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Film Review: ‘Bending the Arc’

A stirring documentary about bringing basic healthcare services to those who need it most.

'Bending the Arc' Review
Sundance Institute

For anyone who wants to believe in the promise of Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” a film like “Bending the Arc” is downright inspiring. With the gripping appeal of a great epic novel, Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos’ documentary spans three decades of diligent work on the frontlines of global health crises to prove, in moving detail, the difference dedicated professionals can make in seemingly hopeless situations. The film, with the help of celebrity producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, should overcome resistance to ostensibly downbeat subject matter to garner attention in the nonfiction marketplace.

Davidson and Kos filter the story through the work and friendship of physicians Paul Farmer, the co-founder of Partners In Health, and Jim Yong Kim, the current president of the World Bank Group, who began as idealistic medical students with the simple goal of launching a primary healthcare clinic in Haiti during the late ’80s. That expands into a battle against tuberculosis in both Haiti and South America, which yields important lessons for later fights against the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and Ebola in Rwanda.

The incredible evolution of their story is presented through a riveting mix of talking-head interviews, archival footage, and vérité footage (the directors, who launched their project in 2010, benefit greatly from supplemental material captured by two other filmmakers, David Murdock and David Belle, for earlier projects). Farmer and Kim are engaging interview subjects, as are their close associates Ophelia Dahl, who first met Farmer is 1983; Agnes Binagwaho, Rwanda’s former Minister of Health; and Joia Mukherjee, the chief medical officer at Partners In Health.

While it’s one thing to hear medical professionals narrate their accomplishments and the hurdles they’ve faced along the way, it’s another to see the difference they’ve made with our own eyes. A sequence where Kim breaks down in tears at the sight of a former patient, who he remembers on the verge of death’s door with drug resistant tuberculosis but today is a happy and healthy adult, demonstrates that even the doctors themselves can still be moved by the miraculous nature of basic medical care.

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.

Writer Cori Shepherd Stern brings a snap to the storytelling that gives the film its shape, bolstered by the nimble work by veteran editor Kos and Yuki Aizawa, who seamlessly craft the mishmash of materials into a smooth and satisfying whole.

Film Review: ‘Bending the Arc’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 22, 2017. Running time: 102 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) An Urban Landscapes production, in association with Scout & Scholar, Impact Partners. Producers: Kief Davidson, Cori Shepherd Stern. Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Eric Dobkin, Barbara Dobkin, Rick Rosenthal, Nancy Stephens, Damon Lindelof, Heidi Lindelof, Lekha Singh, Patty Quillin, Nina Fialkow, David Fialkow, Diana Barrett, Joan Platt, Jim Swartz, Susan Swartz, Sally Osberg, Sandy Herz, Bernard Friedman, Sean Mewshaw, Desi VanTil.
  • Crew: Directors: Kief Davidson, Pedro Kos. Writer: Cori Shepherd Stern. Camera (color, HD): David Murdock, Guy Mossman, Joshua Dreyfus, Nick Higgins, Davidson. Editors: Kos, Yuki Aizawa. Music: H. Scott Salinas, Matthew Atticus Berger.
  • With: Paul Farmer, Jim Yong Kim, Ophelia Dahl, Agnes Binagwaho, Joia Mukherjee. (English, Haitian Creole, Spanish, Kinyarwanda dialogue)