‘Heart of Nuba’ Tells of Catholic Doctor’s Service and Selflessness

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In the new documentary, “The Heart of Nuba,” an inspiring true story is told about Dr. Tom Catena, an American physician at Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan.

There, the film’s producers say, Dr. Catena has “selflessly and courageously” served the needs of a forgotten people as the region is bombed by Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes. The film was produced and directed by Kenneth Carlson. Journalist Maria Shriver was the executive producer.

The producers note that Dr. Catena is a devout Catholic who believes in Christ’s call to serve the most needy. He has spent the past 10 years as the only doctor for an estimated 1 million people, with assistance from nurses. Last May, Dr. Catena, a lay missioner of the Catholic Medical Mission Board, was awarded the prestigious Aurora Prize for his humanitarian work.

At the end of the Manhattan premiere March 26, the audience of more than 350 applauded and cheered loudly. Inside the Village East Cinema, they were moved by the documentary’s storyline and inspired by the strong faith of a doctor, who is shown alone in the film at early-morning prayer, with rosary and candlelight.

“I thought it was really beautiful and striking,” Zuzanna Krzatala, a research fellow with the International Rescue Committee, told CNY as she and a friend were leaving the theater. “I’m so glad that it is shining light on the conflict, and on what has been happening in the Nuba Mountains.” Ms. Krzatala, who is New York-based, noted that it is significant that the film shows how the Nuba people live in constant fear.

“The Heart of Nuba,” narrated by Dr. Catena, has American distribution and was released April 6 in theaters in New York. It will be released nationwide April 13.

In the film’s early moments, Dr. Catena speaks directly to the camera. “This is a documentary film that is very dear to my heart…the people in the Nuba Mountains are special people that are very near and dear to me.” He goes on to note the governmental oppression of the people and the dire impact of the civil war. Later in the film, he says, “Everybody’s life is valuable. We can’t lose sight of that; otherwise we lose our humanity…There is hope in this place, in these lives.”

Then viewers see children playing in a field, and the children soon hear the roar of a military jet overhead, and a bomb is dropped. Screaming, the children run into a foxhole. Similar scenes are shown in the film several times.

Viewers also see Dr. Catena, 52, operating on adults and children who have been injured during the bombings, or have been suffering from illness. Some patients are left without a leg or an arm, or both—most of the surgery scenes are graphic. A number in the audience left the theater during the premiere.

Dr. Catena’s moments of doubt are filmed, with words of frustration, but he carries on, lifted by his faith. And we see him falling ill, suffering from malaria and leaving Nuba to recuperate and rest while visiting his family in Amsterdam, N.Y. The two-week visit shows a warm welcome from his parents, siblings and other relatives.

Family members speak in the film, mostly about Dr. Catena’s dedicated work, but also about Catena the man, the caring person and the football player, who was a defensive lineman while he was an undergraduate student at Brown University, class of 1986. Among the family members who speak in the documentary is a younger brother, Father Paul Catena, the pastor of Annunciation parish in upstate Ilion in the Diocese of Albany.

Bishop Emeritus Macram Gassis, of the Diocese of El Obeid, also speaks in the film. And viewers witness a wedding ceremony, which occurred on May 6, 2016 in Nuba, when Dr. Catena married Nasima, a Sudanese woman who is one of the nurses.

Before the March 26 premiere, CNY interviewed Cornelio Catena, 62, Dr. Catena’s oldest brother. “We are incredibly thankful to Ken Carlson and CMMB for giving the opportunity to Tom to tell the story about the struggle there in the Nuba Mountains,” he said. “Ken brought the story to life, really for the whole world.” Dr. Catena grew up the fifth of the seven siblings in the Italian-America family.

Before the premiere, director Carlson said, “This part of the Sudan has a forgotten people, and we wanted to give a voice to the voiceless. And we used Dr. Tom Catena as our narrative, our through line for the film.” Carlson graduated from Brown with Dr. Catena, and also played with him on the football team’s defensive line. (Dr. Catena received his medical degree from Duke University).

“The Heart of Nuba” (running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes), which was privately funded, was shot between 2014 and 2016—and shown at film festivals last year. The organization Catholics in Media has presented the film its inaugural Catholics in Media Associates Social Justice Award.

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