Interview: Kenneth Carlson Discusses Saints, Sudan, and His Documentary ‘The Heart of Nuba’

For nearly seven years, the Government of Sudan, under the direction of Omar al Bashir, has been at war with the people in the Nuba Mountains. This community is at the heart of the conflict between warring factions in the country.

In 2009, al Bashir was charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, but they later ruled there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. Still running the country, he ordered military actions in the Nuba Mountains. For nearly a decade, the people there have lived with the constant threat of bomb strikes, starvation, and devastating living conditions.

One American doctor, Tom Catena, has dedicated his life to serving the people of the Nuba Mountains. The only doctor around for hundreds of miles, Dr. Tom lives and works among the people, giving hope to a community that desperately needs it.

A college friend of Dr. Tom’s, Kenneth Carlson, is a documentary filmmaker. He set out to make a film about his former classmate, and in doing so, is opening the world’s eyes to what is happening in Sudan. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ken Carlson about “The Heart of Nuba,” and about Dr. Tom. Please enjoy our conversation:

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: How are you today?

Kenneth Carlson: I’m doing great. We just had an Academy screening yesterday of “The Heart of Nuba” at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater here in Los Angeles. That was a great event and a lot of fun to screen in, I think, the best theater in the United States, and a great organization.

Isn’t that a great theater?

The best! They reached out to us and wanted to show this film because they’ve been hearing about it, and it’s making a difference. They reached out and said, “Is this film actually responsible for a cease fire in Sudan?” It’s pretty wild, and I’m like, “Well, that’s actually a long story and I’d love to screen it there and talk to you about it.” And it was a nice overture. We definitely jumped on it. Anyway, how are you doing?

I’m great! I just watched the film a couple of days ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It’s funny because the other night I was up later than usual and I caught Nightline and they were talking about this film and they did your interview. And I thought, “Hey! I’m talking to him on Monday!”

That was a nice piece. Yeah, we’ve had great luck. PMK, as you know, they’ve done a fantastic job. We were on CNN, they had a 20 minute piece on CNN. The reviews have been stellar. It’s a small film, but the message is large. The message that you can make a difference and one person can provide hope to a large swath of people. And it’s getting out there and making an impact, and I’m just thrilled about that.

It is. So let’s start at the beginning. I mean way back at the very beginning. You knew Tom Catena in college, right?

Yes, correct. We were classmates together, the class of ’86. And not only were we classmates, but we were teammates. And not only were we teammates but we were players on the same defensive line on the varsity squad. So he’s a very special person to me because we’ve been on the field of battle together, so the bond that was created back then is still alive and well today.

And did you stay friends through all those years? Or did you become reacquainted through this project?

That’s a good question. We stayed in touch for several years after, and he entered the Navy and then he went over to Africa 20 some years ago. I think 21 years ago. And we lost touch. Internet wasn’t around then, and it was hard to keep in touch. Most of us on the football team and from Brown lost touch with him, but at that point it was still US Mail. And it was hard…We knew he was over there, but I had fallen out of touch with him through the early 2000s. Then about six years ago I received an email with the subject line “Cat Man Needs Our Help.” And Cat Man was Tom’s nickname in college. Cat for Catena, and also for “quick as a cat.”

So I read that email, and essentially what had happened was a truck that was designated to carry a year’s worth of supplies, medical and food supplies to the Mother Mercy Hospital from South Sudan was hijacked and raided and all of its contents were lost. And this was a couple of weeks before the rainy season. So Tom reached out to the football community at Brown University and asked for our help. And we raised in two weeks’ time $102,000, we bought him a new truck and filled it with even more supplies and sent it up there and it got there two days before the rainy season began. And that’s when I thought, you know what? This would make a great documentary. Because I knew Tom and his passion for his work and I knew at that point some of the things he was doing over there and I thought this is a great time to pull out the cameras and start filming. And that’s the genesis of “The Heart of Nuba.”

And that’s such a remarkable story. Sometimes it does take a situation like that to put us back in touch with people and to inspire these types of projects.

It does.

When you decided, “I’m going to make this documentary,” how quickly did Tom come on board with it?

That’s a great question because Tom is the most modest, the most humble person you can imagine. If you know anything about football, you have to understand he is a nose guard. And nose guards are the middle of the line. A lineman that gets no credit. No adulation. Every play he fires out and hits the person in front of him and tries to make a tackle. So no glory. And that’s kind of what he does in Sudan. He applies himself with the similar attributes and toughness and drive and his skill set and perseverance. And that’s what he does in the world.

So I reached out to him and found out he was coming back to the United States to New York City to receive an award from the Ivy Football Foundation and I said, “Hey, is there any way I can meet you there?” And he said, “I haven’t been out of the bush in two or three years now. I’d love to see you but it’s going to be a whirlwind.” And I said “I’d love to pitch you an idea for a film,” and he said, “I’m really not interested.” And I said, “Let me just sit down with you.” And he said, “Ken, I don’t really, you know, it’s not really what I’m about. I don’t want to bring attention to myself. I’m not worthy of a film and I’m too dull,” and all this.

Anyway, I met him at a small café…I pitched him the idea there and he said, “I’m really not interested.” And he said, “I’ll tell you what. If you really want to do this, prove to me that you are all in and come to the Mother Mercy Hospital in Sudan. If you make it there I’ll consider doing it.”

By the way, he left that little get together in the Upper East Side to go to the UN to petition them to come back to the Nuba Mountains because they had left. So he used the ticket the Ivy Football Foundation had given him as a way to get back. He accepted the honor, which he was thrilled to do, but it was more about getting in front of the UN to get troops back into that part of the world. That’s his thinking.

So I didn’t understand what he meant when he said, “if you can make it to me.” I was held at gunpoint in South Sudan, bombs raining down around me as I traveled up to the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel. I truly understood by the time I got to him what he meant when he said, “If you can make it to me” because it was harrowing. No journalists allowed. A moratorium on any filmmakers, journalists, anybody traveling in that area.

He welcomed me there, and allowed me to start filming, but he still didn’t want to be interviewed. He said, “If you make it about the Nuban people then I’ll agree to do a film. So that’s how I started off, by just chasing him around and telling him that I would make it about the Nuban people, and it really is in a lot of ways. And their ownership of the hospital as they’re taking over.

It took eight days to finally get the first interview with him. Eight days. Because he is so busy, but also because he is so reluctant. He just didn’t want attention or spotlight. I had to prove to him that I was serious. You can’t even really appreciate how remote and how dangerous this part of the world is.

How were you able to get into the country?

I went in with the Catholic Church. I went in as a volunteer. And the Catholic Church is the way that this hospital was built. First they built wells for water, then this hospital. They are responsible for the everyday goings on there. They are the ones who get the supplies to him. So I went up in a caravan with them, carrying vaccines and supplies. So that’s the only way to get there. But they still stop you. I had some identification stating I was a volunteer. One of the stops, in Turalei, the first stop where I landed in a cargo plane, I was pulled off the plane and threatened and yelled at and AK-47s pointed at my head and saying I’m not moving on, I wasn’t leaving there. And I eventually had to come clean that I was there to shoot a film about Dr. Tom Catena. And I kid you not. As soon as I mentioned his name, this hostile group said, “You know Dr. Tom?” And I said yes. I explained everything and they handed my cameras and let my director of photography, they handed our equipment back and said, “You can go.” So the mere mention of his name saved my life.

In order to get to this area, you go through about 30 stops, which is basically checkpoints. They have these logs across the road. Which, road is basically a path. You go through river beds. It’s as crude as possible. We had to travel at night for most of it so we wouldn’t get bombed. But as soon as the sun came up, the Russian cargo planes dropped bombs on us. So the journey to get to Tom was as difficult as you can imagine. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve been to some rough places, but I’ve never been in anything like this.

Not only did I do that, but then I went back a second time. I had to go through the same thing. It was similar circumstances. I went in and got the story and I left, but Tom remains. There’s shelling off in the distance. Bombing relentlessly. But he remains. He is a hero. It’s hard to imagine how one can live a life of service like he does.

After I watched the film, I read some reviews others had written. And they’re all positive, because it’s a lovely film, but one criticism I saw from several people was, “He never talks about Tom’s flaws.” Does he have any flaws or was it a conscious decision not to show any of that?

I will tell you straight out. I wish he had flaws. I wish he was…I wish he were a broken man. Because that is so much easier. It is literally the most difficult thing to tell a story about a person like Tom Catena. And after the first trip, I didn’t know if I had a good enough story. I knew I didn’t have a good enough story, but I didn’t know if I had a good enough character, because he is a saint living on this earth. I wish he would have given me something. I wish he was an alcoholic, I wish he had a broken past. I wish he was an asshole. And then I could tell the story in a way that had drama, which, of course, we could create a better arc. He just doesn’t have it.

So I did get criticized…about not exposing flaws and perhaps it was because I was a friend of his and we had a long relationship and we met in college. But the truth is he is literally a saint. He is remarkable individual without those flaws. How are you a doctor in a war zone and dealing with the responsibilities he has to deal with without something, you know? There’s nothing. Trust me. I know the parents. I know the family. I dug as deep as I could to find some crack in the armor. There’s nothing. And that was very frustrating as a filmmaker. So I know I received criticism for lionizing this guy, but I would have much preferred him to having some kind of flaws for me to exploit. But it’s just not there, simply put.

I think that really comes across.

Thank you. Let me tell you, every day he does the same thing. And it’s so routinized. It’s so mechanical. After the first 8 or 9 days, I said, “Listen, dude, I know the Tom Catena that I got to know in college. I know he’s in there. Show me that you’re fun loving.” The guy’s robotic. Everybody loves him. He’s their savior. But he’s just like, “next, next, next.” And I said, “You gotta show me something.” And that’s when he took me up to Leprosy and Tuberculosis Hill and he showed me these people. I went up there by myself with my Nikon SLR. And he showed me the side of him that I knew was there. The fun loving guy. He’s touching the people and he’s telling us, “They need the human touch. They need love. And kids, I used to be afraid of kids and now I can’t imagine not having them in my life.” And then he’s a monster and he’s running around chasing them. That’s when I finally broke him down and he showed me that.

But as far as anything else… You know, there’s the part where he says, “I only need this, this, and this, and a little bit of alcohol.” And so we looked for that and we put those things in. And when he swears when he’s in the OR and he’s like “Shit, I dropped that screw.” We try to include that. Because this is the most even-keeled man on the face of this Earth. I wanted to make it more realistic. But no flaws. That’s the way he is.

I think to do the kind of work he’s doing, he kind of has to be different from the rest of us.

That’s true, but I’ll tell you, a lot of those aid workers, they come from broken pasts. They’re broken people. We all are in some ways. But they’re all recovering from something. And I tried to unlock that, but…nothing. To my dismay. Trust me. As a storyteller, it was not easy to tell that story. He gave me nothing.

But that’s a fair criticism. I’ll take it.

What was something that really surprised you while working on this project?

Something that really surprised me was the resilience of the people of the Nuba Mountains. And that harmony that they live in. You’d think with all of the difficulties that are thrown at them, you’re talking about every year famine and drought and dusty conditions and extremely difficult circumstances to live in. They are the happiest people I have ever met on the face of the Earth. And I have, as I said, been in over a hundred countries. I have been to these places where everybody’s got their hand out and they’re begging and their lives are terrible.

But here, they live in harmony. You’ve got Muslims and Catholics and Protestants and traditional African beliefs. They all live in harmony. They are a cohesive group. And then you throw bombs at them and shell them and they are still all about living together in communities. And that was shocking. They welcomed me into their community and embraced me, because, of course, I was a friend of Dr. Tom. But they are that way. They are that kind of heartwarming people. And even though they are losing limbs and losing lives and can barely scrape enough food together to last from day to day. They have a song in their hearts and they are incredibly beautiful, brave, courageous people. I think that was the biggest eye-opening thing about the project.

We’re running out of time, but I would like to ask one final question. What is a way that you feel this project has changed you?

That’s a good question. I… I live in Hollywood in the film and television industry and had become somewhat cynical. And I’ve been hardened. I have a rough shell. And this industry has conditioned me to be, you know, cynical. And this project has taught me that I can make a difference. That I can make an impact. This film has done so. I’m sure you read that we got this into the hands of Omar Hasan al Bashir and he called for a ceasefire based on the film. And that has taught me to keep doing what you’re doing. And look for these social welfare kind of subject matters and pursue them. Because you can make a difference. Right now, there’s a large number of people living in the Nuba Mountains, living without fear because of this ceasefire because we made this film. And keep in mind, a lot of other organizations and individuals have been there working hard to expose the atrocities there and the conflict. So we are standing on the shoulders of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Enough Project and Act for Sudan. All of these organizations have done great work, but we achieved a tipping point. And it taught me to pursue your passions and to find subject matter that is relevant and you can make a difference.

It also has taught me that you can, like Dr. Tom, stick to what you think is right and live a life of service. It’s not about the almighty dollar. It’s not about the material wealth. It’s all about service. I’ve learned all of that.

Thank you so much. I really think there is a power that comes from documentaries and telling these stories. Because yes, there are a lot of people out there doing this amazing work, but until someone can show that to the world and put a spotlight on it, so many things go unknown because there’s not a way for us to know about them.

Think of “Blackfish,” what it’s done. And some of these films. It has made a difference and I relish that. It’s my calling. Three generations of ministers. My great-grandfather and my grandfather and my father all have asked, “When are you going to receive the calling?” Well, I’ve received the calling and I’ve acted on it and this is my purpose.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Kenneth Carlson for taking the time to speak with us about “The Heart of Nuba.”

The film is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and will expand to more cities in the coming weeks.