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Doctors offer a dose of hope

Founders of Partners in Health featured in “Bending the Arc”

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one. But from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.”
— Theodore Parker, 1853

In 1983, by chance, two college-age kids met in Haiti — a serendipitous encounter that helped change the world.

Even then, Ophelia Dahl and Paul Farmer shared an extraordinary optimism and commitment to helping the poor. They were soon joined by another young idealist, Jim Yong Kim, one of Farmer's classmates at Harvard College.

As volunteers, they worked in ill-equipped clinics that were understaffed and overwhelmed with patients, but they refused to give up hope.

In Dahl's words, "It didn't have to be this way." She saw the villagers as victims of a global bias against the poor, perpetuated by political and economic forces.

Their unstinting efforts to correct those inequities are the subject of the Sundance Documentary Premiere "Bending the Arc," directed by Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos and produced by Cori Shepherd-Stern.

The story first came to Shepherd-Stern's attention while she was working as a medical-relief volunteer in Nigeria. Like Dahl, she was stunned by the lack of resources available to the poor.

"People were dying everywhere. In those days there was only really horrible treatment for the poor and I thought somebody's got to do something," she said.

Then Shepherd-Stern stumbled onto an article in a medical journal about Farmer, Dahl and Kim's success while working in Haiti using a community-based, health-care model.

She related to them as kindred spirits and wanted to learn more.

Shepherd-Stern wasn't the only one inspired by Farmer and his friends. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder had been trekking around Haiti with Farmer since 1994 and, in 2003, released a biography detailing his extraordinary dedication to health-care equality. The book, "Mountains Beyond Mountains" became a bestseller and after reading it, she jumped in line to option the rights for a film.

But, she said, it took five years to convince Farmer, Dahl and Kim to trust her with their story. In the meantime, she shared Kidder's book with her friend and fellow filmmaker Kief Davidson. Davidson, who has earned international recognition for several social justice-related films, in turn drafted Pedro Kos, whose credits include previous Sundance films "The Square" and "Crash Reel."

Davidson said he was hooked by Farmer, Dahl and Kim's unwavering optimism.

"Paul and Ophelia and Jim set out at a very young age, they were really still kids in a lot of ways, and they set out to change the world. They were passionate and followed their hearts," Davidson said, adding he believes their spirit will resonate with young people today.

Kos said Kidder's book struck a personal chord because he came from a family of doctors.

"I fell in love with these amazing people and their intimate story that was told on an epic scale," he said.

In particular, Kos highlighted their pioneering model for health care-delivery, described as "accompaniment," a practice that has since been replicated around the globe.

As captured in the film, the group founded by Farmer, Dahl, Kim and others, Partners In Health, develops a program to train local residents as community volunteers. Their responsibilities include daily visits with patients, sometimes for as long as two years, to ensure they are taking their medicines and not losing hope.

In the film, Dahl underscores the importance of those community health-care workers. "So much of the work needs to be based on love, on going through hard times together and sticking with it."

Throughout the film, Partners in Health faces bureaucratic skeptics who say the battle to fight diseases like tuberculosis, AIDS and Ebola in impoverished areas is insurmountable.

But Farmer dismisses those claims.

"To me this is about hope, and rejecting despair and cynicism," he said.

In a triumphant moment, the filmmakers include footage of Jim Kim being appointed in 2012 to lead the World Bank, the agency that helps to distribute relief funds around the globe. In fact, according to the film credits, the World Bank is now investing $15 billion to expand health care coverage in Africa.

As Dr. Joia Mukherjee, the chief medical officer for Partners in Health and associate professor of global health at Harvard Medical School puts it, the arc does bend toward justice, but Farmer, Dahl and Kim have helped to bend it faster.

Editors note: World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Dr. Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl and patients from around the world whose lives were saved by their remarkable work are planning to attend the film's premiere on Monday.

""Bending the Arc" will screen in the Sundance Film Festival's Documentary Premieres program at the following times and locations:

  • Monday, Jan. 23, noon at the Library Center Theater
  • Wednesday, Jan. 25, 9 a.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theater
  • Sunday, Jan. 29, 6 p.m. at the Tower Theatre