Oli Otya? Life and Loss in Rural Uganda

Bruell, Lucy

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Field, Steven
  • Date of entry: Oct-27-2021
  • Last revised: Oct-27-2021


Most of us are aware that the discipline of Palliative Care, with its focus on excellent pain management, other comfort measures, and psychosocial and spiritual counseling, has made a dramatic difference in the way patients are treated near or at the end of life.   However, for most of us, knowledge of Palliative Care is usually limited to how it functions in so-called “first world” countries.  What is Palliative Care like in areas around the world that have less-effective systems of health care delivery? 

Lucy Bruell’s documentary, Oli Otya:  Life and Loss in Rural Uganda, aims to tell this story.  Bruell, an award-winning documentarian (and coincidentally—and full disclosure—the Editor-in-Chief of the NYU Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database), follows a husband-and-wife team, an internist and a palliative care specialist, who travel each year to Uganda to volunteer with a small palliative care service based in a rural hospital.  Along with the team nurse, nursing assistant, and spiritual counselor, and a medical student who has accompanied them for this trip, they see patients in the hospital, the clinic, and most of the time, in the patients’ homes, often covering many miles in a day in this rural area of the country. 

It is the stories of these patients that constitute the heart of the film.  A woman who has been catastrophically burned in a revenge crime, a man with metastatic cancer who can no longer walk, a woman with end-stage rheumatic heart disease who insists on gifting the team with a live chicken for their work, a young man with a progressive neurodegenerative disease whose mother ascribes his behavior to demons—we meet these and other patients as the team makes its rounds, interacts with villagers and herbalists, and fights to overcome shortages of critical medicines.


Bruell’s film focuses on patient stories, but it is not simply a collection of stories.  The framing of the documentary is the interaction among the team members, who step back at multiple points in the film and reflect on what they are doing and how they are doing it.  The care, the involvement, the dedication of the team (and the focus here is on the two physicians) comes through clearly.  In turn, the appreciation of the patients and families seems pretty clear as well.  When a patient dies, everyone suffers.  And when one of the patients has the personal victory of learning to walk again, there are tears of joy.

The film is a moving and thought-provoking look at the beating heart of medicine, and it doesn’t hurt that it has a lyricism about it, with its engaging soundtrack and its from-the-inside views of rural and village life.  It reminds the viewer that the most important part of Palliative Care is the “care,” and to care you don’t need every modern convenience (though uninterrupted access to morphine is pretty important).  There are several excellent films made about palliative care, but in focusing on a rural and technology-poor area, Oli Otya adds another, different, spin:  it attempts to answer the question of how much we can accomplish for the dying when we don’t have all the advantages of a modern medical system at hand.  And the answer appears to be, quite a lot.


Sedona International Film Festival: Official Selection
The African Film Festival: Rootflix Audience Choice Award
Impact Doc Awards: Documentary Feature and Original Score Awards of Excellence




Alexander Street

Running Time (in minutes)