Living in Emergency (2008) dir. Mark Hopkins
Doctors Without Borders gets the documentary treatment in this Venice Film Festival entry from last year. Founded by French doctors as Médecins Sans Frontières (aka MSF) in 1971, Doctors Without Borders has become one of the most important humanitarian organizations in the world providing medical care to the world’s most dangerous and underrepresented areas in the world. Director Mark Hopkins puts his camera over the shoulder of four of the volunteer doctors who ply their trade within the most harrowing of working conditions.
Between the warzones of Liberia and Congo, Hopkins centres on the actions of: Dr. Chris Brasher, an Aussie anaesthetist and nine-year veteran of the organization, Dr. Chiara Lepora, a young Italian toxicologist and ambitious idealist, Dr. Tom Krueger, an American surgeon who sold his practice in order to come to MSF, and Dr. Davinder Gill, an Australian and first-timer in the field.
After a brief news footage intro to the unbelieveable carnage and near perpetual civil war these countries have been going through in the past 15 years, Hopkins drops us right into the action. We barely get to meet the doctors before we see them operating on bullet wounds of elderly men and diagnosing obscene ailments from young children. With very little knowledgeable staff support and industry-standard supplies its survival for both the doctors and the patients. Brasher is an anaesthetist but he finds himself diagnosing and treating all kinds of problems outside his knowledge base. He says the first loss (or death) is always the worst, but you always adapt learn to take the losses in stride.
We watch as the stress gets to some of the doctors. Specifically Davinder Gill, who is by far the most interesting subject. It’s his first mission here and many of the doctors can see the insanity slowly building. It’s clear he’s not meant to last more than his first mission, but who can blame him. We often see Gill treating patients in the middle of the night using a flashlight to see and his staff includes ineffectual aides, not the well-trained support he’s used to in Australia.
They’re on call 24-7 and working ridiculously long and stressful hours, and so when they have an opportunity to let loose they party as hard as they work. Dr. Lepora freely admits to the stress relief sex can provide during a mission. Although we don’t see anything naughty a relationship is implied between Gill and Lepora.
While we get see some of the eye-popping third world conditions up close there are as many missed opportunities to deeper the impact of the film. The characters expound on numerous occasions of the insanity of the conditions and the no-win situation the doctors continually face. So what makes these individuals leave what life they had back home to work for no pay and what seems like often little respect? is it just to help? Are they all idealists? Unfortunately we never get to know Gill outside the Congo clinic, what events in his own life led him to MSF. For Dr. Basher, there's some obvious pain he's looking to avoid back home (possibly a drug addiction?), but nothing is explored.
The film also lacks momentum - a forward-moving narrative revealing character and story. Each scene could have been rearranged without confusing the audience at all. In verite films like this characters are developed through action as opposed to exposition. Has Dr. Gill changed over the 90mins of screentime, no? He begins frustrated and end frustrated – a frustration which unfortunately bleeds into the audience experience too.
“Living in Emergency” screened as the final event in the monthly ‘Doc Soup’ series in Toronto. It continues to travel the world in festivals. Look for it in your region of the world.