Movie Review

Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders

On the front lines of healing, conflict

“Living in Emergency’’ follows the work of four doctors, including Chris Brasher, in war-torn regions of Africa. “Living in Emergency’’ follows the work of four doctors, including Chris Brasher, in war-torn regions of Africa. (Red Floor Pictures)
By Lucy Barber
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2010

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Sitting down to watch “Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders,’’ I was prepared for a feature-length canonization and call to arms. The documentary follows four workers for Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) in Congo and Liberia. But rather than spending an hour and a half preying on the guilt of First World viewers, director Mark Hopkins focuses his gaze on the doctors’ motivations.

At the beginning of the film we learn how selective MSF is when choosing its staff — it is not for lack of volunteers but an understanding that not everyone is meant to give in such a way. Nor is everyone meant to see this film.

That’s all right. “Living in Emergency’’ is a remarkable look at the people behind an organization that understands its limitations. MSF is not designed as a solution but a temporary aid to developing nations, often war-torn, that face endemic disease and would otherwise receive no medical support.

Dr. Chiara Lepora, a principal figure in the documentary, likens their work to happening upon a car crash; it’s impossible not to stop at the wreckage. Lepora, taking long draws on her cigarette, goes on to say that there are devastating collisions everywhere: Pakistan, Darfur, Sri Lanka. MSF is a drop in the bucket, and they know it.

The film picks up at various stages in the physicians’ MSF careers. Dr. Tom Krueger is on his first mission. “Living in Emergency’’ expertly juxtaposes the greenhorn with the veteran, the idealist with the realist. Other doctors include Chris Brasher and Davinder Gill.

While footage of the patients can be shocking, it never feels as though Hopkins is trying to be incendiary. Anyone who has access to modern media has seen these horrors (their familiarity is disconcerting). The film’s focus isn’t the patients but the sort of person who feels compelled to save them. The doctors are the first to admit their own Christ complexes. At the end of the film, Krueger explains that “putting people back together’’ is a way to fix whatever is broken in him.

“Living in Emergency’’ is not without hope. Regardless of how limited the relief they offer may be, MSF is the last line of defense for these countries and, in a very different way, for the doctors who go there.

Lucy Barber can be reached at

LIVING IN EMERGENCY: Stories of Doctors Without Borders Directed by: Mark N. Hopkins

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 93 minutes

Unrated (there are R-worthy disturbing images)

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