When Chris Brasher, a ruggedly handsome Aussie physician, lights his first cigarette, I know I will like "Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders," Mark Hopkins's compelling new documentary about one of the world's most celebrated aid groups. It's not because I think doctors should smoke, or because it's a particularly good thing for anyone to do. Rather, it suggested that this honest movie was not going to hide anything, and it does not—not the anger, not the frustration, not the tears, not the vast insecurities and the heroic flaws of these doctors.
"Living in Emergency" focuses on four doctors: Brasher, a Doctors Without Borders veteran who ends up smoking an impressively high number of cigarettes during the 93 minutes of this film; a young, idealistic thing named Davinder Gill; Tom Krueger, an earnest Tennessean who lives on a 40-acre farm; and Kiara Lepora, whose feats extend beyond saving lives to include picking her way through muddy Liberian streets in form-fitting long skirts and high heels. Together, the four, shown working mainly in Congo and Liberia, provide a multifaceted and fascinating look into the work of an organization that you'll often see mentioned in passing in newspaper reports from war zones—if there's a crisis, Doctors Without Borders will be there. It's particularly fascinating, because the group rarely gets in-depth coverage. The doctors are all telegenic, all well-spoken, all passionate in their own ways; you can see why other reviewers have deemed this film a little bit ER and a little bit MASH.
Really, that doesn't do the film justice, because, as camera-friendly as the four main subjects may be, their work and their hospitals are real, not conjured up by a roomful of writers in Hollywood. The problems that their patients have are soberingly real: There is the Congolese orphan named Dada whose parents were killed in front of her. There is a child whose face and belly are inexplicably and grossly swollen. There are perforated organs and infected limbs that have to be sawed off. There's a skull that needs to be drilled into—guy got shot at point-blank range by some unhappy soldiers, and the brain is maybe swelling a little in response—but wait, does the clinic even have the right kind of drill bit? Well, no, but they have to do it anyway.
Tom Krueger, a physician from Tennessee, astutely observes that volunteer work can be "a very selfish thing. Sometimes fixing other people," he says, "is how you fix yourself." But these four doctors don't seem to come close to fixing themselves or the people they have gone abroad to treat. For every person they are able to help, there are at least a hundred they cannot, and for every case they can resolve, there's at least half a dozen right in front of them that, for lack of resources or bureaucracy or just bad luck, they aren't able to. "You have to make choices," Brasher says. "You have to say sorry to all those people, all the time."
There was only one thing that I thought the filmmakers should apologize for, and that was for resorting, if only briefly, to some semi-slow-mo shots, accompanied by some worryingly Enya-like African vocals, toward the end of the film. Given the power and the emotion of the stories themselves, it was unnecessary and almost a little gooey. But that's a minor quibble about an otherwise terrific documentary.
And the doctors themselves? They have little to say sorry about, because the problem is not theirs—really, it belongs to all of us. The true power of this film is in how it quietly lays out, through these stories, the magnitude of the tragedy that war, poverty, corruption, and our own negligence of fellow humankind have wrought. It's a Goliath too huge for this good-hearted, heroic Davids to conquer, but still they try. One of the doctors says that his work is "tremendously rewarding but also fucks you up a bit." With its rich, complicated tales of good work amid bad situations, the same could be said about this important and powerful film.