A sobering tribute to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders never pierces the heart of the matter: namely, the suffering and healing that occurs on both sides of a particular humanitarian equation. This is partly by design, since director Mark Hopkins eschews sending any kind of message, and partly because objectivity isn't an adequate coping strategy for dealing with such wrenchingly complex, messy realities. None may exist, but the resulting lack of revelatory insight puts a cap on this documentary's already modest earning potential.
Filmed over three months in 2005, Living in Emergency focuses on four physicians toiling in Liberia and The Republic of Congo. Anesthesiologist Chris Brasher and toxicologist Chiara Lepora are MSF veterans; Tennessee surgeon Tom Krueger and recent med school grad Davinder Gill are on their first six-month tours. As the head of the MSF mission in Liberia, Lepora has administrative duties above and beyond her medical work in the crowded hospital run by the Paris-based group.
That labor is shown in unflinchingly graphic and occasionally sad detail, whether it's a woman's strangulated hernia being squeezed, a puss-filled appendage being amputated, an improvised drill bit being used to drain the cranium of a gunshot victim, or an operation on a little girl whose parents died in the attack that maimed her. We see the suffering up close, but the more pressing subject of the movie is the toll it takes on the volunteer doctors as they try to alleviate it. During a series of interviews and in snatches of on-the-job footage, they testify to their frustrations, doubts, fatigue and fears. We see them clashing with colleagues and railing at the lack of supplies and other logistical hurdles. They're shown letting off steam in social situations, with nicotine and beer being the escape mechanisms of choice, though the use of recreational drugs and sex are alluded to.
The willingness to make life-or-death decisions under such trying circumstances, and then the ability to live with the consequences, is as fascinating a topic as you're going to find, and one that should yield more introspection and reflection than we find here. At one point, Lapora contends, "It's not about being a good person," yet she doesn't articulate what it is about. With the exception of some musings by Krueger, not much clues us in to what prompted these doctors to join MSF. Were they motivated by a sense of compassion and pity? Guilt? Religious or spiritual beliefs? In three cases at least, it remains a mystery. And while there are no wafts of condescension or noblesse oblige (you'd be even more suspicious if they wore their idealism on their sleeves or dwelt on the sacrifices they're making), this absence is limiting.
Other than his four subjects, Hopkins doesn't invite anyone from inside or outside the milieu to comment on what transpires or MSF in general. He's content to put their work into context with statistics about the violent national arenas they operate in. Taking nothing away from their behavior, you sense that all four doctors could use a spiritual director or a shrink, which is the function Hopkins and his camera might have played were it not for his contention that their motivations and backgrounds are irrelevant to the work they're doing. (And to a lesser extent, were it not for constraints placed on the project by MSF officials.) Theoretically and practically I find this point hard to buy, especially since the claim is made there is no distinction between the doctors' public and private lives while in the field.
As praiseworthy as their heroic service is, and as competent as the movie may be (having made the list of 15 films considered for the feature documentary Oscar), Living in Emergency is ultimately rather opaque. It lacks sufficient emotional and psychological clarity to cut through our disaster fatigue. It's impossible not to be moved by the plight of the patients and to admire and sympathize with the physicians themselves. You even emerge with a sense of gratitude. But there's a lot more all-too-human stuff churning beneath the surface. Without probing that, Living in Emergency leaves you with a more trivial version of the mixture of satisfaction and disappointment Doctors Brasher, Lepora, Krueger and Gill feel at the end. That this reaction may be inevitable or true-to-life is neither comforting nor enlightening.
Distributor: BEV Pictures
Director/Producer: Mark N. Hopkins
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: June 4 ltd.