Top 30 global health films to get you inspired

Gael Garcia Bernal in Even the RainGlobal health gets a lot of attention in Seattle. But sometimes Hollywood wants a piece of the action too.

Film is an emotionally powerful medium. It can help incite action on social problems and promote global understanding.

So in preparation for a recent Symposium on Global Health and the Arts at UW, I decided to do some research into films that touch on the topic. I was happy to find that the global health related films are booming lately.

I compiled this list of titles and descriptions primarily from Global Health film series and festivals at various universities, including Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Penn State.

As you will see, these are primarily documentaries, but they also include some feature films, and they deal with a wide variety of issues, ranging from epidemics and health care, to access to food and water, to human rights issues, including child abuse.

Most of these titles are included in the UW Libraries collection, as well as through Netflix and other video services.  

The 11th Hour

Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, this captivating documentary explores the perilous state of our planet, and the means by which we can change our course. Contributing to this crucial film are noted politicians, scientists and other ambassadors for the importance of a universal ecological consciousness.


Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond Set during the Sierra Leone Civil War in 1999 (and also featuring Leonardo DiCaprio!) the film shows a country torn apart by the struggle between government soldiers and rebel forces. The film portrays many of the atrocities of that war, including the rebels’ amputation of people’s hands to stop them from voting in upcoming elections.


Blue Gold: World Water Wars

Wars of the future will be fought over water as they are over oil today, as the source of human survival enters the global marketplace and political arena. Corporate giants, private investors, and corrupt governments vie for control of our dwindling supply, prompting protests, lawsuits, and revolutions from citizens fighting for the right to survive. Past civilizations have collapsed from poor water management. Can the human race survive?


Born into Brothels

Filmed in the Red Light District of Kolkata, this documentary explores the lives of the sons and daughters of prostitutes through photography and film. The director, Zana Briski, is determined to use the photography to provide the children with the opportunity for higher education, hope and a better life. The film won the 2004 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.


A Closer Walk

This documentary examines the world AIDS crisis. The camera travels to Africa, where infections overwhelm the public health system and orphans face their own deaths, central Europe, where drug users spread the disease via shared needles, India, where husbands infect wives, and to the U.S., where grass-roots efforts in places like Kansas City confront cultural stereotypes. Interviews include patients, doctors, nurses, the Dalai Lama, and Kofi Annan. The film’s tone is compassionate and urgent, the statistics overwhelming. The message: the AIDS epidemic, history’s worst, continues.


The Constant Gardener

Rachel Weisz in The Constant GardenerA widower is determined to get to the bottom of a potentially explosive secret involving his wife’s murder, big business, and corporate corruption. Based on the novel by John le Carré, which drew on the real life case of a clinical trial by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer that went terribly wrong in Nigeria in 1996.


Desert Riders

Thousands of children, some as young as two, were trafficked to work as camel jockeys in the Middle East. At the training schools, they were starved, injected with hormones and sexually and physically abused. Many died. Even more never returned.

Even though the use of children as camel jockeys has now been banned, many suspect the practice is still continuing. In this film we hear the stories of the children whose lives have been marred forever by their experiences.


Donka: X-Ray of an African Hospital

Donka, the largest public hospital in the West African nation of Guinea has accumulated substantial debt that neither the Guinean state nor international agencies will pay. Compelled to develop its financial autonomy, the hospital enforces a pay-as-you-go policy. This financial strategy is rigorously applied, but at a high human cost. In this hospital of last resort, families strive to save a child or parent, but without money, there are no drugs and little chance for survival. Revenues rise, but access to treatment diminishes.


Even the Rain

Idealistic filmmaker Sebastian and his cynical producer Costa arrive in Bolivia to make a revisionist film about Christopher Columbus’ conquest of the Americas. But as filming commences, the local citizens begin to riot in protest against a multi-national corporation that is taking control of their water supply. With the film shoot in jeopardy, both men find their convictions shaken. Inspired by the real-life Water Wars in Bolivia in the year 2000.


Flow: For Love of Water

Irena Salina’s award-winning documentary investigation into what experts label the most important political and environmental issue of the 21st Century: The World Water Crisis.


Grace Under Fire

North Kivu, in the eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been described as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Since 1998, as the Congolese army has battled against a number of rebel militias, 5.5 million civilians have been killed and more than half a million women raped in the country. It is estimated that the conflict is now bloodier than any since World War II. In ‘Grace Under Fire’ we follow Dr Grace Kodindo, a leading advocate of reproductive health care and rights, as she explores what help is available for the people affected by the fighting. Do the women in North Kivu have access to the emergency services, health care and specialist drugs they need? Grace talks to doctors, nurses and ordinary people to find answers.


Hotel Rwanda

Don Cheadle in Hotel RwandaThe true-life story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who sheltered over a thousand Tutsi refugees from attacks by Hutu militias during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. “Hotel Rwanda” was nominated for three Oscars.


An Inconvenient Truth

With wit, smarts and hope, An Inconvenient Truth ultimately brings home Al Gore’s persuasive argument that we can no longer afford to view global warming as a political issue—rather, it is the biggest moral challenges facing our global civilization. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2006.


Into Eternity

Into Eternity is a feature documentary film directed by Michael Madsen. It follows the digging and pre-implementation of the Onkalo nuclear waste repository in Olkiluoto, Finland. This film explores the question of preparing the site so that it is not disturbed for 100,000 years, even though nothing else ever made by man before has lasted even a fraction of that time. Experts working above ground strive to find solutions to the crucially important issue of radioactive waste to benefit mankind and all species on planet Earth now and in the near and very distant future.

Director Michael Madsen is questioning Onkalo’s intended eternal existence, addressing a remotely future audience. More importantly, this documentary raises the question of the authorities’ responsibility of ensuring compliance with relatively new safety criteria legislation and the principles at the core of nuclear waste management.


The Last King of Scotland

Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of ScotlandAs the evil Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Forest Whitaker gives an unforgettable performance in The Last King of Scotland.

Powerfully illustrating the terrible truth that absolute power corrupts absolutely, this fictionalized chronicle of Amin’s rise and fall is based on the acclaimed novel by Giles Foden, in which Amin’s despotic reign of terror is viewed through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a Scottish doctor who arrives in Uganda in the early 1970s to serve as Amin’s personal physician. His outsider’s perspective causes him to be initially impressed by Amin’s calculated rise to power, but as the story progresses—and as Whitaker’s award-worthy performance grows increasingly monstrous—The Last King of Scotland turns into a pointed examination of how independent Uganda (a British colony until 1962) became a breeding ground for Amin’s genocidal tyranny.


The Lazarus Effect (short film)

Made in Zambia, this 30-minute film tracks several people who were seriously ill but become healthier in a relatively short period of time after starting free antiretroviral drug therapy. HIV-positive patients and medical staff recount their experiences and the impact medication has made on their lives. They include Constance Mudenda, a mother whose children all died of AIDS, and who now works as a peer education supervisor at an AIDS clinic; Paul Nsangu, a young husband and father; Bwalya, an 11-year-old girl who at the beginning of the film looks like a child half her age because of her disease; and Concillia Muhau, a young mother who recovered from the brink of death and now also works as a peer counselor.

Interviewees describe their illness and recovery; they also speak about the difficulties involved in persuading people to have themselves tested for HIV, given the severe social stigma that results from a positive test result, and in getting word about the available treatment out to remote rural areas, as well as the logistical problems of providing care to patients who may have to walk for three days to reach a clinic.


Living In Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders 

Set in war-torn Congo and post-conflict Liberia, “Living in Emergency” interweaves the stories of four doctors as they struggle to provide emergency medical care in extreme conditions. Two of the doctors are new recruits: a 26 year-old Australian stranded in a remote bush clinic and an American surgeon struggling to cope under the load of emergency cases in a shattered capital city. Two others are experienced field hands: a dynamic Head of Mission, valiantly trying to keep morale high and tensions under control, and an exhausted veteran, who has seen too much horror and wants out. Amidst the chaos, each volunteer must confront the severe challenges of the work, the tough choices, and the limits of their idealism.

Caution: “Living in Emergency” contains a lot of graphic images.


Lost Boys of Sudan

Still from The Lost Boys of SudanLost Boys of Sudan is an Emmy-nominated feature-length documentary that follows two Sudanese refugees on an extraordinary journey from Africa to America. Safe at last from physical danger and hunger, a world away from home, they find themselves confronted with the abundance and alienation of contemporary American suburbia.


Malaria: Fever Wars

“Malaria: Fever Wars” highlights man’s interminable fight against malaria, a disease which kills millions every year, and which is continuing to worsen. It delivers an up-to-date account of the global malaria situation from the perspectives of a few heroic individuals, each fighting their own very different battles against the disease.


The Other City

As the capitol of the most powerful nation on Earth, Washington, D.C., is a city dominated by wealth and political influence, but when you move past the Beltway and haunts dominated by the federal government and those who serve it, a very different town emerges.

The significant majority of Washington, D.C.’s, permanent residents are African-American and Latino. A large number are gay, live in poverty, abuse drugs and have inadequate housing. Since the early 1980s, D.C. has also dealt with another crisis, AIDS—at least 3 percent of the city’s population is HIV-positive, and some have estimated that as many as 7 percent may carry the virus.

Filmmaker Susan Koch explores the impact of the AIDS crisis in Washington, D.C., in the documentary “The Other City” and offers a penetrating glimpse into the city that tourists rarely see, as well as the people who are living with the disease, survivors dealing with their loss (some of whom are also HIV-positive) and those working to make a difference through education and needle exchange programs.


The Painted Veil

Ed Norton in The Painted VeilA British medical doctor (Edward Norton) fights a cholera outbreak in a small Chinese village, while also being trapped at home in a loveless marriage to an unfaithful wife (Naomi Watts). The 2006 Chinese-American production was the third film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel.



When a man with AIDS (Tom Hanks) is fired by a conservative law firm because of his condition, he hires a homophobic small time lawyer (Denzel Washington) as the only willing advocate for a wrongful dismissal suit. Tom Hanks won the Oscar for Best Actor for the role.


Red Dust (short film)

Red cadmium dust drifted freely in China’s nickel cadmium battery factories owned and operated by GP Batteries (GP), one of the world’s top battery manufacturers. Ren, a migrant worker originally from Sichuan, suffers from frequent headaches and breathing difficulties. If untreated, the cadmium poisoning can lead to kidney failure, cancer and death. “Red Dust” portrays an unexamined side of China’s economic development: the resistance, courage, and hope of workers battling occupational disease, demanding justice from the local government and global capital.

This documentary is about women who are the engine of the global economy. Although the film takes place in China, the characters’ experiences are universal to workers on the margins around the world, where poverty, migration and workplace hazards are common realities.


RX for Survival: A Global Health Challenge

This groundbreaking PBS series examines what makes us sick, what keeps us healthy, and what it would take to give good health the upper hand. Narrated by Brad Pitt.



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.’


The Shape of Water

In an intimate encounter with five very different women in Brazil, India, Jerusalem, and Senegal (narrated by Susan Sarandon with introductory narration co-written by Edwidge Danticat) “The Shape of Water” offers a close look at the far reaching and vibrant alternatives crafted by women in response to environmental degradation, archaic traditions, lack of economic independence and war.



Michael Moore’s documentary comparing the highly profitable American health care industry to other nations, and HMO horror stories.


A Walk to Beautiful

Still from A Walk To BeautifulFilmmaker Mary Olive Smith addresses the troubling topic of obstetric fistula by detailing the arduous journey that many Ethiopian women make to reach the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in an attempt to end their constant misery and overcome the pressing sense of shame that is often associated with the disorder.

Every year obstetric fistula affects at least two million women across the globe. A result of neglected childbirth, obstetric fistula is a hole that forms between the vagina and the bladder (and occasionally the rectum) in incidents of prolonged, obstructed labor. Ethiopian women afflicted with obstetric fistula must travel for days and spend a virtual fortune on bus fare simply to receive treatment.

By detailing the harrowing birth stories and subsequent journeys of five women who decide to reclaim their dignity by traveling to Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and receiving the free treatment offered by doctors Reginald and Catherine Hamlin, Smith offers hope to the women who have been shunned by family and neighbors while opening the world’s eyes to a pressing problem that many are simply too embarrassed to discuss.


The Warriors of Qiugang

“The Warriors of Qiugang” is a 39-minute documentary film that chronicles the story of the Chinese village of Qiugang (pop. 1,900 in 2010), in the suburbs of Bengbu City in Anhui Province in central-eastern China. It tells how a group of Chinese villagers put an end to the poisoning of their land and water by three chemical plants, the worst being Jiucailuo Chemical. For five years they fought to transform their environment and, as they do, they find themselves transformed as well.

It was directed and produced by Academy Award winners Ruby Yang and Thomas F. Lennon. Guan Xin was the field producer and cinematographer. The film was nominated for an Oscar for best Documentary Short Subject.


Water First: Reaching the Millennium Development Goals

Through the inspiring story of Charles Banda—a local fireman turned waterman who has drilled more than 800 wells in his impoverished country of Malawi—”Water First” conveys the critical role of clean water in addressing all other major global issues from hunger and poverty to women’s equality, HIV/AIDS and environmental sustainability.



  1. Thank you Cynthia for providing such a comprehensive list of excellent movies!
    I just wanted to add one that I thought was missing: Sometimes in April,, an independent film about the atrocities in Rwanda which I consider much better than Hotel Rwanda.
    Thanks again for this!

    1. Thanks, Marcus; you’re the second person who has just recommended Sometimes in April; I’ll check it out!

  2. Thanks for an interesting list. Two inspirational films I would recommend are Dr Lucille: The Lucille Teasdale Story about the life of a pioneering Canadian surgeon in Uganda and Body and Soul, directed by Matthieu Bron, which features the lives of three disabled people in Mozambique.

Comments are closed.


  1. Thank you Cynthia for providing such a comprehensive list of excellent movies!
    I just wanted to add one that I thought was missing: Sometimes in April,, an independent film about the atrocities in Rwanda which I consider much better than Hotel Rwanda.
    Thanks again for this!

    1. Thanks, Marcus; you’re the second person who has just recommended Sometimes in April; I’ll check it out!

  2. Thanks for an interesting list. Two inspirational films I would recommend are Dr Lucille: The Lucille Teasdale Story about the life of a pioneering Canadian surgeon in Uganda and Body and Soul, directed by Matthieu Bron, which features the lives of three disabled people in Mozambique.

Comments are closed.