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Global Health at the Oscars

The talk the day after the Academy Awards is about Argo’s win, Jennifer Lawrence’s fall and whether or not host Seth McFarlane was funny. The show ended with a song saluting the losers of the night. Two of those losers were documentary films that covered stories of health.

Open Heart was nominated in the short form category. It tells the story of eight Rwandan children who suffer from rheumatic heart disease. They must travel to Sudan’s Salam Center in order to undergo lifesaving open-heart surgery. It includes the dual story of Rwandan cardiologist Dr. Emmanuel Rusingiza, illustrating the challenges he faces, and Italian surgeon Dr. Gino Strada, the head surgeon at the Salam Center.

Never heard of rheumatic heart diseases? That is because the leading killer of American children only a century ago is all but gone in the US. Despite the advances here, it contributes to an estimated 18 million deaths in Africa each year. A disease that develops in the wake of a streptococcal infection, rheumatic heart disease occurs at a low rate in the US because of improved prevention and treatment efforts.

The maker of the film, Kief Davidson, spoke with NPR’s Audie Cornish about the outcome of the children.

I was very convinced that at least one of them if not more would die on this trip. It was a very difficult emotional journey. You know, I found myself trying, like, many times to emotionally disconnect from the kids because they could die. But it was really impossible.

Actually for them, they did have a very happy ending. They survived it. They’ve passed the critical stage, which was six months post-surgery, smooth sailing. So we’re very, very happy for all of them.

The second film, How to Survive a Plague, is a full-length documentary that uses archival footage to show the successful work of the activist groups ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group (TAG) in the early years of the AIDS crisis. It is a sort of personal story for director David France who left his pursuit of a doctoral degree in order to be a journalist at the time of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

“I didn’t want to filter it through somebody’s memory. I didn’t want to put somebody in a chair, mike ’em up, have them say, ‘It was a terrifying time.’ I wanted to see if I could find in that old footage, the terror,” he said to the LA Times.

The two films did lose out, but will soon see wider distribution. Open Heart has already partnered with HBO and How to Survive a Plague is linked up with the Independent Film Channel. Those interested in the two films can see them on the small screen soon.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]