A film that will move your heart

'The Heart of Nuba' features the work of a Catholic missionary in one of the most dangerous places in the world

Photo: Courtesy of Kenneth A. Carlson
Photo: Courtesy of Kenneth A. Carlson

The thought of watching a documentary can sometimes strike fear into my heart. Not fear of death, but fear of boredom or fear of falling asleep. That was not the case when I watched the great documentary The Heart of Nuba. 

This 85-minute film will move your heart and make you want to go to the Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan even though it is one of the most dangerous places in the world to live.

The film centers on Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic missionary from Amsterdam, New York, who is the only doctor within 200 miles. He treats some 400 patients a day and works long hours six days a week and is on call 24 hours a day. The only day he has “off” is Sunday. His hospital is called Mother of Mercy and was started by the Roman Catholic Diocese of El Obeid as a way of trying to care for the Nuba peoples.

At first as you watch the film your trying to figure out why there are so many injured people and why is Dr. Tom the only physician around. It is explained quickly that it’s the dictator of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, bombing his own people. He is trying to exterminate the Nuba people to get the land they live on which is rich in minerals and is fertile farmland.

One of the unsettling aspects of the film is watching men, women, and children run for bunkers every time a plane or jet flies over because the aircraft are almost always dropping bombs. It is terrifying. The wounded and the sick visit the hospital every day.

Photo: Courtesy of Kenneth A. Carlson

Dr. Tom’s daily life is centered on trying to help as many people as he can. In the medical world he is anomaly, a doctor who is surgeon, OB-GYN, pediatrician, and general practitioner. The camera follows him around to record his whole day that begins with the rosary at the crack of dawn followed by Mass and then he begins his rounds in the hospital.

We get to watch as Dr. Tom performs surgery on the young and old, and I’ll warn you there are some graphic scenes that may not be suitable for children or the fainthearted. The viewer is shown Dr. Tom working with those afflicted by leprosy; his compassion and love for these truly sick people shines through the screen. Dr. Tom was struck by the Gospel passage that relays the story of the rich young man:

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Matthew 19:21–22)

In the film Dr. Tom says that he takes this passage seriously. From another person it might seem overly pious but from Dr. Tom it feels so genuine. His other role model is, of course, St. Francis of Assisi. And, believe me, Dr. Tom is truly living the simple life. He has very few possessions and what he does have, he has to care for because getting supplies is difficult and yet somehow the people manage.

One of the less harrowing but heartbreaking scenes in the film is when Dr. Tom gets a rare break to go home and visit his family. His parents are aging; his dad is 85, and so he speaks about being torn from his work and for wanting to care for his parents.

I think we can all identify with those feelings. We get to meet his parents and some siblings in the film. One of his brothers is a Catholic priest and has a lot to add to the story, as do his parents. The scenes with his family in New York are a welcome respite from the violence and bloodshed of Sudan but you know it’s temporary and so it’s sad, too.

For me, the message of the film is beautiful, that one person can make a difference, that unprovoked civil war is bloody and horrible, and that we can make a difference in the lives of people we may never see, however they are just as important as the people we do know.

Knowledge of this conflict in a country known for violence and for war is forever imprinted on my brain; this film will do that to you. The film is available on Hulu; please give it a viewing, you will not be sorry you watched it.

If you’d like to help Dr. Tom visit, TheHeartofNuba.com. It is a great cause!

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