There’s a question lurking at the heart of Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, and the fact that it’s never properly addressed undercuts this documentary’s moving look at four physicians working in Liberia and the Congo for Doctors Without Borders (a.k.a. Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF). Though early sections suggest a forthcoming MSF advertisement, Mark N. Hopkins’s film is instead a quite levelheaded depiction of the logistical, emotional, and psychological battles fought by those doctors willing to sign up for six-month missions to the world’s most crisis-wracked locations and provide medical services to desperate people using rudimentary supplies and primitive techniques. Focusing on four individuals allows Hopkins to chart not only how crazy conditions and maladies combine to create enormous stress on practitioners, but also how the yeoman’s burden facing these men and women—who, as with 26-year-old Davinder Gill, are sometimes left alone in the treacherous middle of nowhere to singlehandedly run hospital operations for the severely ill—is further exacerbated by the ever-present fear of failure, or at least of not doing enough.
Living in Emergency compellingly suggests that, despite Tennessee native Dr. Tom Krueger’s confession that his motivations for volunteering with MSF are selfish (because he’s fixing others in order to fix himself), its doctors are close to modern-day saints. Certainly, sacrificing their lives not for praise or financial gain, but in the service of aiding those less fortunate, they serve as stark rejoinders to many in our own current profit-driven domestic health care system. Yet given how incisively Hopkins’s portrait—a mixture of verité footage and on-location interviews—communicates the doctors’ shared sense of moral responsibility, the conflict they experience over wanting to constantly be on call and the necessity of granting themselves down time, and the tumult they experience over having to eventually abandon people and places they care about helping, it’s a shame that the same complex treatment isn’t given to MSF itself.
Hopkins establishes that the MSF is driven by a noble desire to play a part in alleviating global suffering. Nonetheless, the director never sufficiently investigates the NGO’s overriding mission statement and, specifically, the practicality of its efforts, meaning that the permanent value of its members’ contributions is never completely clear. If the MSF’s work is, as veteran volunteer Dr. Chris Brasher puts it, merely “a tiny, tiny drop in a sea of oceans,” then is their assistance anything more than a temporary salve on a gaping wound? And thus, wouldn’t these physicians’ toil be better served by an organizational modus operandi that sought to create longer-lasting effects on the troubled nations targeted for support? Such questions pressingly simmer beneath the film’s heartrending surface of surgeons and nurses endeavoring, heroically and vainly, to salvage life within near-apocalyptic environs, ultimately complicating one’s feelings toward the action in ways the filmmakers likely didn’t intend.