The incredible story of a ‘heart of gold’ doctor who has devoted her life to curing leprosy in Indian village is turned into powerful new documentary
Doctor Helena Pyz has spent the last 30 years in the Jeevodaya centre in India, treating patients afflicted by leprosy and helping their children get an education.
Now her story has been documented in a new movie “Long Day Tomorrow”, directed by Paweł Wysoczyński.
Jeevodaya (dawn of life in Sanskrit) is a charity institution founded in 1969 by two Poles father Adam Wisńiewski, Pallottine and sister Barbara Birczyńska. Today it is home for about 100 people – families with members suffering from leprosy – and 400 children who attend the boarding school. The facility consists of a clinic and church as well.
Doctor Helena ended up in Jeevadaya by pure chance or perhaps fate. Born in 1948 in Warsaw, she graduated from medicine, despite suffering from polio at the very young age of ten. When she heard about the death of father Wiśniewski, doctor Helena decided to help. She arrived in Chhattisgarh state in February 1989, not knowing the language, having never seen a case of leprosy and, as she admits, having no idea what she was getting into. After two months she knew Jeevodaya is her place on Earth.
Doctor Helena told TFN at the film’s screening in Warsaw: “People have no understanding of what leprosy is. Leprosy is not a terrible disease, it is a normal bacterial disease. In the era of antibiotics, it is not a serious. The problem is that people are so afraid of it.
“Even if a patient suspects leprosy, he won’t admit it. He fears being stigmatized, ostracized from society. (…) They still believe that this is God's punishment, not bacteria. Even worse, patients think that if they humbly accept what has happened to them, this fatal disease, then in the next incarnation their life will be better.”
Attitudes towards her patient, who are treated as untouchables, not belonging to any casts, are just as much her enemy, as the illness itself.
“We don’t have to pity the lepers, but if someone wants to help them, they have to think about what they really need,” the doctor adds.
The clash of different ideas between the doctor, who even after 30 years is still considered an outsider, and the often well-meaning donors and officials, who want to interfere with Jeevodaya is one of the documentary’s topics. Yet it is centred around Dr Helena – a hard, strong, no-nonsense woman, now moving around in a wheelchair due to her own illness, who knows exactly when to be strict and when to show warmth to Jeevodaya children, who call her Mami for a very good reason.
For Paweł Wysoczański, the director, knew from the moment they met, that Helena’s story was the one he wanted to tell. “I’m drawn to strong characters, charismatic people, whom we don’t portray on our knees, we don’t put up monuments.
“Mrs. Helena is hard, sometimes harsh, may seem difficult and we wanted to show that too. The local priest calls her Mother Teresa, but in completely different, both funny and dangerous, context.”
The movie’s origins are a story deserving a script in itself. Wysoczański told TFN: “I started this adventure in 2011, nine years ago in Somalia.” In cooperation with the Warsaw-based Foundation for Somalia they wanted to document the work of one of the doctors helping refugees, but their work was cut short. Abdulcadir Gabeire Farah, the foundations president, was murdered in 2015 in Mogadishu, where he was preparing to run for presidential elections.
“The doctor withdrew and I was left with the money for the film, but no story. So I started to look desperately for a heroine and that’s how I found doctor Helena Pyz. She spends the summer months in Poland, when the kids are on vacation with their parents and that’s how we meet,” recalls Wysoczański.
This story is what made Helena agree to let the film crew into Jeevodaya, even though she wasn’t comfortable with being so exposed. To catch the reality of her daily life, she had a lavalier attached for 20 hours a day, just in case the filmmakers could record an interesting scene. The result is an understated picture, focused on the relations between the main characters.
One thing the film doesn’t show is the suffering leprosy can cause. “People die in Jeevodaya, there are very sick lepers who lose their limbs, there are people at whom you wouldn’t want to look and we didn’t show it all in the movie, because I think it would be pornography of dying and not we don’t have the right to do so,” explained Wysoczański.
However, the documentary doesn’t shy away from the difficult relations. Even after 30 years, Helena Pyz is shown still struggling with the mentality of the locals, their approach to the project and even willingness to follow doctor’s orders – for their own good. Yet even with moments of doubt, she refuses to give up her work.
“Jeevodaya means the beginning of a new life and this is what we want to achieve, so that these children don’t have the same fate as their parents. (…) Children who graduate from our school, are not marked with leprosy. Before they couldn’t go to school, because they came from a leper colony, which is completely separated. Having completed our school, which is registered by the state, they will go into the world without any burdens,” explains doctor Helena.
Her wards, who go out into the world and continue this chain of giving and sharing with other are her biggest pride. One example is the film crew’s interpreter, Manoj Bastia, a former pupil of the Polish doctor, who finished his studies in Poland.
The doctor said: “I have already brought up two generations of young people (...) They now bring their children to meet me. They come, enjoy being here, present their families. I don’t know the future of each of these children, but some great bond is being created at the moment by integrating with the whole community here, especially the villages around us. I think the children’s lives will be a good, much better than their parents’.”
With all the good happening there, the future of Jeevodaya centre is nonetheless in question. The local Pallontines have a different vision for the facility to its Polish founders. The father who currently serves as the school’s director, one of the movies protagonists, hopes to enlarge the school to 3,000 pupils and start collecting tuition – something unattainable for the parents living in leper colonies. Another issue is finding the medical personnel, who will stay there permanently.
"We still haven't found anyone who would like to stay longer. I think this is a very special calling. (…) It must be someone conditioned differently. There is no other doctor there permanently, so I’m returning in a few days,” said Helena.
Dr Helena will continue working as long as she’s able to. “Can a mother say she’s had enough? She’ll never do that, her work is never over. Once her children are grown up, she will take care of her grandchildren. After all, we are here to serve. Sometimes presence is the most important thing, not what we do,” she says.
“I receive a lot in return. Everything we give comes back to us, sometimes in more ways than one. People say I sacrificed my life, but this is not true. I get much more than I give, especially in the form of my children's love.”
The movie is set for theatrical release in September. The producers will also show it in India.