If you were to look up “ikigai” in a Japanese dictionary, you may find a photo of Dr. Kazuhiro Omura, because if there’s anyone who has figured out his “reason for being” and “life purpose” it’s Omura, aka “Dr. Bala,” to thousands of medically underserved people throughout Southeast Asia.
In “Dr. Bala,” a feature documentary film set to screen at the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific FilmFest, which opens Oct. 28, director Koby Shimada takes us on a 12-year journey following Omura from his earliest service in Myanmar in 2007, all the way through the special medical training he provided for Southeast Asian doctors in 2019.
In between, we learn how one man — driven by his desire to alleviate the suffering of his fellow humans — can truly make a difference, one person at a time, eventually reaching hundreds and thousands.
However, it wasn’t always this way. When he first arrived in Myanmar, he couldn’t speak Burmese, the people didn’t understand Japanese and they didn’t know what to make of this stranger from Japan. Along with the language barrier, he also found hospital conditions so poor that they would be unthinkable in Japan. Needles were no good and anesthesia didn’t work, in hospital after hospital.
But before he could do anything to help, Omura needed to earn people’s trust. But how?
Instead of practicing medicine, he started by showing up every morning at 7 a.m., playing his guitar and singing the only song he knew: “Kanpai” by Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi. Over time, the locals would gather to watch the eccentric doctor, and luckily for Omura, a Burmese version of the same song gave them an opportunity to sing together. And in the process of singing, “barriers began to melt away,” Omura said. Total strangers became friends.
He called himself “Dr. Bala,” which means “powerful” in Burmese, and the name stuck. Pretty soon Dr. Bala was organizing Japanese language classes, and learned how to speak Burmese. And once they could speak each other’s language, Dr. Bala went to work.
He cared for the sick, treated those with cancer, and provided trusted medical services first in Myanmar, and expanded in later years to Cambodia and Laos.
He also trained local doctors on how to use an endoscope, and stood side-by-side with them, teaching them how to use it during life-saving nose surgeries. Dr. Bala also secured grant funding from the Japanese government, which paid for Cambodian doctors to spend three months in Japan to learn how to perform these surgeries. These doctors, in turn, went home and trained junior doctors, who would then help hundreds of others.
All of this and more plays out in the film as we see Dr. Bala persevere through every challenge. Kudos to director and Japan-native Koby Shimada who spent 12 years of his life documenting and telling the story of Dr. Bala from country to country, helping patient after patient.
Together, they have found their “ikigai.”
“It makes you feel alive, doesn’t it?” says Dr. Bala.
The Silicon Valley Asian Pacific FilmFest runs Oct. 28-29 at the AMC Sunnyvale Dine-In Theater at 150 E McKinley Ave in Sunnyvale, Calif. and through Nov. 6 online. “Dr. Bala” will be available to stream online only. Both an online and an in-person pass costs $25. Individual film packages and tickets are also available for purchase: https://svapfilmfest2022.eventive.org/welcome.