by J.R. Jones
I can't help but notice that the Oscar rules for short documentaries limit them to 40 minutes and that most of the nominees come within a hair's breadth of that length, which makes me wonder whether they were originally conceived as features but then trimmed down to qualifying length when their commercial prospects made any sort of Oscar nod the best avenue toward finding an audience. Open Heart, which clocks in at exactly 39 minutes and 28 seconds, tells the story of six Rwandan children traveling to Sudan to undergo open-heart surgery at the Salam Centre or Cardiac Care, whose free, state-of-the-art pediatric facility is the only institution of its kind in Africa. Few things are as painful to watch as children fighting for their lives, yet the film never digs into their experience enough to distinguish itself apart from the worthiness of its topic.
Instead director Kief Davidson presents thumbnail portraits of the children and some of the staffers as the hospital, such as surgeon Gino Strada, founder of the Italian relief organization that built the hospital, and Emmanuel Rusingiza, a pediatric cardiologist at the University Teaching Hospital in Kigali, Rwanda, who cares for one of the ailing children. There's a pretty interesting digression when Davidson explores the hospital's funding situation: about three-quarters of its budget comes from donations, but the other quarter comes from the Sudanese government, and a recent devaluation of the country's currency has resulted in a funding gap. At one point the hospital welcomes Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan (a title notes that he's been accused of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, though this issue is never pursued apart from its apparent irony). Al-Bashir's solution to the funding crisis is to establish a second facility that operates for profit, though the surgeons don't seem to like that idea very much.
The emotional hook, however, is the children, and Open Heart is most affecting for the story of Marie, who seems to be recuperating along with the other five but learns, just before they're all about to fly home, that she needs a second operation to address complications from her artificial valve. Some of her fellow patients have told her that she's unlikely to survive another operation, and she's visibly heartbroken when the others bid her farewell. One wonders whether the other children might also have interesting stories, stories that wound up on the cutting room floor so that Davidson could hit the 40-minute mark, and you and I might be introduced to this remarkable facility and its work. Like a lot of these doctors, he probably had to make a choice between doing what was possible or doing nothing at all.