Let’s get one thing out there before you read on: Dr. Rick Hodes is an incredible human being. Just peeking at the description for HBO’s new documentary “Making the Crooked Straight” would tell you that: American doctor moves to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, treats dying, impoverished children and adopts a rotating cast of kids to raise in a safe and healthy environment.
It’s inspiring stuff, for sure, and not easily digestible, but director/producer Susan Cohn Rockefeller finds some softer moments among the hardships shown in this half-hour documentary.
Hodes, who is the medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and an Orthodox Jew, has worked in Ethiopia since 1990, helping children with debilitating conditions to live more normal lives. In the short but powerful “Crooked,” we’re given an inside look at how Hodes’ personal drive — supported in no small part by his faith — has literally saved dozens of lives. Interviews with Hodes are spliced with scenes of medical exams of severely ill, disfigured children as well as the devastating human poverty on Ethiopia’s beautiful landscape.
In “Crooked,” we get an intimate look at a man who has abandoned all notions of “a normal American life.” No house in the suburbs, no wife and two kids — Hodes is living his own dream in a land far from home. There’s genuine joy in his face when he walks into his living room, every seat occupied by his troupe of adopted Ethiopian children and teens. The documentary succeeds on an emotional, and even spiritual level.
“One day I had this revelation,” says Hodes. “The almighty is offering you a chance to help. Don’t say no.”
But Hodes’ mission is not a simple one. As he says, ”If you cure somebody, that’s not enough. If I’ve a boy who’s a shoe shiner, and I send him to Ghana to get spine surgery … well, he’s getting by shining shoes, and for a year after the surgery, he can’t bend over. I’ve actually created an emergency.”
What “Crooked” lacks is merely context. While many Ethiopians are on screen, none get the opportunity to speak about their doctor or, in some cases, benefactor and caregiver. No members of Hodes’ family are interviewed. Without a variety of voices, the documentary plays a bit like a public service announcement — there are people out there making a difference, it seems to say, and you should find a way to do the same.
That’s a valid message, of course, but not one we haven’t heard before. “Making the Crooked Straight” tells an inspiring story; were it longer, with a more fleshed out background, it could’ve been groundbreaking.
The program is available on HBO On Demand through May 15.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)