Movie Review: A righteous doctor practices his trade in “The Heart of Nuba”

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Not every deserving person can win the Nobel Peace Prize.

There are other, lesser forms of “laureate,” for instance the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity.

But even had Dr. Tom Catena not won that, it seems the least society can do to honor them and shine a light on their good deeds is produce a good documentary about them.

“The Heart of Nuba” is about Dr. Catena’s work as the medical director and only full-time physician in a hospital in the middle of that permanent hellhole of horrors, Sudan. In the Nuba Mountains, a million members of 50 or so African tribes live. And the dictator in charge of the country, a racist Arab named Omar al-Bashir, wants that land, “but not the people on it.”

Catena and Mother of Mercy Hospital are treating thousands of civilian casualties, smack in the middle of not just a war zone, but an ongoing genocide. A handful of foreigners and a growing staff of locals are defiantly doing their work, diving into foxholes during the frequent air raids, while the world frets more about what the Kardashians are wearing or So and So is tweeting.

Ingrid Revaug, who raises funds for the hospital while working on site, notes that “humanitarianism isn’t something you do at work, it’s a way of living your life.” She and Catena are the best representatives of such an ethos that you will ever run across.

They duck and cover at every Antonov An22 that rumbles overhead, a Soviet era cargo plane the Sudanese Muslim regime uses to drop barrel bombs on villages and the hospital compound itself. Dr. Catena wanders the ward, pointing at patients of all ages.

“Artillery shell, Antonov, Antonov, Antonov,” fingering the World Court-condemned culprit behind this primitive region’s woes. Catena takes it personally, because it is.

A local nurse, Sister Angelina Nyakuru, shakes her head. “They want  to kill Dr. Tom? Why?”

He wakes up before the dawn, prays his Rosary, and gets to work. He talks with patients in their native tongue, charms and cajoles them. And he takes photos of every civilian victim of the military, “evidence,” he says, for a war crimes trial to come, a reckoning for al-Bashir.

Catena mentors nurses, nurse’s aids, works with visiting doctors who risk their necks to come in and help. And six days a week, he is physician, surgeon, OB-GYN to legions of Nubans who come seeking his care, and who he travels to see on house calls.

It’s important to touch these people,” he says of the inhabitants of a village of lepers. “Every life has value. Every life holds the promise of hope.”

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Director Kenneth A. Carlson’s film starts with a grabber — the age-old routines of grinding grain and preparing food in a village of grass huts. Then, the shriek of fighter-bombers, the cries of children as every they flee to the bomb shelters dug beside every hut there.

From the brutal present of grim choices, bloody surgeries and near-despair over young lives so brutally cut short of circumscribed by grisly injuries, Carlson takes us into the back story of a man whose quotation opens the film, about “each and every one of us” being obligated to make the world a better place, a Tom Catena quote from when he was all of 18.

He was a New York state engineer-in-the-making from a large Catholic family when he turned his attention to medicine. He played football at Brown, joined the Navy and went to med school at Duke. But something in Catena drew him to missions work. After polishing his surgical skills in Kenya, he found his calling in perhaps the worst place on Earth, working himself sick at times, because there is so very much that needs to be done, that won’t be done if he doesn’t do it.

Carlson uses clips from the one news network covering this conflict zone, Al Jazeera, which to its credit condemns the dictator that the World Court finds such a monster. In the main, though, he keeps his camera on Dr. Tom and and small circle of people — proteges and colleagues — at Mother of Mercy. It’s a moving, inspiring choice.

Sure, an uplifting film like “The Heart of Nuba” plays like hagiography, but you’re hard-pressed to find complaints about this saintly, sometimes profane surgeon and healer. Unless you want to interview al-Bashir for your film.

So far as we know, Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer didn’t swear. But neither of them were All Ivy League nose guards for Brown U. That makes Catena a fascinating character to study, someone “The Heart of Nuba” more than does justice to.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, graphic surgery scenes, mild profanity

Cast: Dr. Tom Catena, Sr. Angelina Nyakuru, Dr. Corry Chapman, H.E. Macram Max Gassis, Sr. Rocio Sanluz, Ratiba Ibrahim Kodi, Ingrid Revaug

Credits:Directed by Kenneth A. Carlson. An Abramorama- release.

Running time: 1:25

 

 

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