Celluloid Samaritans: Favorite Films About Global Health Heroes

by Harry Goldhagen, Editor

Five movies with a humanitarian theme.

Professor Madhukar Pai, Chair of the Department of Global and Public Health at McGill University in Montreal, has created a “crowd-sourced list of over 100 inspiring, must-watch movies focused on global health topics.” He teaches an online global health course, and presumably put together this list to help inspire his students.

Although some of these movies on Prof. Pai’s list lean heavily into the dramatic or even the apocalyptic (Outbreak or Contagion, anyone?), a few highlight the work of medical heroes in the way we do here at Angels in Medicine.

What follows is a short list of movies about real and fictional medical heroes.

A Doctor’s Dream: A Pill for Sleeping Sickness

From the rediscovery of an abandoned molecule to a breakthrough medicine: follow the stories of sleeping sickness patients, doctors, and researchers. In May 2020, this film won a Grand Prix at the inaugural World Health Organization’s #HealthForAll Film Festival.


Awakenings is Oliver Sacks’ fascinating personal story about the discovery of L-dopa and how it changed the lives of catatonic patients who had been asleep for decades. Beautifully dramatized by Robin Williams and Robert De Niro and directed by Penny Marshall.

Bending the Arc

Bending the Arc tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, activist Ophelia Dahl, Todd McCormack, and investor Thomas White, who created Partners in Health and helped to change the way global health is practiced. “The community health model they developed to treat diseases like tuberculosis & HIV/AIDS has saved millions of lives in the developing world.”

City of Joy

City of Joy tells the fictional story of Dr. Max Lowe, an uninspired American surgeon who lost a patient and travels to India in search of spiritual fulfillment. What he finds instead is poverty and illness, and despite not wanting to get involved, he is drawn into volunteering at a free medical clinic for the poor run by an activist nurse. Possibly Patrick Swayze’s greatest role.


“A timely examination of human values and the health issues that affect us all, ¡Salud! looks at the curious case of Cuba, a cash-strapped country with what the BBC calls ‘one of the world’s best health systems.’ From the shores of Africa to the Americas, ¡Salud! hits the road with some of the 28,000 Cuban health professionals serving in 68 countries, and explores the hearts and minds of international medical students in Cuba — now numbering 30,000, including nearly 100 from the USA. Their stories, plus testimony from experts around the world, bring home the competing agendas that mark the battle for global health-and the complex realities confronting the movement to make health care everyone’s birth right.”

And two more indie films with a medical humanitarian theme that I wrote and filmed in Vermont some years ago. The second one is based (very loosely) on the Angels in Medicine site.


A distraught, disillusioned physician… a little girl with a life-threatening illness, desperate for care… a small town with a large vision: a vision of health care for all. ‘Bridges’ tells the story of one doctor’s journey from bitterness and alienation to compassion and hope.

The Nightingale Chronicles

A jaded fashion photographer, ready for a new direction, accepts an unusual assignment — to find a reclusive doctor who post humanitarian videos — only to discover that the lens can point in both directions.

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About Angels in Medicine

Angels in Medicine is a volunteer site dedicated to the humanitarians, heroes, angels, and bodhisattvas of medicine. The site features physicians, nurses, physician assistants and other healthcare workers and volunteers who reach people without the resources or opportunities for quality care, such as teens, the poor, the incarcerated, the elderly, or those living in poor or war-torn regions. Read their stories at www.medangel.org.

Interested in writing for Angels in Medicine? Know about an Angel we should interview? Drop me a note at harry@medangel.org.

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