Review: ‘Donka: X-Ray of an African Hospital’

An unsensationalized yet often harrowing docu, "Donka" shows in vivid terms the limits of Western medicine in territories that can ill afford such costly advances. Powerful feature will engender apt sympathy via select broadcast and educational channels. Filmmakers evidently looked at various facilities in Senegal, Zaire, the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso before settling on this east-coast African locale for in-depth scrutiny. Built in 1959 near the end of colonialist rule, Donka Hospital is located just outside Guinea's capital, Conakry, and thus magnetizes the very ill from every corner of the nation. The five-story hospital's halls look dilapidated by Western standards, specialist staff is shorthanded, equipment poor. Yet services available are not the real issue. More important is fact that public-health financing is so feeble that check-ins can only be given prescriptions for medicine that must be bought off-site --- and few poor families can afford those goods. Thus staff are helpless to heal many patients whose maladies might easily be treated in ideal circumstances.

Focus is trained on a succession of typical cases — a teenage girl felled by meningitis, an adult male burn victim. While their purview omits excessive gore, instance of 5-year-old boy with an infected throat wound (due to swallowing a fish bone) is tough to watch, particularly when the child is forcibly outfitted with a nostril I.V. tube. Most graphic is climactic seg when a woman undergoes a Caesarean birth, with fortunate consequences for both mother and offspring.

Out of context, staff might be considered hard-hearted, but we come to understand how a “new financial order” has rendered them all necessary cashiers in a system that can survive by providing service only for hard currency. Since most locals put off that financial doom until the last minute, trying every traditional-medicine and prayerful alternative first, hospitals like Donka become “a place where people are left to die.”

New facilities are being built, with upgraded equipment, at a cost no doubt huge to the government and its co-funders. Whether this will ultimately benefit the myriad poor is left unexamined. Steely heroism of the resident medicos, however, is clear. They function as well as they can. Docu doesn’t lay on tragic music or commentary to make its point — there’s no need to manipulate our emotions here.

Tech aspects are adequate, English proffered in both subtitling of dialogue (French and Malinke) and in overall narration.

Donka: X-Ray of an African Hospital

Belgian - French


A Les Films de la Passerelle/Zeaux Prods, production. Executive producer, Christine Pireaux. Directed by Thierry Michel.


Camera (color), Luc Frisson; editor, Marine Deleu; music, Marc Herouet; sound, Pierre Mertens, Marine Deleu, Philippe Beaudoin; medical assistant, Mariama Diallo; associate producers, Leon Desclozeaux, Martine Barbe, Christiane Philippe; assistant director, Aliou N'Doy Bah. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 27, 1997. Running time: 89 MIN.
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