August 30, 2008 / 2:28 PM / in 9 years

Documentary shows tough reality of doctors in war

VENICE (Reuters) - A new documentary on aid workers in war zones shows the tough choices, dilemmas and limits faced by doctors providing emergency care in extreme conditions.

Shot in 2005-2006 and presented at the Venice film festival, “Living in Emergency” follows four Western volunteers working in Africa for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the French-based aid agency which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

Two are new recruits and two are experienced field workers in Liberia after its brutal civil war and in the lawless northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

All struggle to cope with a crushing work load, the lack of adequate supplies, and the chaos and carnage around them.

Using graphic footage of emergency surgery and frank interviews with aid workers, the documentary gives a powerful sense of what life in the field is really like for MSF doctors, and stays away from the sanitized images which are sometimes used to make humanitarian work easier for audiences to watch.

“It was very clear from the beginning that we did not want to make some kind of ‘cause documentary’. That’s a genre like ‘everything is going to be okay and here are the heroes’,” director Mark Hopkins, who is a dual U.S. and British national, told Reuters in an interview.

“They (MSF doctors) don’t view themselves like that, they are humans. They are doing quite extraordinary stuff in crazy situations but ... it would be disingenuous to the actual reality of the situation to turn it into one of those standard cliches.”

The documentary shows the material constraints affecting the volunteers’ work -- choosing which patient to treat first can mean deciding who will live and who will die, and often there are no other doctors with whom to share the responsibility.

It also explores how their ideals, perspectives and motives are transformed over time by what they witness in the field, and how difficult it is too keep morale high amid the tension and frustrations.

“This is low-grade medicine. The things that we do are not as good as they could be,” one of the volunteers says in the film.

While most describe their work as a highly enriching experience, the stress and the exposure to the horrors of war can take a heavy toll.

Chris Brasher, an Australian anesthetist who worked with MSF for nine years and is one of the doctors at the centre of the documentary, has now left the agency for a Paris hospital.

“I was completely burnt out .... dreaming about burned bodies and dying people. I had trouble in my personal life maintaining my relationships. I was becoming aggressive,” he said, adding it was very hard to readjust to normal life.

He offered this advice to the thousands of people who every year apply to become an MSF volunteer: “To all those who think they are doing this for other persons and not for themselves, think again.”

Editing by Caroline Drees

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