Living in Emergency: Meet the MDs of Medecins Sans Frontieres

Not interested in heroicizing the four Western doctors it follows through their missions in the Congo and Liberia, or even in whitewashing the ethical challenges of an organization like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), this documentary takes a rough—in several senses—measure of how humanitarian aid works. Two of the doctors are making their first MSF missions, two are veterans—one more wearied than the other. Director Mark Hopkins stays close to their experiences, whether they’re treating a hernia in a bush tent or celebrating their short-lived success in reassembling a broken skull. The doctors’ motivations remain somewhat enigmatic, even as the two veterans emerge as more fully drawn characters. A matriarchal Italian in braids and long, stylish skirts calls the decision to close a clinic in postwar Liberia “a criminal mistake”; an Australian surgeon rips UNICEF before suggesting, in a rare moment of ethnographic dissonance, that it’s more rewarding to practice medicine in war-torn Congo, the current rape capital of the world, because it is a country “where people care about each other.” Hopkins focuses on the work, refusing to get too close to his subjects, who themselves struggle—as a matter of survival—against the human instinct to not just cure but connect to those in pain.