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Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders -- Film Review

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For those who imagine that humanitarian organizations are peopled by genteel do-gooders, the powerful documentary "Living in Emergency" is a bracing blast of reality. Focusing on four physicians on assignment in Africa for Doctors Without Borders, first-time director Mark Hopkins dispels any notions of lofty dreamers.

In this unforgettable chronicle, which was shortlisted for an Oscar and bows June 4 in limited release, the characters are at least as watchable as tough-talking TV doctors, but without the prescribed dose of heartwarming reassurance. These are people at the frontline of idealism in action, working to alleviate suffering, one patient at a time, in some of the most devastated places on Earth.

The field staff of Doctors Without Borders -- or, as the Paris-based organization is more widely known, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) -- are often the first aid workers in a region during an emergency, and sometimes the only doctors the locals have seen in decades. Hopkins provides glimpses of the MSF headquarters, but mainly he and his terrific DP, Sebastian Ischer, are on the ground with the medics in the Congo and Liberia, countries ravaged by war, corruption and poverty.

For the two rookies and two vets profiled, chronic health problems long untreated are an everyday affair. There's graphic footage of an amputation and an intestinal operation, but the most harrowing images are those of a bloated baby whose illness has so far defied diagnosis, an elderly man who was shot at point-blank range by soldiers, and a young girl whose wound is easily cleaned but who must now face the fact of her orphanhood.

Although most of MSF's workers are locals, the film concerns the ways Westerners come to terms -- or don't -- with seat-of-the-pants medicine in places where infrastructure is a pipe dream. A soft-spoken American surgeon, Tom Krueger, spending his first six-month mission in Monrovia's only emergency hospital, notes the need to live with wrong decisions and the indescribable "smell of your own panic."

Another first-timer, Davinder Gill, also in Liberia but in a remote rural region, is an intense Aussie who doesn't hold back his anger with colleagues. Chiara Lepora, an elegant Italian who heads the Liberian team, offers an incisive observation to the filmmakers about Gill's heart-of-darkness syndrome; dealing with the irascible doctor, she's a remarkable portrait of weary but sanguine equanimity.

As compelling a figure as Lepora is Chris Brasher, a nine-year MSF veteran and a quintessential work-hard, party-hard gypsy. As he emphasizes in a late-night drinking session, touchy-feely types who thrive within a meeting-happy bureaucracy would never fly in the group. When you're searching for the right drill bit to try to save someone's life, saving the world is not a priority.

"It's not about being a good person," Lepora insists. As challenging as the work is, the doctors understand that it satisfies their own emotional needs. Those might not be the emotional needs of most people, but these doctors are not most people. They're uncommonly spirited, complex and fascinating, like this artfully made film.

Opens: June 4 (Bev Pictures)
Production: A Red Floor Pictures production
Director: Mark Hopkins
Executive producers: Erika Bertin, Molly Conners, Shaana Diya, Geralyn Dreyfous, Mark Harris, Sarah Johnson, Christopher Woodrow
Producers: Mark Hopkins, Naisola Grimwood, Daniel Holton-Roth
Director of photography: Sebastian Ischer
Music: Bruno Coulais
Co-executive producers: Diana Barrett, Pamela Boll, Ian McGloin
Co-producers: Chris Cooper, Louis Spiegler
Editors: Bob Eisenhardt, Sebastian Ischer, Douglas Rossini
No MPAA rating, 94 minutes