Judge Jake Ware is a critic without borders.
Stories of Doctors Without Borders.
Some documentaries, Spellbound for instance, give us an informative look into a subject most think of as mundane. Some offer a peek into a unique sub culture, as did The King Of Kong. And others are politically driven or a plain call to arms as was 2010 Oscar winner The Cove. Living In Emergency, while not as partisan as The Cove, definitely belongs in the latter category.
Facts of the Case
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known internationally as Doctors Without Borders, is an NGO started in 1971 by a group of French doctors and journalists. Its main objective is to provide medical services to some of the world's poorest, most disadvantaged and neglected people. Their 'missions' involve setting up medical facilities in parts of the world ravaged by man made crisis and natural disasters, and then managing them with minimal staff and resources.
The services these medical centres provide are often the only medical services available for dozens if not hundreds of miles, and the doctors are at times the first medical professionals working in those areas for over a decade. As a result, the medicine practiced in these medical centres is urgent, creative by necessity, and far more direct than what we are used to in the West. For instance, in the West illness is normally detected in the early stages and patients receive treatment for a few symptoms. MSF staff normally deal with all kinds of advanced stage illnesses or traumas where the initial treatment is usually something severe, like an amputation or open surgery.
MSF provides aid in nearly 70 countries, is funded mostly by donations, and all its doctors are volunteers. In 1999, MSF won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work.
Living In Emergency centres around a group of Médecins Sans Frontières MDs working in some of the worst hotspots around the world. Their lives are stressful beyond any limit that I can imagine; they are essentially living in war zones with all the implications that carries, and having to treat patients who die as often as they live. It's a very different experience of medicine than the one wealthy MDs who live in suburbs and run successful practices in our Western cities have.
Living In Emergency shows these doctors working, interacting with their patients, and trying hard to get through their days. Most rely on some kind of crutch; there is a great deal of smoking and drinking, and marijuana and sex are mentioned as antidotes to stress. It's a very tough existence and one wonders why anyone would volunteer for this kind of life? Many of these doctors volunteer more than once, as is the case with one interviewee who had spent the previous nine years working for MSF. The motivation comes from many things, but it is never money related. Some doctors are motivated by humanitarian reasons. Others are interested in seeing what their own limits are. I got the feeling that one doctor volunteered for more professional reasons; he seemed to cope the worst with his work for MSF.
Living In Emergency is a tight and well presented film giving us a glimpse into the working lives of these doctors who are without exception brave and socially aware individuals, to the point of putting themselves in harm's way in order to satisfy their own desire to contribute. The film follows four doctors as they try to cope with their stations and attend to patients who challenge them on a daily basis. It's incredibly stressful work, but the personal rewards are high too, when their treatment is successful they are making a significant and immediate difference to someone's life. This work is not about giving a prescription for Prozac to some stressed urbanite; often the intervention of these MDs is the difference between life and death.
Part of the motivation behind making Living In Emergency must have been to raise awareness of MSF and hence to get us Westerners who can afford to spend our time watching DVDs to contribute to its coffers. However, when presented with the kind of work these doctors perform, it's tough to be cynical about any marketing motivators behind the film. These doctors perform important work; the least that we can do is spring a few bucks to support it.
Living In Emergency is well made, well constructed, focused and informative. We get to see the good and the bad of the situation faced by MSF MDs, and we leave the film understanding that the work being done by MSF is almost negligible considering that a third of the world's population lives without access to modern medicines. And that is why it is even more important that MSF is allowed to not only continue the work they are doing, but to grow as quickly as possible. The world needs organizations like MSF. If Living In Emergency's only effect is raising some awareness about this important NGO, than it's been successful.
The image quality of the 16:9 presentation is reasonable considering that the film was shot on the fly. It is only during the poorly lit and night scenes that the image breaks up and shows excessive grain. However, this never gets in the way of the information that the film is trying to communicate and in fact creates a more intimate and realistic atmosphere. Surprisingly for a documentary, Living In Emergency comes with a choice of 5.1 or 2.0 audio tracks. I preferred the 2.0 track as the dialogue is featured more prominently. The audio is complemented with subtitles where needed.
As for the extras, the DVD comes with very few. There is a text based and rather brief introduction to MSF and its work. It's brief and to the point highlighting some of the organizations achievements over its 40 year history. This is followed by an also brief four minute interview with director Mark Hopkins. While this segment adds some interesting background to the film, it is far too short to offer anything of depth. The centre piece of the extra supplements is a 45 minute panel discussion that includes two of the doctors featured in the film, war journalist Sebastian Junger, Executive Director of MSA-USA Sophie Delaunay, and Liberia's Health and Social Welfare Minister, Dr. Walter Gwenigale. The discussion adds a wonderful layer of reflection as the film itself is discussed alongside more general questions about MSF's work. It's a very engrossing segment. The extras are rounded off with a collection of trailers for First Run Features.
How much you enjoy Living In Emergency will depend on your threshold for serious and very real subject matter that can not be neatened or prettied up. The fact that much of the world's population has no access to modern medicines is a sobering thought. It is a matter that demands a great deal of debate and needs to be known by the consumer crazy nations of the world whose biggest problem is which pair of overpriced shoes to buy this coming weekend. If you are willing to settle down for a 90 minute peek into how much of the world lives, Living In Emergency is a very good film that will offer a great deal of information and insight into both this particular NGO's work and the mind to spend their time engaging the people of the world who seldom get any real attention or representation.
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