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Exploring the Limits of Idealism Through Film by Marianna Tu

By Kate Golden on December 18, 2009No Comment

The movie theater on 62nd and 1st hummed with energy as the crowd waited for the film to begin. The attendees were healthcare professionals, academics, and humanitarians, and they were there to take a look behind the scenes of the well-known medical NGO, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) through the new documentary “Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders.” The film was nationally broadcast with a panel discussion live from the NYU Skirball Center on Monday night.

The documentary follows four doctors in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo as they combat with limited resources and unfamiliar settings. These doctors come from three countries and all walks of life; two are MSF veterans and two are on their first assignment.

Director Mark Hopkins clearly understands that there is no need to impose emotion when you have a compelling story. The medical needs confronted by the film are acute and the political settings are either completely unstable or post-conflict. The film’s triumph is in letting the audiences react organically to the reality they see, avoiding sentimental or heavy-handed editing. This strength is best displayed in scenes of surgery. Audiences watch the surgeons drill into a man’s skull and amputate an infected foot, footage which is neither understated nor gratuitous, but simply honest.

Similarly, the doctors featured are not shown as perfect or infallible, despite their admirable work delivering free emergency medical care to those most in need. The doctors are funny and brave, irritating and sympathetic.  In one delightful scene, Dr. Chris Brasher congratulates his team after an impromptu brain surgery and makes fun of UNICEF workers for planning and convening meetings while his team gets their hands dirty. He acknowledges that while saving a life is an admirable act of honor, there’s also the undeniable fact that drilling into someone’s head makes him feel pretty cool.

Then there is Dr. Davinder Gill, a 27 year old Australian doctor running a clinic three days from the capital city. Dr. Gill expresses his frustrations over the lack of supplies, institutional disorganization and communication difficulties. He is clear, precise, and occasionally self important, contrasting with the expressive Dr. Chiara Lepora, decorated with feather earrings and ever-changing hairstyles, a mercurial MSF veteran responsible for site visits.

Experienced surgeon Tom Krueger, another featured first-mission doctor, who decided, unlike Dr. Gill, to continue work with MSF after his first mission, commented after the film, "after twenty years of work you develop some calluses… it's harder for the young people." In the film, Dr. Krueger is gentle and solid, clearly committed to the work, which, for him, “gets under your fingernails and the grit gets into your soul.”

If the documentary is, as Hopkins describes, “a journey that explores the limits of idealism,” the panel discussion following the film was an exploration on the limited impact of crisis and emergency intervention in the face of total health system collapse. The film’s scene on the closing of Mamba Point hospital in Monrovia features a passionate local nurse criticizing MSF staff who will leave for other areas in crisis, now that Liberia has stabilized. 

“The reputation is that they parachute in and they parachute out,” historian and audience member Renate Bridenthal commented after the showing. She attended with longtime MSF supporter, Carol Gruber, who added, “It's a question of resources. They staunch the wound and go to the next place where blood is gushing out."

Dr. Brasher’s perspective in the film is that MSF “is not pretentious enough” to believe it can fix health systems. Dr. Walter Gwenigale, the Liberian Minister of Health, and MSF-USA executive director Sophie Delaunay, addressed the topic as well. Delaunay acknowledged that MSF is designed to address acute crisis and must often leave while need still exists, ideally turning programs over to ministries of health and development focused NGOs. These organizations, she suggested, must be the ones to commit to long-term improvements, citing a case when Chinese local staff formed their own NGO upon the departure on MSF.  While expressing happiness that MSF did remain in a limited capacity in Liberia to work in maternal-child health, Dr. Gwenigale also discussed country-ownership, mentioning, "Donors who supported the NGOs also support the ministry of health."

The discussion was the perfect cap to a film that is honest about the reality of humanitarian work. With complex characters, humor and drama, Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders deserves its status as a film under consideration for an Oscar. Audience members clearly responded to MSF’s story, which was not a fairytale or easy solution, but a story about courage and commitment to the belief that just because one can’t do everything, doesn’t mean one should do nothing.

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