Amazing Documentary: Bending The Arc

By Neenah Payne

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Bending The Arc:

Dr. Paul Farmer, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, activist Ophelia Dahl, Todd McCormack, and investor Thomas White began a movement in the 1980s that changed global health forever. Bending the Arc tells their story.

Decades before they launched the first statewide contact tracing program to fight COVID-19 in the United States, and long before they helped battle Ebola in West Africa, three young people barely out of their teens began a movement that would change global health forever. The documentary reports on their astounding successes.

Not long ago, the public health establishment declared it was impossible to treat poor people suffering from certain deadly diseases. In the 1980s, a fledgling group of unstoppable health advocates set out to change that. Their revolutionary model of training community members as health workers and treating all people with world-class medicine, has forever changed public health.

Bending the Arc is the story of Harvard medical student Paul Farmer, idealistic physician Jim Yong Kim, activist Ophelia Dahl, and the international movement at the center of some of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises. The community health model they developed to treat diseases like tuberculosis & HIV/AIDS has saved millions of lives in the developing world.

Thirty years ago, as much of the world was being ravaged by horrific diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, three remarkable young people, barely out of their teens—Jim Yong Kim, Paul Farmer, Ophelia Dahl—came together in a squatter settlement in Haiti. Determined to provide the same world-class level of medical care they would expect for their own families to the Haitians that soon became their friends, they faced obstacles so enormous they weren’t even considered surmountable by the rest of the world.

They managed to bring together the resources to build real health clinics in areas that had been ignored by everyone else—where patients were as likely to arrive by donkey as by ambulance—and stocked them with the same medical supplies that could be found in places like Harvard Medical School. (Indeed, in some cases, supplies that were found at Harvard made their way to Haiti.) Idealistic but very inexperienced, they suffered tragic early failures that made them question the way they were delivering health care.

This led them to develop, in partnership with the patients themselves and guided by medical anthropology, a revolutionary and controversial model: training their friends and neighbors—ordinary Haitian villagers—as health care workers. And most remarkably—despite enormous resistance from the outside world—they treated diseases that the experts had determined could not or should not be treated in the poor because of expense and difficulty.

The groundbreaking work they began in Haiti—creating a remarkable model of how to deliver the highest-quality care in the most unlikely places—would eventually grow to have massive global effects. They expanded beyond Haiti to Peru, then onwards to Rwanda, where they helped rebuild the country’s health care system. They averted a deadly MDR-TB epidemic, treating dying patients against official World Health Organization policy. They took on HIV/AIDS—becoming the first doctors in the world to treat patients in rural settings with full courses of anti-retrovirals.

As a result, world policies changed, deeply entrenched ideas transformed, and millions of lives were pulled back from the brink of death. Through remarkably candid interviews and stunning never-before-seen archival and on-the-ground footage shot in the midst of a deadly epidemic, the audience is immersed in the struggle of these fiercely dedicated characters as they fight ancient diseases, scrape together funding with the lives of their friends on the line, face scorn and hostility from the global health establishment, and suffer heartbreaking mistakes from their own lack of experience.

Reaching far beyond the issue of health care, Bending the Arc shows how moral imagination, strategy, and sheer will together can change the trajectory of the world, bending the arc of the moral universe closer to justice.

The Three Pioneers

Dr. Paul Farmer, physician and anthropologist, is chief strategist and co-founder of Partners In Health, Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Dr. Farmer also served as U.N. Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Community-based Medicine and Lessons from Haiti.”

Dr. Jim Yong Kim is vice chairman and partner at Global Infrastructure Partners. A physician and anthropologist, Dr. Kim has dedicated himself to international development for more than two decades and helped co-found Partners In Health. From July 2012 to February 2019, he served as president of the World Bank Group. Before joining the World Bank, Kim served as director of the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS department, president of Dartmouth College, and held professorships at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. He has received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and has been recognized as one of America’s “25 Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report.”

Ophelia Dahl has been advocating for the health and rights of poor people for nearly 30 years. In 1983, she volunteered at the small Eye Care Haiti clinic in Haiti’s Central Plateau. There she met Paul Farmer, and they have been working ever since to deliver high-quality health care to the destitute sick. Dahl helped co-found Partners In Health, led the organization as executive director for 16 years, and now chairs its Board of Directors. She helps lead the Roald Dahl Literary Estate, which manages the works of her late father, the writer Roald Dahl.”

Their fight for universal health equity became a global battle in the highest halls of power for the right to health for all.

This project was supported by a grant from Stories of Change, a project of Sundance Institute supported by the Skoll Foundation.

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Press Reviews

“A feel-good documentary that’s literally about making people feel good.” – The New York Times

“Bending the Arc stretches and soars to the highest documentary dimension.” – The Hollywood Reporter

“[Their] quiet outrage over the widely-held assumption that it’s futile to treat the global poor drives this story, which is as much about the triumph of a philosophy as of medicine.” – The Boston Globe

As debates rage about whether healthcare is a right for all or a privilege for those who can afford it, ‘Bending the Arc’ goes beyond rhetoric to give viewers an inside look at doctors who simply want to make a difference.” – Variety

“While caped, biologically enhanced avengers dominate multiplexes, ‘Bending the Arc’ chronicles what real-world heroes look and sound like.” – LA Times

NY Times: Paul Farmer Works to Heal Haiti in ‘Bending the Arc’
By Jeannette Catsoulis Oct. 5, 2017

A young Paul Farmer in Haiti, in a still from “Bending the Arc.” Credit…Partners in Health/Abramorama

A feel-good documentary that’s literally about making people feel good, “Bending the Arc” dives into the quagmire of global health care with the sunny insouciance and can-do brio of its primary subjects, the doctors Paul Farmer and Jim Yong Kim, two founders of Partners in Health.

As young medical students volunteering in rural Haiti in the early 1980s, both were appalled by the lack of basic health care available in a region ravaged by tuberculosis and other ailments. By dint of compassion, cussedness and innovation — like training ordinary villagers to act as community health visitors — the two would go on to build clinics and create programs that could be imitated worldwide.

Gathering collaborators along the way — including a wealthy philanthropist and their group’s president, Ophelia Dahl (the daughter of the author Roald Dahl) — the men refused to be deterred by institutional rigidity, political apathy or a skeptical scientific community. Their perseverance is cheering, giving the movie a brightly buoyant tone that belies the suffering at its center and renders the sometimes distracting musical score largely unnecessary.

Assisted by archival film originally shot for earlier projects, the directors, Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos, build a 30-year-plus dramatic timeline that focuses most intently on Dr. Farmer (who was also profiled in Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains”). His quiet outrage over the widely-held assumption that it’s futile to treat the global poor drives this story, which is finally as much about the triumph of a philosophy as of medicine.

Dr. Kim agrees. “Optimism is a moral choice,” he says, one that undergirds programs grounded in extreme practicality. You don’t have to be an altruist to accept that pandemics are best averted in the countries where they typically begin.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World
The book has 3,465 reviews on Amazon with a rating of 4.6.

Amazon Description

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “[A] masterpiece . . . an astonishing book that will leave you questioning your own life and political views.”—USA Today

“If any one person can be given credit for transforming the medical establishment’s thinking about health care for the destitute, it is Paul Farmer. . . . [Mountains Beyond Mountains] inspires, discomforts, and provokes.”—The New York Times (Best Books of the Year)

In medical school, Paul Farmer found his life’s calling: to cure infectious diseases and to bring the lifesaving tools of modern medicine to those who need them most. Tracy Kidder’s magnificent account shows how one person can make a difference in solving global health problems through a clear-eyed understanding of the interaction of politics, wealth, social systems, and disease.

Profound and powerful, Mountains Beyond Mountains takes us from Harvard to Haiti, Peru, Cuba, and Russia as Farmer changes people’s minds through his dedication to the philosophy that “the only real nation is humanity.”


‘Bending the Arc’ an inspiring doc about changing the world

In the documentary “Bending the Arc,” Dr. Paul Farmer treats a patient in Haiti as part of an effort to ensure that the poor receive medical care. Photo: Urban Landscapes Productions

David Lewis 10/19/17

“Bending the Arc,” an inspiring documentary about medical students who went on to redefine health care on a global scale, is a compelling tale about friendship and how dedicated individuals can make a difference and change the world. It’s a rousing, feel-good story about overcoming barriers, even when the challenges — poverty, lack of medical access — are inherently bleak.

It all starts in the 1980s, when idealistic medical students Paul Farmer and Jim Yong Kim meet at Harvard and decide to set up a health care clinic in Haiti, where there are plenty of poor folks but few doctors to treat them. The physicians’ goal seems goodhearted but confined to one small region, though their influence will eventually spread across the globe when they start fighting a drug-resistant form of tuberculosis.

That fight also takes them to South America, where Farmer and Kim scrape up money and medicine — against the wishes of the medical aid establishment — to treat patients who were considered too expensive to worry about. The strategy not only heals many ill folks, but it also becomes a blueprint for saving millions of lives of HIV-positive people in Africa. Indeed, at the core of “Bending the Arc” is the belief that everyone on Earth should be entitled to health care, whether they are rich or poor.

Directors Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos often wear their social justice hearts on their sleeves, but they know how to tell a story: Their film is filled with twists and turns, not to mention genuine emotion and suspense. The directors also have appealing subjects in Farmer and Kim, plus the scene-stealing Agnes Binagwaho, Rwanda’s former health minister, and Joia Mukherjee, a good-humored medical officer.

When we see patients ready to die, only to become vibrant, healthy individuals, we can’t help but marvel at the doctors’ heroic feats — and feel optimistic that a better world is within our reach.

Boston Globe:  Bending The Arc Is A Triumph

Partners In Health’s Growing Global Success

One key to the breakthrough was the decision to train and pay a big army of community healthcare workers.  Dr. Farmer speaks both French and the Haitian patois. PIH was having success with AIDS and TB in Haiti and Peru. The photo below shows the kind of transformation PIH created in Haiti which was then scaled to the world with the help of then Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations.

Remarkably Dr. Anthony Fauci, then Director of NIAID, and President George Bush collaborated in this transformation of global treatment of AIDS. On January 28, 2003, Bush asked Congress to appropriate $15 billion over the next five years for the treatment of the 30 million people with AIDS in Africa.

President Bill Clinton supported their efforts in Rwanda in 2012. President Barack Obama nominated Dr. Jim Kim to be the next President of the World Bank. It was just in time because when the ebola epidemic hit West Africa in 2014, Dr. Kim warned that the future of all of Africa was at stake and got the World Bank to invest $500 million to fight ebola. Under President Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank announced a $15 billion commitment to accelerate universal health coverage and rebuild health systems in Africa

Partners in Health collaborates with governments around the world and now has 18,000 workers.


Watch the Trailer.

Watch Documentary on Netflix

Top image: Harvard News

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