“Living in Emergency,” Mark Hopkins’ docu about humanitarian health organization Doctors Without Borders, concerns itself less with the NGO’s salutary effect on communities than with the tremendous toll on the borderless MDs, who must address constant suffering with inadequate facilities. With rare candor and a refreshing lack of piety, first-timers and combat-weary veterans exhibit their camaraderie, euphoria and burnout as the camera documents their struggles with logistics, horror, death and self-doubt. Opening June 4 in limited release, this no-holds-barred docu seems eminently suited to the bigscreen.
Hopkins was granted unique access to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning French organization, which had hitherto refused in-depth coverage. And Hopkins rises to the occasion by refusing to make a heroic feel-good film about saving the world one life at a time. Instead, he zeroes in on two countries: the Congo, still mired in a protracted war, and Liberia, undergoing the aftereffects of its finally resolved civil conflict.
Helmer also limits his main cast to four doctors: Tom Krueger, a Tennessee surgeon on his first assignment; Chiara Lepora, an Italian toxicologist in charge of the mission in Monrovia, Liberia; and two Australians — Congo-based Chris Brasher, an anesthesiologist in his ninth consecutive year of service, and Davinder Gill, a rookie stationed at a remote Liberian clinic.
Emergencies abound. With no means of X-raying the damage when treating a man arbitrarily shot in the head (“Some soldiers like to kill”), a doctor bores a hole in the man’s skull, despite having the wrong-sized drillbit, and is visibly astonished when the patient survives. Time and supplies are woefully inadequate, so life-saving procedures administered to select recipients necessarily spell death for those not chosen.
In the isolated clinic, night rounds and admissions are done by flashlight, and amputations by piano wire (Hopkins neither avoids nor dwells on surgical gore). Gill attends to unimaginable maladies with equanimity, only to break down over the shortage of sterilized gloves.
Relations with local doctors and nurses sometimes function smoothly, and sometimes teem with unresolved echoes of colonialism and cultural difference. Doctors can never feel godlike, or even content with their actions, when patients show up only after their conditions have become acute or terminal.
Several recent documentaries about humanitarian health groups, such as “Beyond the Call” or “Back Home Tomorrow,” have loudly radiated messages of hope while capturing only mitigated triumphs over difficult odds. What distinguishes Hopkins’ film is its immersion in the day-to-day pileup of impossible decisions that make any success fleeting and every mistake haunting.
Perhaps the hardest decision falls to Lepora, who must determine when to shut down Liberian operations: The immediate crisis may have passed, but no structure remains in place to care for the sick, leaving locals unprepared to take up the slack.
The more Hopkins accentuates the doctors’ admitted foibles and shortcomings, the more his film resonates, particularly given his subjects’ very French lack of puritanical moralizing. The attractive Lepora openly confesses to the life-affirming importance of sexual intercourse, while Krueger chuckles over being asked whether he minded if his colleagues smoked an occasional joint.
Sebastian Ischer’s lensing captures both the beauty of landscapes and the menace of masked soldiers without undue lyricism. Bruno Coulais’ excellent score unobtrusively revs up tension on the soundtrack, with well-chosen indigenous songs interwoven.