Saints don’t always look the way you’d expect. Case in point: Dr. Tom Catena, the subject of Kenneth A. Carlson’s documentary. Serving as the only doctor for nearly one million people living in the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan, the middle-aged, bald and lanky Catena more resembles a hard-working insurance salesman than a man who’s sacrificed so much to help others. The Heart of Nuba delivers a moving but thankfully not overly sentimental portrait of this admirable figure.
The people living in the region are under constant aerial bombardment by the forces of the country’s longtime dictator, and indicted war criminal, President Omar Al-Bashir. Bashir wants their land for its rich mineral resources and is not hesitant to commit genocide in order to procure it.
The Mother of Mercy Hospital, for which Catena is the only physician, is the only medical facility within 200 miles. Practicing nearly every form of medicine and surgery (he often has to learn on the job), Catena has a steady stream of patients, many of whom have suffered debilitating injuries as a result of the area’s regular bombings. The documentary begins with an example of such an event that’s become so sadly frequent that the people immediately run for shelter when they hear the sound of planes overhead.
The filmmaker, a longtime friend of his subject, follows Catena throughout his days which invariably begin with saying a rosary at 6 a.m. “It’s the best time of the day,” Catena comments, alluding to the peacefulness that he otherwise rarely experiences.
The documentary chronicles Catena’s treatment of several patients, including a baby with a large tumor in his kidney and a man whose nose has been torn off by shrapnel from an explosion. He also attends to a colony of lepers, making sure to engage with them physically.
“It’s important to touch these people,” Catena points out, adding that, while leprosy is indeed contagious, it’s not easily transmitted.
Attending to his patients with indefatigable energy and good humor — he reserves his ire for Bashir, to whom he refers in profanity-filled rants — Catena acknowledges that his work in Sudan has come at significant personal cost. He laments the absence of a wife and family, a concern that’s shared by his mother and six siblings living in upstate New York. “My mother’s still pushing for me,” he says ruefully. We learn of his early life, including his years as a star football player at Brown University (archival footage demonstrates his prowess on the field). He originally intended to become an engineer before deciding that his true calling was medicine and enlisted in the military to pay for his tuition. Before arriving in Sudan, he practiced medicine in Kenya for eight years, performing some 2,000 operations.
If Catena has any faults, they’re not on display in this documentary. But it hardly matters, considering the importance of the work that he’s done and continues to do. And while The Heart of Nuba features harrowing footage of yet another devastating bombing shortly before its conclusion, you’ll be relieved to know that it at least has a happy ending.
Production company: Carlson Films
Director: Kenneth A. Carlson
Producer: Jeff Werner, Kenneth A. Carlson
Directors of photography: Kenneth A. Carlson, Mike Chege, Mark Kihara
Editor: Sarah Brockhoff
Composer: Randy Miller