Boston Globe: Dealing with life and death in southern Sudan

An interview with Producer/Director Kenneth A. Carlson

The conflict and atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region seized the world’s attention about 10 years ago, but since then other wars have taken its place. Nonetheless, the bloodshed continues as the Sudanese Omar al-Bashir has attacked the people of the disputed Nuba Mountain region.

All non-governmental organizations have been banned from the area, but Dr. Tom Catena, 52, of the Catholic Mother of Mercy hospital remains, the sole doctor for a million people. Despite war-zone conditions, he has been on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, tending to al-Bashir’s victims.

Filmmaker Ken Carlson tells Dr. Catena’s story in his powerful documentary “The Heart of Nuba.” On the phone from Santa Monica, Calif., Carlson tells how he came across the story and what he hopes his film will accomplish.

Q. How do you know Dr. Catena?

A. Tom and I were teammates on the Brown University football team in the 1980s. We played on the same defensive line. We all knew that Tom was destined for great things, but for what things we had no idea. For many years we didn’t keep strong ties, but then when he came back to the US from Sudan to accept an award from the Ivy League Football Foundation I pitched the film about him. So I went to the hospital in February and March of 2014 and 2015 for three weeks each time to shoot it.

Q. Did you feel like you were in danger at any time?

A. I didn’t feel like it: I knew I was. I was held at gunpoint the first time I landed in South Sudan. I was yanked off the plane and I didn’t think I was going to get out of it, but I mentioned Tom Catena. They stopped and looked at me — and this was 400 to 500 miles away from the hospital. They said, “You know Dr. Tom?” I said, “Yes.” His name alone had the power to save my life.

Then when I got to the hospital there were 17 casualties from a bombing being treated. It was mayhem. There was blood everywhere, and Tom was in surgery into the evening. This is what Tom Catena does every day. But after three weeks I was ready to leave.

Q. Darfur was a big cause back in 2006, but now you never hear about Sudan. What happened?

A. Darfur is all done; al-Bashir has committed the genocide that he wanted to commit. So now he’s focused on the Nuba Mountains. True, we did rally for Darfur. It was a cause many were involved in. George Clooney attached his name to it and I applaud him for doing so. But we’re a cause du jour society. When I tell people that I made a movie about Sudan, usually their eyes glaze over. And it’s Africa. It just isn’t relevant. But I’m not accepting that.

We have built a huge coalition, including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch. We’ve shown the film to the Italian Senate, to the British Parliament, and Congress, on Capitol Hill. It’s time for people to stand up and take notice. These are lives, and every life matters.

“The Heart of Nuba” screens Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston St. A panel discussion with the filmmaker will follow.

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