Review: Living In Emergency

LivingInEmergency.jpg Photo courtesy Medecins Sans Frontieres.


There are entire populations in this world that you simply cannot imagine. Not because their culture is so different or their location so astounding; rather, just because they are alive. On CNN or MSNBC or the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post, numbers get thrown around about ‘displaced people’ or ‘war-torn populations’. Numbers that (objectively) are big, but also too unwieldy; they cease to have any real context at a certain point because it’s just really, really hard to imagine suffering on such a massive scale. But the numbers are real, and there are people - unimaginable survivors - behind those numbers that simply cannot be ignored or bound by legalese and theoretical direction. There is an absolute need for someone, anyone, to step in and get their hands dirty. Enter MSF.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (known colloquially as Doctors Without Borders, or MSF) has been working since 1971 in some of the most war-torn, impoverished, and generally inhospitable places across the world. Annually they help ten million people, many of whom would have no medical recourse otherwise. These are the diseased, the embattled, the sick and the frightened, and MSF is there to help them all. And now, after nearly 40 years of secular humanitarian work as a Non-Governmental Organization, they’ve let cameras in to see just how tough the job really is. The result is the stunning documentary Living In Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders.

Clocking in at about an hour and a half, Living in Emergency follows the routines of four MSF workers who simply never clock out. Taking place in both Liberia and the Congo, the film doesn’t just sit back and let the action come to the audience. Rather, it is up close, personal, and altogether moving right from the outset. With a minimal (but necessary) focus on each profiled worker and some vital statistics to give a frame of reference to the scenes that follow, Living in Emergency quickly takes on an emotional / dangerous / enraging quality that rivals only The Cove in its scope and complexity, and completely blows it out of the water with its topic and tone.

The four featured members of the film all come from different backgrounds and have varying degrees of connection with MSF, which further complicates the work being done on screen. Tom Krueger, the rural surgeon from America, is faced with the challenges of low-grade surgery in a high-tension environment, including tough decisions (including amputation in one scene) that must be made instantaneously. Meanwhile, Davinder Gill is a young doctor working in the bush practically by himself on his first six month mission with MSF. Here, the lack of supplies and communication matter just as much as the overwhelming needs of the people, and it becomes immediately apparent why so many first-time doctors never return for a second MSF mission. Chris Brasher, meanwhile, is the hardened veteran who has grown weary of what he’s seen and experienced and is out for his final mission, while Chiara Lepora must deal with higher-level MSF issues like closing medical facilities in favor of expanded treatment elsewhere. In terms of scale, this is perhaps more devastating than any individual death in the film, as local medical staff and people in need are all left with a sense of abandonment. At one point, Lepora describes the tough decisions she faces: “when you see a car crash in front of you, you have a responsibility to do something” but the Congo, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Pakistan are all “big car crashes” and MSF is barely even able to apply the brakes. MSF is not here to develop infrastructure within a rebuilding government, it exists only when and where it is needed most urgently. Hence, Living in Emergency.

By allowing filmmakers in for the first time, MSF has given director Mark Hopkins the opportunity to create both a calling card for the work that Doctors Without Borders does, and a cautionary tale about what it means to really help in a world that is teeming with outstretched hands. Beautifully shot and masterfully cut, the only real downside with Living in Emergency is the sound mixing (which lends itself to needing a lot of subtitles). But losing some sound quality while embedded with some of the hardest-working, most selfless doctors in the world in unfathomable areas of need is the smallest price to pay imaginable. You could watch this movie on mute and still be moved by the poverty, perseverance, and pride that exist in the poorest people in the world, and the strength of those who just want to help.


Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders will be debuting in theaters early next year. However, a special screening and live theater event will be taking place on December 14th at theaters and screening rooms throughout Los Angeles. Check here for more information.