By Sister Hosea Rupprecht
NEW YORK (CNS) — “The Heart of Nuba” (Abramorama), an uplifting documentary directed by Kenneth Carlson and executive produced by Maria Shriver, tells a story that is, by turns, wonderful and horrifying.
The film is a portrait of Dr. Thomas Catena, a man who has devoted his life to helping the people of the Nuba Mountains region of war-torn Sudan. It’s also a study of the community he serves, a diverse society made up of Muslims, Christians, Jews and those with traditional African beliefs, all of whom live together in peace and harmony.
These positive elements of the tale are overshadowed, however, by the suffering inflicted on these same people by their own government, with daily air raids carried out on the orders of the president of Sudan, indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir.
Dr. Tom, as he is lovingly known, boasts an impressive resume: Raised in upstate New York, he was an All-American football player for Brown University, where he studied engineering. Feeling called to a different career, however, he eventually received his medical degree from Duke University, doing a stint in the Navy to help cover the cost of tuition.
Guided by the Catholic faith passed on to him by his devout family, Catena volunteered to serve in Africa through the Catholic Medical Mission Board. Though his initial work was in Kenya, he came to Sudan’s Mother of Mercy Hospital in 2008.
On his arrival there, he became the only doctor available for 200 miles and for a population of almost a million. Thus it’s not surprising that Catena begins his daily routine — during which he sees, on average, 500 patients and may perform as many as 15 surgeries — before dawn.
His morning starts with a visit to Mother of Mercy’s small chapel where he prays the rosary. “This,” he says of the devotion, “is the only thing that gets me through the day.”
The grim backdrop to Catena’s work is the violent oppression of the al-Bashir regime. He keeps a record of the war wounds he treats, including photos he preserves on a flash drive “for al-Bashir’s trial.”
Catena delights in interacting with his patients, teasing the kids and joking with the staff. “These people,” he says of them, “love to be touched, need to be touched. You can say so much with a hug.”
While some would label him a living saint, Catena humbly downplays his own accomplishments, saying he is only doing what he can to help those entrusted to him. He does acknowledge, though, that he’s driven by the conviction that every person has value, no matter where they are.
Remarkably, “The Heart of Nuba,” a copy of which was sent to al-Bashir, may have contributed to the fragile cease-fire that now exists in the region. Carlson, Catena’s classmate at Brown, hopes his film will continue to raise awareness of the situation in Sudan so that ultimately, al-Bashir will be made to answer for his crimes, and Dr. Tom can serve the people he assists in peace.
The film contains graphic medical footage, images of gory wounds and a few crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.
Sister Rupprecht, a Daughter of St. Paul, is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.