Albert Schweitzer: Called to Africa
First Run Features // Unrated // $24.95 // August 18, 2009
Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted January 2, 2010
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Albert Schweitzer: Called to Africa:
Might as well play it straight with you, as if this were some kind of bloggy New Year's Resolution. I wasn't super keen to spin this disc. It's essentially a period piece doc from the early 1900's about a religious man who answers the need for doctors in Africa. I picked it to review because it's short and I thought to challenge myself. Result: the sad tale of a disc left to sit on my desk for a month before I finally deigned to watch it. Representing the living embodiment of this doc's purpose, I find my apathy and antipathy turning to inspiration on viewing. While not exactly rising above made-for-TV performance quality and production values, Called to Africa represents modestly interesting viewing of a powerful story.

Essentially a reenacted true-life drama, Called to Africa begins its 42-minute run with a flashback framing device. Schweitzer's wife convalesces in Europe, reminiscing about the early days of her romance with the Doctor. He's a Pastor, an expert musician, scholar and iconoclastic man-of-letters. He's also hell-bent on 'making his life his answer.' What's the question? Why doesn't anybody do anything to stem the tide of African pain brought into being by European occupation? Whereas nowadays we'd cheap out and sign an online petition or become a fan of 'Save Darfur' on Facebook, Schweitzer instead decided to take a few years to become a doctor so he could move to Africa and lend some assistance.

Scenes of young Schweitzer and wife unfurl in a hybrid of documentary reenactment and straight-ahead dramatic portrayal, albeit with a Hallmark Hall of Fame feel inherent. Occasionally and relatively briefly, contemporary interviews flesh out Schweitzer's work, life, and personality, finding knowledge in the experiences of Schweitzer Fellows, scholars and his daughter and granddaughter. Necessarily, characterization of these historical figures is minimized, yet enough is brought out for viewers to develop a small semblance of connection with the subjects. It's a great technique that accomplishes two goals: treatment of the material essentially simplifies it for the broadest audience, while humanizing it as a short-form drama makes it more compelling to the average viewer than would be a more traditional documentary.

Sacrifices are made, of course, to this end - something (as the documentary intimates) Schweitzer would never do. Sacrificing more in-depth information or whatever thing might paint Schweitzer as anything less than a saint serves, however, a different purpose. Between the lines one finds Schweitzer the individualist. When he justifies his course of action by asking how anyone could see the pain in Africa and remain a 'calm observer,' he's issuing not a call to arms but a vote of incredulity. Documentary filmmaker Martin Doblmeier wants to directly inspire you to find that 'reverence for life' that Schweitzer displayed through action. Currently plenty of situations exist that ought to by nature break us from our reverie of calm observation - but perhaps the problems seem too big. In Doblmeier's polemic documentary, the message is loud and clear, and, indeed, inspiring.


This First Run Features DVD has a distinctly second-run cast in the AV department, which is too bad. The 1.78:1 presentation sports a fair amount of both digital and film grain, except where interviews are concerned. One wonders if all the grain is an attempt to make reenactment sequences look authentically old, although when the grain is of digital nature it's ugly. Film damage is also somewhat pronounced. Detail levels are acceptable but not fantastic, colors likewise are a little hot where flesh-tones are concerned, but otherwise OK. Stock footage inserts of African wildlife don't match the film stock at all, which is distracting, and don't agree with the aspect ratio of the rest of the production.

Stereo Audio, after a shaky start wherein Schweitzer's organ recital drowns out narration, is unremarkable. Eventually dialog emerges from soundtrack elements for a decent balance, and no real distortion or other problems appear. Otherwise, don't look for an exceptionally exciting audio experience.

A ten-minute Epilogue covers Schweitzer's death, and the current status of his hospital in Gabon. It's a welcome addendum to the documentary. Four minutes of Director's Thoughts talk mainly about the director's motives for making this movie, vis--vis Schweitzer's work. A ten-minute featurette, The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship is something of a recruitment reel for the organization, interviewing several Fellows who explain how the experience has changed them and helped others. A one-paragraph Director's Biography and short descriptions of More Films From Martin Doblmeier (including two Trailers) finish things off.

Final Thoughts:
Broad-based in its appeal, Called to Africa presents a hybrid of dramatic reenactments and standard documentary interviews that easily engages viewers. Eschewing detailed, in-depth facts for crowd moving drama, director Doblmeier is intent on making work that inspires people into Schweitzer's humanistic, religious calling. As a clarion to help our fellow humans out, Called to Africa is solid and simplistically irrefutable. For those interested, it's a recommended Rent It.

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