Documentary Maker Describes 'Living In Emergency'
SCOTT SIMON, host:
When war or conflict strikes a country, many of those who can often head for the border. On their way, they just might pass a convoy headed in the opposite direction - with a team from Doctors Without Borders. For close to 40 years, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian medical organization, has headed into the thick of suffering and strife to take care of the most helpless in war-torn situations.
A new documentary about the group that opened in theaters earlier this month follows the work of four doctors, principally in Congo and Liberia, and that's where we meet Dr. Chiara Lepora.
(Soundbite of movie, "Living in Emergency")
Dr. CHIARA LEPORA (Doctors Without Borders): You are driving somewhere and you have car crash happening in front of you, you have the duty of stopping and doing something.
(Soundbite of music)
Dr. LEPORA: And Liberia is a huge car crash.
SIMON: The film is called "Living in Emergency." We're joined in the studio by Dr. Chiara Lepora. Thanks very much for being with us.
Dr. LEPORA: Thank you for inviting us.
SIMON: And in our studios in New York, Mark Hopkins, who produced and directed the film. Mr. Hopkins, thank you for being with us.
Mr. MARK HOPKINS (Producer, Director, "Living in Emergency"): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: The film, as we've mentioned, follows four doctors. There's Dr. Thomas Krueger from Tennessee, Dr. Christopher Brasher, who's from Australia and the United Kingdom, and Dr. Davinder Gill, who is also from Australia. Dr. Lepora, you're a toxicologist, right?
Dr. LEPORA: I was.
SIMON: You were. What led you to MSF?
Dr. LEPORA: This is always an embarrassing question, to be honest, because the...
SIMON: Well, I'm glad we got to it first, then.
Dr. LEPORA: I do think that somehow the reason for which somebody starts working with MSF tend to be the wrong reason all the time, and tend to change very quickly.
SIMON: Well, I guess it's your own business. I mean, Dr. Brasher, I think it is, says in the film - he's quite plain about saying, I joined because I had a personal life I wanted to get away from.
Dr. LEPORA: Let's put it this way: I had a personal life that I was pursuing.
SIMON: Hmm. OK. Mr. Hopkins, so it's not - and I say this with respect, having been around the world and seen Doctors Without Borders at work - it's not always sheer idealism.
Mr. HOPKINS: Oh no. Not at all, I dont think. And I think one of the interesting things is, is that you might have quite - sort of not necessarily idealistic but sort of na�ve ideas of the environments you're going to. But once you start to, I suppose, mature in your experience in the field, I think you're just realistic about what you're doing.
SIMON: Dr. Lepora, it looks like - judging from the film - that there was many a night - that you had many tough nights. You must have gone to sleep depressed.
Dr. LEPORA: Im not sure that depression is the right type of feeling. I have to say, I surely went to sleep angry lots of nights, because there is somehow this rage of facing situations that should not exist, simply, and knowing that those situations could be avoided, if enough attention from the rest of world was given to situations. And that made me - anger more than depressed.
SIMON: I made a note. One of the doctors in the film, Dr. Kruger(ph) from Tennessee, at one point says in the film: We dont see things until they're at the worst level of severity.
Dr. LEPORA: Yeah. Well, you have to imagine that lots of times when we work in conflict area, a patient needs to decide to expose themselves to a certain level of risk just by coming to the hospital. Going outside their house, and walking that distance, is risk in itself. So they try to wait as much as they can. And the result is obviously, we see the most extreme condition at the very last moment.
SIMON: I have to raise this with both of you. Medecins Sans Frontieres is, I think, vulnerable to the same criticism that reporters are. And I say this recognizing that Dr. Lepora, you do more good in the course of a single day than we reporters probably do in a lifetime.
But the criticism is, you Westerners parachute in here and then you leave. You do just enough work to maybe get some awards and feel a sense of reward, but then you leave. And it's very painful in the film when you leave.
Dr. LEPORA: It is indeed. And I do understand the criticism. I have to say, it's always a very hard choice for us. I do believe that the choice that MSF makes to leave situation when the crisis phase is over is mainly due to what MSF is able to do at best. So it's not necessarily a recognition that the needs are over. Needs are surely there.
However, if we have to balance what MSF does best, MSF does best in crisis situation. And it's a difficult choice, but there are going to be other crises elsewhere. So it's a hard choice on the spot and yet, I believe a better choice overall.
SIMON: How do you feel about it, Mr. Hopkins?
Mr. HOPKINS: Well, I mean, it's the infinite needs, making the choices to go where you feel you can be most effective. And we did make a point in the film, I suppose, of showing the tension that exists between the national staff and the expats when time comes for them to leave...
SIMON: Yeah, they say, dont get attached to an expat.
Mr. HOPKINS: Right, cause, you know, who's left holding the bag -type of thing. It's an inevitable fallout of these impossible situations.
SIMON: Thank you so much.
Mark Hopkins is the filmmaker. Dr. Chiara Lepora is one of the doctors. And the film is "Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders."
Dr. LEPORA: Thank you.
Mr. HOPKINS: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.