Dr. Thomas Burke
Burke, chief of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Global Health and Human Rights, has been working to build a medical school and curriculum for students in the South Sudan to help the country develop its own doctors. He shares his experience in his second documentary about the Sudan, “Between the Earth and Sky.’’ The film highlights the students’ desire to learn and succeed while battling hunger, malnutrition, and homelessness. It will be shown at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Idaho on March 15.
Q. Explain how you got interested in this subject?
‘In the Western world, I think a lot of people would give up . . . if they had to learn under such harsh conditions, but [the Sudanese students] don’t give up.’
A. I was giving a lecture at the University of Juba in the South Sudan. I met a group of medical students who were teaching themselves biochemistry by drawing diagrams in the dirt with a stick. Most of them survived war as child soldiers and their stories were incredible. When I came back to the States, I couldn’t stop talking about them. I was out sailing with two former Harvard medical students who were so moved by the story, they wanted to get involved. They eventually flew to the South Sudan, developed a curriculum, and started teaching classes. It was so inspiring to see students teaching students. It seemed like another great opportunity for a film.
Q. Did the Sudan’s political state have any effect on your work there?
A. During the referendum [on South Sudan’s bid for independence from Sudan] about a year ago, schools in the north shut their doors to the south and all of these students, who were refugees, were forced to come back to Juba. The University [of Juba] was overwhelmed and things were pretty rocky. The school had to shut down, but we’ve been teaching there anyway. About four weeks ago, the school reopened and now we have faculty teaching students, as well as medical students from the States.
Q. What was it like teaching when the school was shut down?
A. Because there was such an influx of all of these people returning to the South Sudan, most of them were homeless, food prices were soaring, and we had probably close to half of our students homeless and starving. We had to create a food program to feed them, and because we didn’t have a grant, all of the funding for it was just whatever people could pitch in out of their own pockets.
Q. How did these students’ being former child soldiers and refugees influence the documentary?
A. It makes the viewer really pause and recognize what’s possible. It gives a profound respect for the human race. These students were forced into war, and they want to turn that into love for fellow human beings and heal their nation. There’s a sense of commitment with these students that you don’t find elsewhere. In the Western world, I think a lot of people would give up on learning if they had to learn under such harsh conditions, but [the Sudanese students] don’t give up. I think the idea that these students were once child soldiers teaches us a great deal about stopping and being humble.
Q. You could have chosen to portray this story and your work in the Sudan through still photographs or writing. Why did you choose film?
A. These are real people. They’re likable. It’s different than reading; you can’t not look at it and you can’t not feel something for them.
Q. What was your goal for “Between the Earth and Sky?’’
A. This is an extraordinary story of optimism, perseverance, and proving what’s possible. I really wanted to show the story of the South Sudan, because it’s one of great possibility. There’s nothing more important than showing people that health care is accessible and that there is an infrastructure they can trust. These students are exceptionally bright and absolutely capable of attending any top-tier medical school in the United States. If they’re able to get a good education in the field of medicine, they’ll be among the first doctors in their country. And that’s huge; we want to share that with people.
Q. Do you have plans for any more films?
A. Yes. This past year, my organization, Ujenzi Trust, cared directly for 5,200 children with malnutrition and screened many more than that. Most of the workers are from the US and are medical students, so we’re really interested in doing a documentary on that.
Interview has been condensed and edited. Erica Thompson can be reached at email@example.com.