CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 17 . . . . April 28, 2006
War Hospital is a moving documentary set in a Northern Kenyan field hospital which serves victims of the war in Sudan. While the images attest to the horrors of war, perhaps the most striking thing about the movie is that it humanizes the players in the conflict by documenting seemingly insignificant moments. From the patients to the staff, it is the banal details that the movie captures which allow the viewer to understand somewhat the impact of the Sudanese conflict.
In one scene, a staff member bathes a patient while a radio reports the latest update in the war. The sharp contrast between reportable news and this painfully common scene in the hospital demonstrates the constant and tragic reality of war. The staff person is calm and compassionate, and it forces the viewer to really question the circumstances that could allow an individual to regard all of this as normal.
Earlier in the movie, a doctor examines a patient while explaining to the filmmaker that she is just unbelievably tired because she has been awake for three days straight. The filmmaker is able to capture this, and it makes the fact that she is continuing to treat patients without complaint that much more amazing. On the other hand, as the movie goes on, it becomes apparent that this amount of widespread exhaustion must be affecting the level of care provided to the patients. Combined with stressful circumstances, constantly highlighted by the close-ups of anti-arms stickers on everything from the hospital doors to the transport vehicles, and the lack of resources, it is truly a miracle that this care-facility continues to do its work.
It is clear that the facility operates due to the dedication and passion that each staff member gives to his/her job every day. There is a scene in which a male staff member changes the dressings on a severely bandaged baby. The emotions that are shared between the staff member and the mother highlight their similarities, in contrast to the stereotype that there are rigid gender differences between African men and women. It is a powerful example of the way in which the documentary diminishes the difference between ‘‘us’’ in the West and ‘‘them’’ in war-torn countries.
The film manages to reveal the reality of the situation in the lives of the patients as well as in those of the staff. In one poignant scene, a man examines the stump of his leg, watches emotionless while his peers play volleyball, and then clumsily attempts to join in the game. It is alarmingly evident that this man will forever live with the effects of the war, regardless of political successes or failures. Details like this appear throughout the film, and it is often these that make the most impact.
Perhaps the most shockingly banal scene is a burial scene toward the end of the film. Staff members tape up a small box, drive it out to a large plain, gently drop it into a hole and then proceed to cover the box back up with dirt and stones, presumably to prevent animals from digging up the body. The workers climb back out of the hole, saying nothing. Yet the mood is reverent. It is tragically apparent that this procedure is all too common, and to pray or to perform some sort of ceremony would be almost perverse in this situation. As the vehicle carries the workers away from the burial ground, the camera pans over the hundreds, perhaps thousands of identical graves. This moment reveals the horror of unnatural death. It is as if the workers cannot stop to acknowledge that they have just buried a newborn baby because doing so would make it impossible to do the same job the next day.
War Hospital is a realistic and insightful documentary. It does not attempt to make any grand statements about war and about the results of war. Rather, it gets its weight from the ordinary moments in life that have been profoundly altered by conflict. The filmmakers make these lives significant because they are able to show how alike these people are to anyone who may watch the film. There are times when it is difficult to understand the dialogue since there are so many accents and because the film is shot in the field, but overall this documentary captures the brutal and dehumanizing reality of war. Nonetheless, the viewer is able to see that there is hope as long as there are people who are willing to dedicate their lives to helping even a fraction of the victims.
Dana Eagles-Daley is a Special Education Teacher and Yoga Instructor in Ottawa.
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