Meet the Filmmaker: Mark N. Hopkins--'Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders'


Editor's note: Mark Hopkins' Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders opens in theaters June 4 through Truly Indie. What follows is an interview we conducted with Hopkins last summer when the film was featured as part of IDA's DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase.

Over the past few weeks, we at IDA have been introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, currently running through August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Mark N. Hopkins, director/producer of Living
in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders

Synopsis: For the first time in its history, a film crew has been allowed access to the field operations of the world largest medical NGO--Doctors Without Borders. Filmed in the war zones of Liberia and Congo, Living in Emergency follows four volunteer doctors as they struggle to provide emergency care in extreme conditions. Amidst the chaos, each volunteer must confront the severe challenges of the work, the tough choices and the limits of their own idealism.



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Mark N. Hopkins: I first made the connection in Hanoi, where I was studying in 1994. The place was transforming in front of us, a friend had a camera, and it just seemed like the
natural thing to do, to get out there and start shooting.

IDA: What inspired you to make Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders?

MNH: I'd been thinking about third-world myths, and how they are propagated. And one of the more persistent myths is the idea of the humanitarian hero who solves all. I think this makes us feel better about our world, the idea that someone is out there making it all OK, or at least makes us feel less guilty about our own good fortune. But this false hope is, I think, quite damaging; it hides the reality under simple ideas of "We Shall Overcome." Doctors Without Borders
presented a great vehicle through which to unravel this particular myth, while delving into an intense and fascinating world--inadvertently contrasting the "do-gooder" assumption through an immersion into the lives of the real people actually on the humanitarian frontlines, aware of their limits, the limits of their work, and the overwhelming challenges they face.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

MNH: I think the overriding challenge was living up to the responsibility: Something like 25 companies had tried to gain access to make an independent film on the organization. Given the seriousness of their mandate--apolitical medical care to the world's most adversely affected populations--being the first filmmakers with unfettered access was a huge responsibility. We had to live up to what we said we'd do: distill and capture the essence of the Doctors Without Borders experience, warts and all. How do you capture an experience that is
consistently described as one you must live to understand? It was an all-consuming challenge that we spent next two-and-a-half years attempting to meet.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

MNH: We had drawn up a fairly detailed structure going in: a narrative framework based not on individual character arcs, but constructed from multiple characters embodying different stages of the overriding story arc of a field mission. The idea was to experience the changing perception of life in the field that's undergone by a first mission: They start out with a surface understanding and gradually absorb the greater complexities of field existence as time goes on. It's the audience's symbolic first mission, as it were. Within this structure, the veteran characters serve as a contrast, providing an experienced voice that helps move the understanding of the first-timer forward. We had expected these voices to still have at least a veneer of the "do-gooder hero" myth, but there was none. Without exception, anyone with a decent amount of field experience had a completely unvarnished understanding of their work and its overall significance. In hindsight, it seems fairly obvious--the people picking up the bodies in the face of overwhelming need will be the least delusioned about their role--but at the time it came as a surprise. It meant this veteran voice provided even greater contrast and complexity to the first-mission experience.

IDA: As you've screened Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film?  What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

MNH: It's been a humbling experience, from our opening in Venice to the most recent festival in Munich. As described above, the structure of the film is built around the conceptual journey of a mission, and is designed to immerse an audience in the field. It would be disingenuous to this field reality if this experience were not something of a challenge, and it's extremely rewarding to see the audience rise to the occasion--moved, engaged, compelled, thinking through the ideas.

I would never underestimate an audience, but it's also been very reaffirming to see the quality and variety of substantial thoughts generated--much like those generated by people going through actual first missions, with strong interactions at all sorts of differing conceptual levels. Most surprising has been the number of people that go to the toughest idea, that while you might be asked to readjust your expectations for hope, in itself, the film is symbolically hopeful. Individual
actions have positive outcomes: Doctors in the worst circumstances feel passionate and rewarded in their work, and their patients fully appreciate the care. We are not winning the war on global health, so what is truly hopeful is that the people who realize this the most--the doctors on the frontlines of
global health--continue to work, individual by individual, in the face of insurmountable need.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

MNH: Mark Harris, an insightful and tremendous mentor to this film; Deborah Dickson, always illuminating; Werner Herzog, with his innate curiosity; Errol Morris...the list goes on. And films: One Day in September; Capturing The Friedmans; General Idi Amin Dada; The Fog of War; Hearts of Darkness...again, too many to list.

Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in Los Angeles, click here.

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To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.