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Living in Emergency: survival at its rawest edge

For anybody in western society who thinks that their life is tough, try immersing yourself in the harrowing documentary Living in Emergency. This 2008 hard-to-watch film throws you into the poverty and life-death traumas of  patients in the Congo and Liberia, whom four hardy Medecins San Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) volunteers — all stressed and challenged to the max — try to save with only the barest of medical resources.

Last month, I saw the Vancouver, BC premiere of this gripping film, a former Oscar contender, at the Vancity TheatreBeyond the doctors’ obvious heroism and exhausting hours, I liked that the movie showed the three men and one woman in less-than-flattering terms. This  movie marked the first-ever insider’s look at Doctors Without Borders volunteers in the field, and director Mark Hopkins told Huffington Post that the organization wasn’t exactly thrilled at the idea.

A French doctor panics when he’s forced to drill a dying man’s skull with the wrong equipment, due to a lack of supplies. One of the doctors, a new-recruit Australian, spews contempt at Unicef while drunk in off-hours, saying he’d tell any of its reps to “Fuck off” if they arrived to “help” at his isolated clinic. The other 20-something recruit rails against the impossibilities of his duties, saying that there’s no way he can continue. The others fear that one of their colleagues  has become too much like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Round-the-clock triage and tension-filled meetings give way to clashing egos, arguments, and also poignant admissions and loving community moments. A  native doctor complains that his western colleagues treat him like a secondary helper and when he demands greater respect, they criticize him. Admitting some gender bias on my part, I was pleased to see that the female doctor appears to handle the stress and demands the best of the four, ultimately choosing to head the emergency program.

Anybody who’s squeamish is guaranteed to look away during some scenes, when the sawing sound of a leg amputation sounds too close, for instance, and a doctor holds an organ in bloodied gloves above an open, throbbing torso. I’m usually pretty good with the sight of blood, but I definitely averted my eyes a few times.

I consider people such as these four doctors, willing to risk their lives to help others in the most extreme circumstances, true heroes. Yet I don’t uphold any sense of them as gods; they have chosen courage and astounding commitment over comfort and wealth, which is still readily accessible to them once they return home.

My main complaint is that the film was too long; it could have been edited more tightly. The interweaving of the four personalities and their stories, as subtext to their demanding medical days, could have been blended together more clearly and seamlessly. But overall, I think  it was an excellent and rare voyeur’s view of life at its rawest edge.

This screening of Living in Emergency was presented by Reel Causes, a great Vancouver-based nonprofit, all volunteer-run,  which screens monthly films on “poverty, disease and humanitarian causes” and donates all proceeds to a related charity. The proceeds from this April 21 show went to support Doctors Without Borders’ emergency fund.

 I applaud Reel Causes’ founder Mohamed Ehab for using film in such a proactive way to support social change, and the Vancity Theatre for creating an ongoing venue and an affiliated partnership.

May 10, 2011 at 5:12 pm
  • May 12, 2011 at 6:15 amFrank L. McElroy

    I haven’t seen the film, but what I got out of your description is an impression of what you will find in any big city hospital emergency room, and I mean city hospital (public not private). Understaffed, poorly staffed, overworked, under-provisioned, all with unending and excessive demand for services, often connected to massive accidents, shootings and other horrific criminal activity. In either milieu, it is a compelling statement about the human race and its foibles, including the lack of societal interest in investing in sound health care which is investing in citizenry. That’s one of the reasons I wonder why the individuals, physicians and nurses, you describe are so dedicated to their cause – nobody in power in Congo, Liberia gives a shit about ordinary people except that their misery draws in billions of dollars in aid which are siphoned off to the advantage of the advantaged. The heroic subjects of the film are an unwitting part of a blackmail scheme which occurs just about everywhere, including north america. What they do is both magnificent and meaningless.

  • May 11, 2011 at 8:59 amConstance

    Thank you for sharing. We don’t get a chance to see many docs as we are now in northern Alberta with no tv and limited internet. It is good to stay aware.

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