REPORT: Bergen holds world’s first international film festival on Hansen’s disease

Contributed by Mao Hasebe, Program Officer, Sasakawa Health Foundation

The Sasakawa Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) Initiative, in collaboration with the University of Bergen and the Leprosy Museum, worked with the Bergen International Film Festival (BIFF) to offer the Armauer Hansen International Film Festival Oct. 24–26, 2023. Named after Dr. Gerhard Armauer Hansen, who discovered the leprosy bacillus while working at Bergen’s St. Jørgen’s Hospital 150 years ago, in 1873, the festival is the world’s first international film festival on Hansen’s disease.

Grete Eilertsen, a museum educator for the Bergen City Museum foundation, makes opening remarks before the screening of two documentary films at St. Jørgen Church on Oct. 23, 2023.

According to the BIFF web page that promoted the event, despite the fact that the leprosy bacillus was discovered in Bergen, many of the Norwegian city’s residents are unfamiliar with the disease and its stigma. The festival was intended to spread awareness by sharing documentaries and fiction films that show how the disease has affected people in various historical and social contexts. 

To choose the films, the Initiative asked organizations by and for persons affected by leprosy and NGOs for recommendations. From these recommendations, the Initiative created a short list, which was provided to BIFF. Uday Thakar, an advisor for APAL (India), and Artur Custódio, a volunteer for MORHAN (Brazil), provided guidance during several online meetings. The final selections included two short films and four full-length films.

A pre-festival event on Oct. 23 offered a special screening inside the historic St. Jørgen Church at the Leprosy Museum. Sitting in the pews where residents of St. Jørgen Hospital once sat and prayed, the audience watched the two short films – Children of Leprosy and The Village – which show examples of the present-day consequences of historical policies of compulsory isolation. After the screening, the audience engaged in discussions and a tour of the Leprosy Museum’s grounds.

During the three days of the festival, 315 people attended screenings in two Bergen cinemas of the four full-length films: The Last Mile, Sweet Bean, Yomeddine, and The Motorcycle Diaries.

Through BIFF’s School Program, the Armauer Hansen International Film Festival was able to share The Last Mile, a documentary about the work of the WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, with 152 students from five high schools. In-class study materials helped the students prepare before watching the film, and afterward they were given the opportunity to ask questions directly to the Goodwill Ambassador or Dr. Takahiro Nanri, Executive Director of the Sasakawa Health Foundation. 

The Sasakawa Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) Initiative would like to give heartfelt thanks to Alexander Petersen, Project Manager; Tor Fosse, Festival Director; Magnus Holtermann, Head of Administration; Håkon Tveit, School Program Lead; and all BIFF staff involved in realizing this special film festival. The Initiative is also grateful to Uday Thakar and Artur Custódio for their valued guidance and support as well as all partners who have helped with gathering information about films and documentaries on Hansen’s disease from around the world.

Yohei Sasakawa (front row, fourth from left), WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, and Alexander Petersen (foreground right), a project manager for the Bergen International Film Festival, together with high school students who watched the documentary The Last Mile as part of the School Program.