Junior doctor’s film highlights tough working hours

Angelique Ruzicka interviews Francois Wahl, a chartered accountant with a passion for filmmaking, who directed and produced “Doc-U-Mentally – last doctors standing”, which he believes is an apt title since, “junior doctors must be insane to work under the conditions they do.”

“Fatigue killed doctor” screams the TimesLive article, which relays how one junior doctor, Ilne Markwat, died in a car crash on her way home from a Paarl Hospital after working a shift of at least 24 hours. Some believe she fell asleep behind the wheel as her car veered into oncoming traffic on the N1. Three others also perished in the accident.

The plight of junior doctors working in South Africa under strenuous conditions for long hours is real. The car crash, in which Markwat and others were killed in, resulted in junior doctors to call on a reduction on working hours. Some doctors used to work 30 hour shifts – sometimes longer. But crazily, the Western Cape Department of Health has only reduced the number of working hours for junior doctors to 24, instead of the 30 hours mandated by the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA).

Francois Wahl, is an accountant with a passion for film-making. After experiencing first-hand how his family (some of whom are doctors) have had to cope with long working hours and strenuous working conditions he decided to do a documentary about it. Moneybags catches up with Wahl to find out how he went about it:

How did you start this film and put it together?

It was quite an interesting process. It started with my brother. I filmed him as I knew he would do a good job, he spoke well, etc. Thereafter I chose doctors from five different cultures as I wanted everyone in South Africa to be able to relate to them. I wanted to show that throughout the cultures they find everything the same in the hospitals. These doctors each brought something special and unique to the film.

Dr (Wanele) Ganya, the Xhosa doctor who grew up in Khayalitsha in Cape Town with his brother overcame extreme difficulty in making matric and excelling and graduating in medicine. His father is unemployed and his mother is a domestic worker. He’s such a positive guy and loves his job. All the characters have something unique and the documentary shows all of the doctors and how they go through their own limits.

How did you get funding for the project?

We tried to find funding for a film like this. I got a production company to film a teaser initially. We managed to raise funding through this teaser.

We got about R300, 000 in funding. As a first time film-maker no one wants to give a chartered accountant money to make a creative film. It was difficult and that took the longest time. We raised money through a crowdfunding platform. Doctors contributed – it was a very successful crowd funding campaign. It was junior and senior doctors that contributed. A lot of people bought into the vision. We also got a development grant from the KZN Film Commission and after that we approached Pharma Dynamics and the South African Medical Association. Both supported us and without them this film wouldn’t have been made. We used an SA crowd funding platform called Thundafund.com. It’s very easy to use. I am excited about these South African companies coming to the fore.

Has it been seen by many people yet? Has anyone seen the full version yet?

We have created a new trailer from the new footage, which people are loving at the moment. We have received more than 6,000 views on Facebook this week. It’s really taking off. We wanted the hospitals to have a first right to see the film. So we had a premiere at the hospital where the film was shot. So we invited the CEOs and the staff, the KZN Health department officials, doctors before we took it to the film festivals. We had a packed room of 100 people and I was overwhelmed by the feedback.

Where can people see the trailers?

People can see the trailer on my production company’s website called Intersection Studios. People can watch the teaser and get updates about where it’s screening and the plans for the future.

What were you hoping to achieve with this documentary?

We are there to campaign for better working hours for doctors. We want to spark conversations about this that other organisations have already started. I have first-hand experience of how difficult it is for these doctors and the working hours that they are working and how it affects their physical and emotional health, as my wife, brother and father are doctors. I wanted to show an unadulterated film. What you see is what happened. It wasn’t dramatised like Grey’s Anatomy. Its real patients and real operations. We asked: “Are doctors crazy for working these hours and what are we doing about it?”

How did you get the permission to film?

The first step was to get permission from the KZN Health Department’s HOD. He gave us signed approval but we had to ensure that we got the patient’s consent. We got it because it’s not just doom and gloom cause it also shows what great work the doctors are doing. The CEOs of the hospitals were on board and the staff were on board as well.

Did your own staff get tired as well?

Oh my word, for sure. I fell asleep myself one morning at 4am and I woke up not knowing where the crew were. One guy carrying our equipment fell off his chair after falling asleep. We are much weaker than the doctors as we’re not used to it. Everyone was feeling it. The cameraman also got nauseous seeing some operations. The doctors say they get so emotionally blunted after a while. They are so used to it.

Where will people be able to see the full version?

They will be able to see it at Jozi and Ugu film festival. We will be able to enter it into other film festivals. We are also hoping that Mnet, ENCA, SABC etc., will pick it up to show to the general public. We need broadcasters to show it to the public to show an interest in South Africa – that’s what we are hoping for.

Are you thinking of making any sequels?

Not at this moment. Depending on how everyone reacts I will be able to pitch for more projects. I did pitch for other films before but as I said no one wants to give a chartered accountant money to make a film with no experience. But hopefully now that I have the experience the production companies may come on board in the future.

Will it be a career changer for you?

I hope so. But I will still stay in finance. In Intersection Studios we provide accounting and tax services for specifically creatives and artists. So I am serving them personally and I’d like to stay in finance as long as I can but also stay in film.

About ‘Doc-U-Mentally – last doctors standing’:

Jozi Film Festival:

  • Eyethu Lifestyle Centre, Soweto – Saturday, 17 September at 2pm
  • Rosebank Cinema Nouveau – Sunday, 18 September at 12pm


UGU Film Festival:

  • Desroches Hotel – Saturday, 17 September at 2.30pm


The 82-minute film has also been entered into several international film festivals, including the Public Health Film Festival in the UK and the Denver Film Festival in the USA. For a sneak preview, go to https://vimeo.com/180480648 to watch the trailer.

The Cast

Dr Saishrien Rasen, (27) born and bred in Durban, is a second year medical officer in Surgery. The best part of his job is doing an operation successfully, whilst the worst is trying to make it through post call the next day as a result of the long shifts.

Dr Yenziwe Ngema, (30) who also hails from sunny Durban, is a 3rd year medical officer in the field of orthopaedic surgery. Her favourite thing about being a doctor is interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and being able to help people feel better. “The working conditions however aren’t ideal, since the workload supersedes the hours. We’re also restricted in terms of resources which means you can’t always give your best, but I always try to look on the bright side, and if you have the right people around you, you can work with a system that doesn’t always work with you,” she says.

Dr Wanele Ganya, (23) is a first year medical intern from Cape Town currently rotating in Surgery. “What I love most about being a junior doctor goes back to my medical training as an undergraduate… It’s all about providing the best we can for our patients despite the little we have in terms of resources. The kind of training we receive is world-class, despite the challenges we face as a third world country. The long working hours do however add additional strain, which makes giving your best 100% of the time difficult.”

Dr Amy Salvesen, (27) hails from Durban and is a first year medical officer in the field of emergency medicine. She says the best about being a junior doctor in South Africa is that she gets to be really hands-on every single day, since the need is so great. “The experience junior doctors get in this country provides us with incredible training and exposure. What I find most difficult though, is the constant exposure to severe disease and death, mainly as a result of poverty. Coupled with the fatigue that stems from working extremely long hours and time away from home, can become challenging.

Dr Lourens Wahl, who is Francois’ brother, comes from Somerset West, is a community service doctor currently working in a district hospital in Port Alfred. “Being a junior doctor in South Africa is an amazing opportunity as we get to play an important part in so many people’s lives. It’s a truly humbling experience. Being on call for 30+ hours with limited staff on duty, makes it difficult to provide patients with the best treatment and care, and can be emotionally, mentally and physically draining.”