Hit French medical drama director dons scrubs to fight virus


PARIS — Sometimes in the best cases, life affects art and art affects life.

In March 2020, Thomas Lilti was directing a critically-acclaimed French TV medical drama depicting the dire state of French hospitals, featuring storylines such as strapped resources, fatal illnesses, doctors’ suicides and mental health issues among hospital staff.

But when the pandemic hit, Lilti realized the world didn’t need drama to illustrate that story: It was happening all around him.

The creator of Canal+’s hit drama “Hippocrate,” a former doctor himself, was so moved by the urgency of the pandemic that he couldn’t just stand back — he put back on his scrubs.

Lilti — who also writes and directs the TV show that is named after the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates — ended up working in a hospital last year when the filming of his second season was suspended by France’s coronavirus lockdown.

“As a doctor, I just humbly tried to lend my hands and my knowledge and return to the hospital after not practicing for eight years. Just trying to improve things,” he said.

With over 102,000 virus patients dead, France has one of the worst death tolls in Europe, after the U.K., Italy and Russia.

With his studio shut down, Lilti transferred part of the set’s multimillion-euro decor — materials such as real stretchers, trolleys and infusion stands — to a real French hospital that was facing strains amid the pandemic: the Robert Ballanger Hospital in Aulnay-Sous-Bois, a Paris suburb.

“We gave all our medical equipment that was used for the shooting to the hospital emergency rooms trying to help them,” he said.

He then worked in Robert Ballanger Hospital for about a month, helping patients, identifying medical records and using the skills he had acquired before he became a writer and director. After a few weeks, he had to pull back due to a lack of up-to-date doctors’ insurance.

But the experience would impact him — and French television — in many ways. He used the drama of being back at work to rewrite the series’ second season.

“This frontal collision between fiction and reality for me was really a powerful experience and a very moving one,” he said. (“The series) is marked deeply by this adventure.”

The second season of “Hippocrate” is airing in France this month on Canal+.

Adamson reported from Leeds, England

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