The story of the global nonprofit Partners in Health is the story of a few young idealists who couldn't have started any smaller — trying to delivery primary health care in rural Haiti 30 years ago. With no structures, little money, undaunted spirits and a belief that all lives are worth saving, the tireless work of Paul Farmer, Jim Yong Kim and Ophelia Dahl revolutionized the global health movement. Partners in Health now employs 18,000 people and impacts rural communities around the world. Their story is recounted in the documentary "Bending the Arc," from directors Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival.
"Paul and Jim and Ophelia are personal heroes for me," Matt Damon said recently by phone. Damon's an executive producer on the film, as is Ben Affleck. Both have known Farmer for years, having sought him out for his extraordinary contributions to the global health care movement. Affleck met him in Rwanda, Damon met him in Haiti, and both civic-minded Hollywood stars didn't blink at lending their support to the project when producer Cori Shepherd Stern approached them.
Both believe the film will be inspiring and galvanizing for millennials as they seek a theatrical distributor at Sundance.
"What's so great about their story is it didn't start grand and big," said Damon. "It started with these people who had incredible passion."
Affleck, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, was drawn to the fact that the three-decade partnership all started with a shared conviction that, "preventable suffering was totally unacceptable."
For Dahl, when she thinks about it, the origin of the movement really goes back to their upbringings, where they'd been socialized to expect the best, or at least know that when things go wrong, that there are always steps you can take to make it better.
"When I went to central Haiti and saw what I saw there, it kind of in some ways, didn't occur to me that we couldn't improve it in some way," Dahl said. "It's the good side of arrogance. You don't expect it for yourself, and if you can translate that and think that it should be much better for all of these people, and you put into it the same kind of effort that you would looking after your own children, your own parents, and you see results, that's really powerful to see things happen."
Stern got started pursuing the story in 2003, following the publication of Tracy Kidder's book about Farmer, "Mountains Beyond Mountains." It took over seven years to make "Bending the Arc," which chronicles the origins and the strides Farmer, Dahl and Kim made in treating Tuberculosis and HIV in developing countries through community-based care, fair pricing and global funding.
"Ultimately, the story is an invitation. It's an invitation for all of us who have some power and who can bring out voices to influence power to reject the mindset that health care is simply too hard or too expensive or too complicated," Affleck said. "They've shown how to build systems that are rooted in equity and quality and efficiency and compassion. 'Bending the Arc' brings those to life and forces us to wrestle with an urgent imperative to create a new, just health care norm for everyone."
Dahl is a bit worried about the new political climate under President Trump, but said that throughout her years of work around the world, she's always found people in government at every level who are willing to help. One of the most significant AIDS relief programs, PEPFAR, she notes, was started under President George W. Bush.
"This movement for global health has gathered a lot of steam around the world," she said. "It's a pretty unstoppable force of people who believe in far more equality in health."
Damon also doesn't know what the future holds, but hopes for the best.
"Jim Kim's ambition was not to run the World Bank. He was like, 'I was protesting that thing 20 years ago!' That's the great message of the movie and the great lesson of their experience and what they did is that it started at a place of purity and passion and grew into something that's massive and undeniable and that's I think really a great lesson for every millennial," Damon said. "If you can stick with something, and truly believe in something and can stay with it and find comrades in arms, you can move mountains."
"Bending the Arc" screens one more time before the 2017 Sundance Film Festival wraps up Sunday.
• Sunday, 6 p.m., Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City