The nature of beauty: A former local resident’s new film examines the treatment of facial abnormalities

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Doctors at Hospital General Gea Gonzalez in Mexico City have mapped reconstructive surgery on the face of “Estrillita” in preparation for repairing her craniofacial anomaly in the film “Beautiful Faces,” by Russell Martin.

Doctors at Hospital General Gea Gonzalez in Mexico City have mapped reconstructive surgery on the face of “Estrillita” in preparation for repairing her craniofacial anomaly in the film “Beautiful Faces,” by Russell Martin.

Images of elegant, ageless, slender, buff, rich, unrealistic icons of beauty fill the media these days. Waiting rooms at reconstructive- surgery clinics fill with patients eager to transmogrify into mannequins of this cultural ideal.

The modern preoccupation with beauty overshadows a reality that many families face when their child is born with a craniofacial anomaly, a birth defect of the face or head. In the developed world, such anomalies

are treated surgically, usually as soon as the infant or child is old enough. But in developing nations, families may not always have access to or money to pay for treatment. “Beautiful Faces,” a new documentary produced by Russell Martin, a former Montezuma County resident, explores the probono medical help that has been made available to children with these conditions.

Some anomalies, such as a cleft lip and palate, are among the most common birth defects. Others are very rare. Most of them affect how a person’s face or head looks but they may also affect other parts of the body.

Craniofacial anomalies are a diverse group of deformities in the growth of the head and facial bones that are present at birth as an “irregularity” or “different from normal.” There are numerous variations – some mild and some severe enough to require surgery.

Rarely spoken of or acknowledged outside one’s own family, craniofacial abnormalities occur in one out of every 500 newborns globally. In the United States, more than 12,000 newborns each year will need the specialized care of a craniofacial team. In addition to those born with abnormalities, many children and adults suffer craniofacial abnormalities due to injury.

Martin’s film, produced by Say Yes Quickly Production, in association with Alma y Arte Productions, Mexican national Secretaría de Salud, the World Craniofacial Foundation, and the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights, brings a medical story to the screen that at first seems removed from our common experience. But as the story of diagnosis and surgical treatment unfolds, viewers are challenged to take a deeper look at the presence of craniofacial deformity as a contemporary reality and the compassionate reconstruction work being done at the Hospital General Gea Gonzalez, in Mexico City.

The film addresses only the reconstructive treatment of the deformities, not their causes. But according to the Stanford Medical Center Children’s Health web site, medical professionals agree there is no single factor responsible for such abnormalities.

They can result from a combination of genes that a child receives from one or both parents, or a change in the genes at the time of conception. Environmental factors may also play a role. The web site also describes the possibility that certain congenital abnormalities may occur if the mother has a deficiency of folic acid, a B vitamin.

In his prior work, Martin and Lydia Nibley wrote and produced the award-winning film, “Two Spirits,” the story of the Fred Martinez hate crime in Cortez. Martin is also author of non-fiction books including “A Story That Stands Like a Dam,” “Beethoven’s Hair,” and “Out of Silence.” The international television documentary “Beethoven’s Hair,” based on his book and directed by Larry Weinstein, won three Gemini awards and the Festival Directors Prize at the International Television Film Festival.

Martin’s most recent production, “Beautiful Faces,” takes the audience directly into the hospital’s clinic and operating rooms, where the 88-year-old clinic founder, Dr. Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, leads a plastic and reconstructive surgery unit he calls “the most exciting clinic in the world, the only place I want to be.”

The film intimately follows the progress of patients from childhood reconstruction into their productive and more-normal adult lives. It explores the generosity and the precision of the medical teams, but most of all shows the compassion the team of doctors and the hospital express for the children, the extraordinary spirit of the young patients and the courage of their families.

The film does not shield the viewer from the reality of the deformities. Instead, viewers are taken into the diagnosis room with the circle of attending medical and psychological doctors and social workers. The child sits in the middle of the circle, small, deformed and the subject of scrutiny, a canvas on which marking pens map the cuts and stitches it will take to treat the abnormality. Except for its modernity, the scene mirrors Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” an oil painting that depicts a circle of doctors in 1632 around a subject on an examining table. The study of the patient is critical to the decisions and the child is allowed to voice his or her opinion and desires. So are the families as they wait for results, when they learn their child will heal and lead a more normal life, or not.

The film is replete with emotion. Doctors, staff, family and child tell the audience stories of success and occasional failure, of a commitment to repeated surgeries and of the courage it takes to be accepted in any condition as they lead their lives before and after the reconstructions.

The pace and tenor of Mexican culture pervades the documentary. Even though the film is produced in Spanish and subtitled in English, the setting feels like it could be any neighborhood hospital.

Martin assembled an international team that includes Alvera de Leon, a Mexican filmmaker and photographer and Vasco Lucas Nunes. Additional footage was shot by Mexican cinematographer Hilda Mercado.

Singer-songwriter Lola Jones performed lead vocals on the film’s original song, “Beautiful Faces,” while the score was composed and conducted by Arturo Solar, a Spanish composer living in Los Angeles.

By the end of the movie viewers are engaged on a level that reveals another, more substantial layer of humanity – the very humbling definition of spirit as beauty.

Ken Salyer, a featured doctor in the film, is the founder of the World Craniofacial Foundation, a resource for people worldwide.

If you need this kind of help, said Martin, look for the foundation online. They will find help for people regardless of where they are.

The film can be streamed online or ordered in DVD formats at www.beautifulfacesfilm.com.

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From September 2014.