going to narrative spoil and tell you what happens with the pharmaceutical company and whether William “wins” or not. It is not possible to “win” when dealing with a degenerative disease without a cure. William wants to keep his daughter alive and ensure that she has the best quality of life possible. The family is shrouded in loss and grief. Save Sandra is not about winning. It is about hope and not giving up. Save Sandra provides a gruelling interrogation into how the pharmaceutical industry tends to be driven by profit and statistics. Money and profit is the name of the game. Who shall we say is paying? The film portrays vividly how tough it is to navigate illness –and it is a lot harder with a child in the frame. Never mind facing the diagnosis, one has to battle to get and pay for treatment and the cost is immeasurable – emotionally and physically.

Sven De Ridder as William Massart, Darya Gantura as Olga Massart and Rosalie Charles as Sandra Massart, deliver layered and nuanced performances – as a family, shrinking into itself as they huddle together, seeking solace and release from reality, by dipping into stories and dreams which are rendered in magical stop animation scenes. It is in these whimsical and magical interludes, that Sandra can become a mermaid and princess and where anything is possible. These beautiful animated scenes provide a much needed release and relief from a gruelling but important film with its unflinching gaze into dealing with a devastating diagnosis. One needs to be made from steel to deal with the pharmaceutical industry, medical aids and stakeholders who are invested in profits – without taking cognisance of individual cases.

Save Sandra,is screening online, at the European Film Festival (South Africa) -October 14 -24, 2021 and is free to view – but is geo-locked for viewers in South Africa.

Save Sandra – Darya Gantura and Sven De Ridder as the parents, fighting to save their daughter and Rosalie Charles as Sandra. Supplied.