CATALYST @ Sundance: Bending the Arc Review

By Katherine Pioli
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A day after watching Bending the Arc, an Impact Partners film at this year’s Sundance Festival, I remain struck by an image of a middle-aged man, shirtless, leaning over a railing, his Haiti home in the background. The point of the photo is clear, this man is dying. Every rib in his chest presses, cuts against his skin. The point of the film, however, is that this man, and many like him around the world, can have a chance at life.

A second still image from Bending the Arc shows this same man, healthy and happy, after successful treatment for HIV at a rural Haitian clinic run by Dr. Paul Farmer. For 30 years, Dr. Paul Farmer and his colleagues at Partners in Health have treated patients in impoverished communities in Haiti, Peru and Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi, Mexico, Russia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Navajo Nation. Bending the Arc is their story. It follows Dr. Farmer and his colleagues—Ophelia Dahl and Dr. Jim Yong Kim—beginning in the early 1980s when they met as young students and bonded over their belief in social justice, continuing with their work through the AIDs epidemic of the 90s, all the way to the 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Through archival footage and interviews—it’s a pretty straight forward “talking head” documentary—we learn the story of Partners in Health starting with their first clinic and community-based medial system followed by a successful campaign to treat tuberculosis, all in rural Haiti. But, more importantly, the film also exposes the reality and inequity of medical care. Dr. Farmer and his colleagues (and their earliest and most ardent financial supporter, a man named Thomas White who gave his entire fortune to Partners in Health) become Christ-like figures as they battle reluctant doctors—who call treating patients in rural, impoverished, third world communities “unsustainable” and “too costly”—heartless organizations—the World Bank has a history of forcing poor and indebted countries to gut social programs, including medical programs, in order to pay back loans—and self interested governments.

The battle for adequate medical care continues today, here in the United States and in places where Partners in Health works, but despite all the hurdles Bending the Arc is a story of hope.  We see the successes of these extraordinary doctors like Dr. Farmer and the politicians who work with him, like Agnes Binagwaho, Rwanda’s Minister of Health, and realize that through extraordinary effort and perseverance even a single individual can make a huge difference in the lives of many.

This film is still awaiting distribution.

This article was originally published on January 31, 2017.