Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders

Since 1971, humanitarian aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — called Doctors Without Borders stateside — have sent volunteers into hostile, chaotic world hot spots, not to extinguish flames but smother embers one patient at a time. 

This exceptional story doesn't offer much history of the organization's triumphs and controversies, but instead focuses on a handful of talented and very harried medicos at work in the Congo and Liberia. 

A few scenes document the cramped Parisian headquarters, and the camaraderie and bickering over where to best spend precious time and resources. Such bureaucratic moments are brief, as the action primarily shifts between one country in the midst of a bloody civil war and another country enduring the disease-plagued aftermath of war. The specific politics and the larger conditions on the ground aren't addressed here, because MSF goes where the problems are, regardless of risks. 

Most of these professionals sport cigarettes dangling from lips like 1940s war correspondents. That's just one vice showed here; as stressed, MDs often party as if their lives depended on it, which, to some extent, their lives probably do. Italian Chiara Lepora, a kind of it-girl of the bush, waltzes through combat zones and disaster sites with a sort of charmed air and party-girl 'tude. As she directly points out, MSF doctors have lots of sex abroad because they are surrounded by death and "sex is life." We can forgive her reveries and casual attitude in dire situations because she's driven, calm and selfless while on the job. 

Her opposite is the irritable Australian Dr. Davinder Gill, whose first assignment sees him dispatched to a remote outpost with few supplies and little support, but he soldiers on, though his frustrations clearly have become toxic. At times Gill's intelligence exceeds his capacity for compassion, or perhaps his heart feels every bruise and infection too deeply to cope with the steady stream of wounds, infection and misery passing through his doors. 

Lepora not-so-jokingly suggests that, like Brando in Apocalypse Now, Gill's gone a bit mad out in the jungle, but who can blame him, given the circumstances? 

Then there's Tom Kruger, a laconic Tennessean with a saint's patience who'd grown soul-sick from the commercialization of medicine in the United States. As he elegantly states, "In fixing others, you begin to fix yourself." 

As a piece of publicity, Living is infinitely more useful than the fairly recent and melodramatic Angelina Jolie howler, even if its edges are raw. Director Mark N. Hopkins has edited together a messy, shambolic film, one reflecting the anarchic and challenging lives of its subjects. You may want more info or perspective. 

Some of the purely medical scenes here will test your capacity for human suffering, but that's a minuscule impression of horrors these doctors face daily in far-flung corners of the globe.

Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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