Director of hit French TV medical drama dons scrubs to fight virus

Thomas Lilti, the director of hit French medical drama
Thomas Lilti, the director of hit French medical drama "Hippocrate," a former doctor himself, poses in Paris, France, Thursday, April 22, 2021. Lilti was so moved by the urgency of the pandemic that he couldn't just stand back, he put back on his scrubs. Lilti ended up back working in hospital when filming of his second season was suspended by the lockdown last year, eight weeks in, truth sometimes stranger than fiction. (AP Photo/Oleg Cetinic)

The director of the hit French TV medical drama Hippocrate, a former doctor himself, was so moved by the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic that he put his scrubs back on.

Dr Thomas Lilti ended up back working at a French hospital when the filming of his second season was suspended by France’s coronavirus lockdown last year.

He said that “as a doctor, I just humbly tried to lend my hands and my knowledge and return to the hospital after not practising for eight years”.

The director said both he and his TV series were “profoundly affected” by what he saw in real life.

In March 2020, Lilti was directing the critically acclaimed drama, which was 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, he realised the world did not need drama to illustrate that story – it was happening all around him.

With more than 102,000 virus patients dead, France has one of the worst death tolls in Europe, after the UK, Italy and Russia.

Lilti, who also writes and directs the TV show, which is named after the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, ended up working in a hospital.

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+.

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