Thirty years ago, as horrific disease like AIDS and tuberculosis ravaged much of the world, three remarkable young people—Jim Yong Kim, Paul Farmer, and Ophelia Dahl—came together in a squatter settlement in Haiti, determined to provide to Haitians the same world-class medical care they would expect for their own families.
They marshalled resources to build high quality health clinics in areas long ignored, and Partners in Health was born. Idealistic but inexperienced, early failures caused them to question the status quo of healthcare delivery and pioneer a revolutionary model that partnered with the patients themselves and trained ordinary Haitians as health care workers. This approach has now guided health initiatives from Peru to Rwanda and saved millions of lives.
Bending the Arc, a documentary charting the path of Partners In Health by Kief Davidson, Pedro Kos, and Cori Shepherd Stern, premiered at Sundance and screened again at the Skoll World Forum. It’s been critically well received, and has sparked rich dialogue in policy, global health, and social entrepreneurship circles. We sat down recently with Sandy Herz, Director of Global Partnerships at Skoll, to hear more about her role in the project and the early impact it has had.
Zach Slobig: So you and Sally Osberg, Skoll CEO, have executive producer credits on the film. Tell me a bit about your contribution and when you first joined the project.
Sandy Herz: I was first introduced to the project by Andrew Marx at Partners In Health in 2010. He encouraged writer/producer Cori Shepherd Stern to reach out to us because of our partnership with Sundance on Stories of Change. Through that program, we made an early grant, and we’ve been in an ongoing conversation with writer/producer Cori Shepherd Stern throughout the whole process. We hosted a session here at Skoll with PIH and the filmmakers and various advisers to help map out an impact campaign and work through how that could best serve PIH. We wanted to ensure that was intentional.
And if I want to impress people at a cocktail party, I might say I’m executive producer on this film along with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck…and 20 other people.
Zach: What do you think the appeal was for Damon and Affleck?
Sandy: I think with the relevance of the film, they’d like to see it inspire young people to go out and change the world. More broadly, I think they are fans of Partners In Health and of Paul Farmer and that they were happy to be supportive and put their names on it.
Zach: This film took quite a while to make. Can you trace that path for me a bit?
Sandy: Cori Shepherd Stern started talking to PIH in 2005 and it wasn’t until 2010 that they decided to finally authorize a documentary. They signed the agreement for filming literally days before the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The film crew hadn’t even been hired yet, so Cori and producer/director Kief Davidson scrambled to get a team together and travel to Haiti to document PIH in the aftermath. The initial idea was that it would be a verite “follow along” film. But eventually the filmmakers realized that the most compelling story was the larger arc of the history of these characters, alongside the arc of global health history.
Zach: And why is this film important right now?
Sandy: There are multiple levels at which this film is important. It’s important at the level of inspiring the individual. I’ve talked to a lot of people involved in social change work and beyond who, upon seeing the film, realized that they had to set a higher bar for themselves. It motivated them to change careers or be more ambitious in their careers for social change.
The next level up is at the Partners In Health level. I think it tells the story in an accurate and scholarly way that does justice to the extraordinary change that they’ve been able to create in the world.
Finally, on a higher level, this is a story of what’s possible in global health and equity. There are often entrenched interests—officials and institutions who simply say things can’t be done, in part because if it could be done, then what have they been doing with their entire lives?
Zach: And that’s an uncomfortable question to face.
Sandy: Right, so people really are going to be vested in the status quo, not because they don’t want to see progress, but because of the large implications.
Zach: What can this film teach about social entrepreneurship?
Sandy: This is the story of how social entrepreneurs make transformational change in a status quo within entrenched systems, and the kind of pushback that they see. Look at the millions of lives that had been saved as a result of the work that they’ve done in multiple drug resistant tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS, even when the WHO initially said it was impossible. It’s really remarkable. Look at Rwanda as a case study of what’s possible if you have both the conducive environment and that high ambition to serve people’s needs.
Zach: At the Skoll World Forum screening this year, in addition to the more well-known film subjects, Melquiades Huauya Oré was on the panel. Can you talk about the importance of his attendance?
Sandy: Melquaides is one of the patients featured in Bending the Arc, in one of the most powerful sequences of the film. As a true “voice of lived experience,” Melquaides brings an incredibly important perspective to the conversation. It’s been a pleasure to see him at Sundance, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and at the Skoll World Forum. Through this film, he’s growing into a powerful speaker and advocate for patients and caregivers.
Zach: How are you seeing some of these ideas evolve on a larger stage with Jim Yong Kim of Partners In Health now heading up the World Bank?
Sandy: I think the film has created a platform for him to roll out this idea (in Oxford at the Skoll World Forum, in his recent TED talk) of the potential dark side of what he calls “the convergence of aspirations,” if those aspirations aren’t met, and those implications are huge for global health. We’re seeing people in Haiti stand up and say, “We the poor declare our right to healthcare, declare our right to be free of poverty. We now see what the rest of the world has and we demand basic healthcare.”