My surgeon's heart

Hamilton Naki, assistant to famous heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard, was a product of his time.

Anonymous and invisible for almost a lifetime, Naki came to prominence only in his twilight years.

So feted was he that when he died—rather ironically of a heart attack in May 2005—having received the Order of Mapungubwe from the South African government, the New York Times carried an obituary.

Naki is now the subject of Hidden Heart, a documentary by Cristina Karrer and Werner Schweizer. Veteran South African filmmaker Dirk de Villiers, here a commentator and narrator, originally wanted to make an entirely fictional film with Kevin Costner as Barnard.

That proved impossible, so Karrer and Schweizer’s film is now a documentary with reconstructed episodes and, in the end, the adult Barnard plays the Dr Barnard character. The word “character” here is used in its fullest theatrical sense; for Barnard, blessed with his good looks and charm, was an actor and used his large personality to charm the apartheid politicians and find his way into the hearts of the several women who became his wives.

Hidden Heart shows how Barnard’s cardiac triumphs were a public-relations coup for the apartheid establishment. They could say to the world: “Not all that is happening in South Africa is bad.” But there was an inconvenient fact—Barnard’s trusted aide was a black man, a man about whom Barnard said: “Hamilton Naki had better technical skills than I did. He was a better craftsman than me, especially when it came to stitching, and had very good hands.”

But for many years Naki was officially acknowledged only as a gardener and when he retired he was paid a gardener’s pension.

De Villiers’s desire to have a famous actor play the surgeon was ambitious, but necessary. In its current form Karrer and Schweizer’s well-shot and informative biopic may not attract a wider audience beyond South Africa. It has been 40 years since the pioneering heart surgeon captured the attention of the world. A heart surgeon, not even a pioneering one, doesn’t have the novelty that he did back then. Heart surgery has become so commonplace now that surgeons are embarking on more difficult operations such as face transplants.

But the failure to land a big star didn’t make the film impossible to make. Barnard was a public figure and lived his life in the glare of television cameras. The filmmakers are able to use old television footage and some shot before his death in 2001.

One advantage of its documentary nature is that the film’s authenticity is not lost. We really get a sense of the man, but one weakness is that, back then, they didn’t shoot much video in the way we do now. Some key episodes of his life are lost, although we get the most defining professional moments, such as the heart transplants.

If there is just enough for us to get to know Barnard, there’s barely enough for us to know Naki. The little footage we have of him is after he was long retired and the director instead focuses his lens on his family. It works only as well as it’s possible to live one’s life vicariously through another’s. Tears are shed by one of the children but this doesn’t quite bring forth the tragedy of Naki, a man who lived in poverty and in the shadow of his more illustrious companion.

If we don’t get a deeper sense of the man, what’s clear is that difficult circumstances early on in life can’t stop a man with drive and purpose. If the motivational-talk industry hasn’t pounced on Naki’s life, perhaps they should do so now.

Percy Zvomuya

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