High Plains Doctor: Healing on the Tibetan Plateau (2012, Canada)

DVD cover of High Plains Doctor: Healing on the Tibetan PlateauDr. Sobol, a Canadian, Jewish doctor, and his team has been going to Tibet for years, one month at a time to heal the people who cannot afford the pay-only healthcare there. High Plains Doctor is documenting the rewards and challenges of one of these trips.

The cover of the DVD promised “gorgeous scenes of natural beauty”, which we had, but not enough. That part of me that the opening lines of the movie was talking about–westerners, who have romantic notions about Tibet–was not satisfied. Nevertheless I found this quote from the movie quite true:

“Three of Asia’s most important rivers have their sources in Yushu. We can therefore say that Yushu is the source of our life, our civilization and our history. All of these things make Yushu one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

The sociologist in me also appreciated the explanation of the damage done to indigenous people when the rules and culture of modern “civilized” society is forced upon them. I felt revolted when I learned that there is no social safety net there: only those get treated by the local healthcare system, who can pay for it. The specific case studies, shown sometimes in gory details, drove this inequality deep.

On the other hand it rubbed me the wrong way that the opening and closing credits were edited onto Tibetan prayer flags. It felt sacrilegious, dishonoring the very people the subjects of the film wanted to honor. Dr. Sobol explained his ambivalent feelings about the locals’ belief system, and after decades of getting to know them he accepted that they are different than his own. Another thing that annoyed me was that about half of the movie was tagging along Dr. Sobol as he was rapidly walking on the desolate streets of Yushu. It was disorienting that I didn’t really know the destination and he was walking too fast for the cameraman, who had to walk sideways, to hold the camera steady enough. There must be better ways of making a “talking head” segment of a documentary more dynamic.

The film helps to understand how Dr. Sobol got impressed for a lifetime by Dr. Akong Tulku Rinpoche in his depressed youth as even from the limited exposure I got from this movie Rinpoche seems a truly kind and authentic person. I read in an 8 year old article that Dr. Sobol “spent five years studying Tibetan Buddhism.” The length of his studies wasn’t clear form the movie and it would have helped to explain his connection to the land and its people.

I admire the work and dedication of the doctor and his volunteer team. I am glad that I  learned about their efforts and wish that they would have the resources (time, money and personnel) to keep going even after the devastating earthquake.


  • Official site
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  • IMDB summary: Follows Dr. Isaac Harry Sobol, Chief Medical Officer of the Northern Canadian Territory of Nunavut, and his volunteer medical team as they assemble and conduct a primary care clinic in a remote Tibetan village. Shot over one month, the film documents the team’s treatment of nearly 1,500 indigent patients. Although gratifying, this work is not easy. The team labors for long hours, encountering late-stage conditions they wouldn’t ordinarily see in Canada, and ethical complexities that are at the core of our North American health-care debates. High Plains Doctor brings viewers a rare window into the uncensored pain and disharmony in an isolated part of Tibet. Bridging health-care in Nunavut and Tibet, the film reveals disquieting parallels facing these aboriginal peoples. High Plains Doctor captures unforgettable images of life in a village since devastated by a 7.1 level earthquake.
  • Trailer:

As a member of the Jewish Film Festival, organized by the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, I preview movies to help decide which ones to play at the Festival. I watched this movie as part of this volunteer effort.

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