The 19th-century Boston Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker is quoted as saying “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one. . . . But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Perhaps so, but it needs a lot of help to get there. Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos’s cogent and often exhilarating documentary “Bending the Arc” (with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as producers) takes its title from Parker’s words and tells the story of some people determined to hasten that arc.
Physician Paul Farmer and activist Ophelia Dahl (who, along with Dr. Jim Yong Kim, cofounded the NGO Partners in Health) met in 1983 in Haiti, where they were both working to help the poor. In what Farmer describes as one of many moments of “serendipity,” these two befriended Fritz Lafontant, a Haitian priest who suggested they take their skills and aspirations to Cange, a destitute, remote village, and build a clinic there.
Farmer at the time was studying for his medical degree at Harvard. On weekends he would return to Haiti — sometimes with equipment and medicine “borrowed” from the university or the hospitals where he worked — and put newly learned expertise to work. He also became friends with Kim, and together the friends developed a community-based program to combat tuberculosis, a model which they would later bring to Peru and Rwanda and use in fighting HIV-AIDS.
As the three acknowledge, one of their problems was a lack of experience. It was also one of their greatest strengths, as they didn’t know enough not to attempt the seemingly impossible. But the unwillingness of institutions such as the World Bank Group and the World Health Organization to try unproven methods would turn out to be more of an obstacle to their work than the challenges of primitive conditions in impoverished communities.
Despite the extraordinary results Farmer, Kim, and Dahl achieved with their treatment of tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS, these institutions did not think treating people in underdeveloped countries was practical or effective. They felt preventive measures should be the priority. In effect, they were resigned to the belief that the lives of poor people suffering from curable diseases were not worth the trouble of saving.
Davidson and Kos tell this story through interviews intercut with footage and stills of the events. At times the participants are shown images of some of the patients they cured. Kim is shown before-and-after videos of a Peruvian youth he treated — in the first, the patient is skeletal and near death; in the latter, he is robust, handsome, and grateful.
Kim weeps. You might, too.
In the end, the film describes not so much an arc as a circle. Kim, who had criticized the World Bank for its callous approach to financing health care for the poor, is appointed its chairman by President Obama in 2012. Farmer and Dahl (daughter of Roald) return to where they first met in Haiti, now the site of a state-of-the-art teaching hospital they helped build.
For proof that hope and determination make a difference, pessimists and cynics need look no further than “Bending the Arc.”
BENDING THE ARC
Directed by Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos. Written by Cori Shepherd Stern. 102 minutes. At Somerville Theatre. Unrated (grim hospital images).
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.