A title card at the end of Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders announces that Doctors Without Borders (or MSF, the acronym for its original French name) treats 10 million people a year. Just as you’re absorbing that impressive figure, another card announces that two billion people live outside the reach of any kind of medical assistance. That one-two punch distills the impact of this thoughtful documentary, which conveys both the satisfaction of saving one life at a time and the difficulty of turning your back on countless others in need—or, as Chiara Lepora puts it, “the nonsense of not doing something once you know something needs to be done.”
Lepora is the head of a Liberian mission, one of two MSF beachheads the movie explores (the other is in the Congo). Both countries were chosen because of the horrendous civil wars being waged there, since MSF’s emergency-medicine triage system starts with choosing which parts of the world are in greatest need of doctors.
You might expect a documentary about MSF to focus on the people it treats—or, like 2009 Documentary Short Oscar-winner Smile Pinki, to tell the inspirational tale of one charismatic patient while providing cameos of others. Director Mark Hopkins does a little of that, showing us heartrending cases like the Congolese father shot in the head in his own home, or the young daughter with one arm torn open by a bullet, still in the fetal position from the trauma of seeing her whole family gunned down. He also provides a few glimpses of the horrors these patients or their countrymen have endured (one particularly vivid segment shows teenage soldiers laughing while terrified civilians run and a grief-maddened woman weeps on Liberia’s chaotic streets, during the war one doctor describes as “pretty apocalyptic, really.”) But that’s all just the backdrop for this movie’s real subject: how MSF’s doctors process their stress, grief, guilt, and frustration—and what motivates them to keep working for the organization or to quit.
The film touches on other interesting issues in passing, like the tension between local doctors and nurses and these expat “experts,” the copious smoking and drinking that helps the doctors release stress, and the “huge level of responsibility” they feel as they triage, their decisions made all the more difficult by constant shortages of needed supplies. We also witness a lot of anger directed by MSF staff against each other. At one point, Lepora insists that MSF doctors aren’t saints. “It is not about being a good person. It is not about that,” she says. Living in Emergency makes a convincing case that she’s right—and that that’s good news for us all. MSF docs, it turns out, are just fallible, flawed human beings, doing what comes naturally to at least some members of this war-happy species.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.