Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jun. 1, 2010

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Grade: B-

Opens Fri., June 4

Yes, they’re heroes, but are they interesting ? The doctors of French-based secular-humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières are stationed in no fewer than 70 war-torn/poverty-drenched/essentially apocalyptic nations.

The doc Living in Emergency examines just four of them, ranging from seasoned vets to fresh-faced neophytes, in two countries. In the war zones of Liberia and Congo, amidst abject misery, unemployment and death, these selfless do-gooders try their best with painfully limited resources and with a low success rate.

“You have to be able to live with wrong decisions,” says American Tom Krueger, only on his first tour. “That’s really hard to do.”

That line, bleak and hard-earned, is scarily typical in Emergency , and it’s why the film is more than just a puffed-out special-interest piece. The world’s film festivals (and occasionally first-run movie theaters) are filled with docs that never get past noble intentions, often because self-sacrificing martyrs with no flaws are not that interesting. Mark N. Hopkins’ film initially feels like it’s going to be one of those.

But it doesn’t take long for the dark side to creep in. These doctors are exhausted—hollowed out by the despair they encounter in every minute of their stints. They’ve signed up to do good, and it’s taken everything out of them.

“In the beginning I felt very good about everything I was doing,” confesses longtime MSF Chiara Lepora. “Now I don’t feel good anymore.”

Much of the film hangs with Chris Brasher, on his last mission after nine years. He’s still able to provide a positive-sounding sound bite, but is visibly enervated. Both he and Lepora smoke too much; Krueger and other newbie Davinder Gill will soon, too.

Does focusing on the negative aspects seem like whining when placed against the backdrop of unspeakable horror (and occasional gory hospital footage)? A bit. Emergency could stand to have a bit more contextualizing, more time spent with the people of Liberia and Congo—more specifics, rather than dwelling on complaints. But the doctors come off as complex human beings rather than untouchable martyrs. And the film reveals a depressing factoid amongst an already depressing subject: Even heroes can only be heroes for so long. And they need lots and lots of nicotine.

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1. Marya said... on Jun 21, 2010 at 06:15PM

“I'm glad this is getting theatrical release. I'd rate it a bit higher than you do, but I'm glad you do it justice. I found it surprisingly moving, and what I liked best was the depiction of the doctors' need for sexual abandon, in addition to the nicotine and liquor. The doctors are allowed to be complex and even self-destructive. You'd have to be, dealing with that level of trauma and horror all the time. You'd have to go a little nuts now and then. And I thought the film's treatment of the relationship between sex and mortality was delicate and effective.”


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