‘Bending the Arc’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos’ doc ‘Bending the Arc’ is about a group of advocates who sought to improve access to quality healthcare around the world.

A superhero movie world-premiered at Sundance to thunderous applause. No, not a comic-book kind of creature, but the real-world heroism of three gifted caregivers that took on the might of the medical universe and triumphed for mankind.

The Bottom Line


Bending the Arc unwinds as a stunning documentary about a team of young people — Paul Farmer, Jim Yong Kim, Ophelia Dahl — whose charitable medical work 30 years ago in remote Haiti came to ignite a healthcare movement. Their mission: to deliver basic health care to those who had no access to even the most rudimentary medical help. Their obstacles: The World Bank, the medical establishment, dysfunctional governments and the poverty and isolation of their patients.

Sagely blending a vital mix of interviews, archival footage and cinema-verite shooting, directors Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos have delivered a glorious and uplifting film. Supported by writer Cori Shepherd Stern’s strong narrative spine, Bending the Arc is a heartwarming and radiant offering. Most magically, it transcends the colossal power of its own story to show how individual beings, one step at a time, can right the course of inequality and injustice.

It was roughly 30 years ago that medical student Paul Farmer ventured to Haiti to undertake a one-man mission to bring healthcare to a nation ravaged by tuberculosis. Flying back-and-forth from med school, Farmer did what he could to serve people who had been abandoned by their own government and international humanitarian institutions; they were left to die of TB, a disease that could be thwarted by proper medical treatment. During his foray into the most remote regions of Haiti, Farmer met up with a fellow idealist, Ophelia Dahl, a social activist, whose credo was also “to light one candle.”

These candles soon flickered: They were able to treat people with diseases that the medical-and-charitable complex had determined were expendable for the overall greater good of conserving healthcare resources. They were joined by another determined doctor, Jim Yong Kim, who united with them in challenging the numbers-game mentality of such giants as the World Health Organization. They gained another stalwart with the addition of Dr. Joia Mukherjee, who jumped in only after being advised that the team members had a sense of humor, vital for a quest whose circumstances were so dark.

Throughout the doc, the filmmakers convey not only the righteousness of their quest, but in interview snippets we get to know the people behind the medical masks: They are funny and self-deprecating, but forged with an unbending resolve. In short, the young doctors and activists are not only the ethical “good guys,” but the kind of “good guys” you root for.

In the real-life arc of their mission, they begin to win over allies, including President George W. Bush, and through governmental contributions their good works expand to fighting the AIDS epidemic in Africa, as well as the Ebola virus in Rwanda.

Invigorated by the crisp cadence of Kos and Yuki Aizawa’s surgical editing, as well as the resonant music of composers H. Scott Salinas and Matthew Atticus Berger’s score, Bending the Arc stretches and soars to the highest documentary dimension.

Back to the Superhero stuff: Doctor Jim Yong Kim becomes ruler of a mountain that it is so lofty that were this to happen in a dramatic film, it would be denigrated as good-feel fiction. Best, this story is too good not to be true.

Cast: Dr. Paul Farmer, Jim Yong Kim, Ophelia Dahl, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, Dr. Joia Mukherjee, St. Ker Francois, Adeline Mercon, Meliquiades Huauya Ore
Kief Davidson, Pedro Kos
Screenwriter: Cori Shepherd Stern
Kief Davidson, Cori Shepherd Stern
Co-producers: Judy
 Korin, David Murdock
Executive producers: Dan
 Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Eric & Barbara Dobkin, Rick Rosenthal & Nancy Stephens, Damon & Heidi Lindelof, Lekha Singh, Patty Barbara Dobkin, Rick Rosenthal & Nancy Stephens, Damon & Heidi Lindelof, Lekha Singh, Patty Quillin, Nina & David Fialkow, Diana Barrett for the Fledgling Fund, Joan Platt, Jim & Susan Swartz, Emerson Collective, The Pershing Square Foundation, Sally Osberg, Sandy Herz, Bernard Friedman, Sean Mewshaw & Desiree Van Til
Editors: Pedro Kos, Yuki Aizawa
Cinematographers: David Murdock, Guy
 Mussman, Joshua Dreyfus, Nick Higgins, Kief Davidson
Music: H. Scott Salinas, Matthew Atticus Berger

102 minutes