Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders (Director: Mark Hopkins): Judging by the title alone, I was a little apprehensive that this film would be nothing but a slick promo for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the Paris-based crisis medical charity, but I’m happy to say that Mark Hopkins’ film is a many-shaded portrait of some of the bravest and most dedicated people in the world.
I’ve always respected the work that MSF does, and the film does a great job of showing the actual conditions that these volunteer doctors work in. But it goes well beyond that, showing the effects of the strain of working a six-month “mission” in places where there may be no other medical infrastructure for miles around. We follow several doctors on assignments in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, including two who are on their first mission. The staggering statistics say that fewer than half of all doctors return for a second mission, and it’s not hard to see why. Conditions are never ideal, but lack of medical supplies compounded with communication difficulties, and a suddenly increased load of responsibility all take their toll. Some of the veterans speak openly of “running on empty” and everyone smokes and drinks too much. One of the veterans, Dr. Chiara Lepora, encourages everyone to have as much sex as possible, since they’re surrounded by death all day long and that “sex is life.” During one scene, an intoxicated Dr. Chris Brasher boasts that MSF accomplishes more than UNICEF, with its endless meetings and plans. MSF volunteers are doers, and they all seem to share that unfussy attitude.
But the mandate that encourages that spirit of doing also has clear limitations. MSF operates solely as a crisis medical provider, as in war zones and after natural disasters. When those conditions cease to exist, MSF close their bases and move on. Given that many of these countries don’t have functioning medical infrastructures, this can seem heartless, but keeping their mission focused on emergency help has maintained the organization’s edge and responsiveness.
We do witness the closing of a base in Liberia, and Dr. Lepora’s going-away party is bittersweet for the local medical staff being left behind, but MSF has stubbornly refused to expand their mandate into development work, leaving that to other NGOs and the local ministries of health. As Dr. Brasher bluntly points out, though, every person they help with emergency surgery or other intervention is someone who likely would have died without their help. And though this good work takes a toll on the volunteers, it also has immediate rewards. So although many of the doctors don’t return for second missions, the ones that do often spend the rest of their lives in one far-flung and ill-equipped outpost after another. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hopkins’ film drives home the point that no matter how much money we in the West donate to charity, there still need to be people on the ground actually doing something to help in these emergency situations. I can’t think of anyone getting closer to the situation than a doctor or nurse up to her wrists in gore, putting yet another broken body back together. It’s not an easy sight to look at, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.
I had only one small quibble with the film and that is that with so many people speaking accented English, the sound mix was too muddled. In the post-screening Q&A, director Mark Hopkins promised a better sound mix on the theatrical/DVD release, as well as better use of subtitles.
Here is the Q&A with director Mark Hopkins from after the screening: