Review: Paul Farmer Works to Heal Haiti in ‘Bending the Arc’

A review by Jeanette Catsoulis for the New York Times.

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 philanthropistand 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.

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