DR. TOM CATENA in a scene from "The Heart of Nuba." (CNS photo/courtesy Kenneth A. Carlson)
DR. TOM CATENA in a scene from "The Heart of Nuba." (CNS photo/courtesy Kenneth A. Carlson)

(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Catholic New York, where Armando Machado is a reporter. Information from The Evangelist and Catholic News Service has been added.)

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.

Local Catholic
Dr. Catena is a native of Amsterdam in the Albany Diocese. (Read previous stories about his work at www.evangelist.org.) His brother, Rev. Paul Catena, is pastor of Our Lady Queen of Apostles parish in Frankfort and Annunciation in Ilion.

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 one million people, with assistance from nurses.

Last May, Dr. Catena, a lay missioner of the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB), was awarded the prestigious Aurora Prize for his humanitarian work.

At the end of the Manhattan premiere March 26 of “The Heart of Nuba,” 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 Catholic New York 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.”

About the film
Ms. Krzatala, who is New York-based, said 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 and nationwide April 13. (See sidebar for information about screenings in the Albany Diocese. Watch https://theheartofnuba.com for updates.)

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. 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.

Graphic scenes
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.

A Catholic News Service review of the documentary noted that Dr. Catena sees an average of 500 patients every day and “may perform as many as 15 surgeries before dawn.” The review notes that the physician “keeps a record of the war wounds he treats, including photos he preserves on a flash drive ‘for al-Bashir’s trial.’”

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

Family members, including Father Catena, 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.
Bishop Emeritus Macram Gassis of the Diocese of El Obeid in Sudan also speaks in the film. Viewers even witness Dr. Catena’s May 2016 wedding to Nasima, a Sudanese woman who is a nurse.

Giving voice
Dr. Catena grew up the fifth of the seven siblings in an Italian-American family. Before the March 26 premiere, Catholic New York 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.”

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: one 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 presented the film with its inaugural Catholics in Media Associates social justice award. “Remarkably,” notes the Catholic News Service review of the film, “‘The Heart of Nuba,’ a copy of which was sent to al-Bashir, may have contributed to the fragile cease-fire that now exists in the region. Carlson...hopes his film will continue to raise awareness of the situation in Sudan so that ultimately, al-Bashir will be made to answer for his crimes, and Dr. Tom can serve the people he assists in peace.”

(The Catholic News Service classification for the film is A-II — adults and adolescents. It is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.)