Festival Review: War Hospital

Picture a war. Helicopters drone, bombs fall and napalm sears. Gunfire permanently penetrates the air. Fires rage. Smoke suffocates. Corpses litter the ground, and blood pours from bodies riddled with bullets.

What you’re probably not picturing is a hospital. Most of the images of war we see exclude those of treatment and recovery. Filmmakers David Christensen and Damien Lewis bring the medical images of war to the public consciousness in their documentary War Hospital, one of the selections at the 2005 Calgary International Film Festival.

With permission from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Christensen and Lewis gathered footage of the activity inside the Lopiding surgical hospital in Lokichoggio, northern Kenya, which borders war-torn Sudan. The film offers no narration, nor are there interviews with the staff or patients at the hospital. Instead the filmmakers let the images speak for themselves, which ultimately gives the film its power.

The most heart-wrenching scenes in War Hospital involve children, especially newborns or infants. Stephane, a medivac nurse, explains why he has to turn away a 14-day-old child with a head wound for treatment, saying the baby is too young for a skin graft. One child in the hospital, barely a year old, wears a near-full body cast. In War Hospital, Christensen and Lewis create a beautiful juxtaposition of the celebration of life and the sadness of death. Despite all the suffering, the hospital brims with hope. While men are treated for gunshot wounds, there are other young men enjoying a game of volleyball outside. During Christmas celebrations, medical staff treat Athok, an expectant mother whose baby had to be removed from her abdomen because it was too small to survive. While children sing “Jingle Bells,” Athok’s mother sits at her daughter’s bedside and cries quietly.

War Hospital is a provocative and profound documentary with the power to change how we view war. Instead of concentrating on the violent images of bombs and guns, we should consider the people wounded by those weapons and the dedicated doctors and nurses who treat them. This poignancy makes War Hospital a best bet at this year’s film festival.

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