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Living in Emergency is a great medical drama—like ER or Grey’s Anatomy, it is charged with adrenaline. Its characters must constantly choose between the lesser of various evils, and in their spare moments they debate the ethics of saving one patient instead of another, or of abandoning their patients altogether. Unlike those pop-medical shows, however, Emergency is all the more compelling because everything in it is real. That’s because the film follows four volunteer physicians who each spend 6 months working on “missions” for Medecins Sans Frontiers, or Doctors Without Borders.
All the doctors are stationed in incredibly impoverished parts of Liberia and the Congo, countries that have been rent apart by decades of war. As they struggle against insurmountable problems—one nearly snaps because no one can ship him any sterile gloves—the filmmakers give us an unvarnished view of what life and medicine in these places is actually like. Suddenly, we’re in an operating theater as a doctor uses a hand-cranked drill to put a hole in a man’s skull (he lives). A moment later, a second doctor matter-of-factly mentions over breakfast that the child he has been trying to revive all morning has abruptly died. People are shot for no reason; children die of diseases that would easily be cured in the West.
That’s the most shocking thing about this documentary; it is devoid of histrionics. The fact that the filmmakers allow their subjects to speak for themselves, at length, turns the film into something more than just a document of their collective experience. Instead, Emergency becomes something huge, weighty and allegorical. One young doctor realizes that she can’t continue doing this work indefinitely, and her imminent departure from the people she’s grown attached to nearly wrenches her apart. An older doctor, who has been on many missions, tells the audience frankly that for him death has become an everyday occurrence rather than a monumental event. He looks exhausted and rubs his eyes.
All the doctors realize that at best they are making a temporary improvement to a desperate humanitarian situation. As the film goes on, each of them has to make peace with the fact that they can only do so much, and then they must extricate themselves in order to keep from being totally overwhelmed. The film is eloquent and well-constructed enough that it can show the plight of people in this part of the world without being sanctimonious or patronizing. Indeed, its neutral but urgent tone is what makes it so compelling—the film doesn’t tell, it shows.
After having made the festival circuit in 2009, Living in Emergency will be in limited release in New York beginning June 4th. I highly recommend it—but you may want to pass on the popcorn.