Q&A with Mark Hopkins, director, ‘Living in Emergency’
I recently raved about Living in Emergency, an exceptional documentary about the work and personnel of Doctors Without Borders. We’ll hear today whether the film advances to the final five out of 15 documentary features under shortlist consideration for an Oscar. Whether it does or not, I urge you to see it.
I sent some questions by email to the director, Mark Hopkins. Here are his responses.
Hi, Mark. Thanks for taking a few moments to answer some questions about yourself, your career, and your documentary Living in Emergency.
How old are you?
You began your film career as an assistant to producer Scott Rudin on high-profile big-budget features like The Truman Show, A Civil Action, Bringing Out The Dead, Angela’s Ashes, Sleepy Hollow, Wonder Boys, and Shaft. What made you switch, in 2001, to producing documentaries?
I was always interested in working as an independent, and viewed my time at Scott Rudin Productions as a great chance to learn the mechanics. As a genre, feature documentaries held a great interest; in a way more challenging than fiction, but at the same time more rewarding.
You’ve been involved in films about the explorer Ernest Shackleton, exploration of Mars, and the Vietnam experiences of John Kerry. And here again you’re exploring human endeavors in extreme circumstances. What draws you to that sort of topic?
The contrast between the environment and the characters, as real people. In a fictional setting, such extreme circumstances tend to be mirrored by actors who can employ the ability to draw from a full range of emotions. There’s a way real people, who are not professional performers, react, with smaller emotional moments that seep through the cracks, that I find all the more powerful for being genuine, and fascinating in their contrast to their setting.
You and your relatively small film crew must have been in some trying circumstances yourselves, filming in rural African outposts or in Monrovia’s slums under the, I presume, not always friendly eyes of soldiers. What were some of your experiences and observations?
As I had spent a considerable amount of time growing up in Kenya, which sits on the periphery of a whole range of crises, the actual circumstances were not totally foreign to me. Working in a militarized zone is somewhat unnerving, but being with doctors, we were sort of under their shield — with few exceptions, most soldiers recognize the value of a medical team, and will generally leave you alone. The most trying aspects of the shoots were the moments when I had to push fairly thick-skinned people to open up emotionally, something, given the amount of trauma they have been exposed to, they were understandably reluctant to do.
Did you ever feel nihlistic? That is, did you ever want to just throw up your hands and say, how can people act this way toward each other? What’s a tiny group of doctors going to achieve amid such violence and chaos?
No, not at all — I had few illusions about crisis environments going in. I think it’s more relevant, instead of being dispirited about the lack of grand achievements, to look at what is actually being done by a small group of doctors for the patients in front of them. There is a tendency for comfortable societies I think to distance themselves from these sorts of situations — we seem to forget how recent World War II was, and how people acted toward each other then.
Is there an analogy to be made between documentarians amid commercial filmmakers and scrappy NGO staffers trying to do some good amid global craziness? (Or am I just being sentimental and leading the witness? )
I’m not sure about this idea of “doing good.” At least on the part of the MSF doctors I know, they absolutely don’t look at it that way. They’re captivated by their work, finding it both extremely challenging and interesting, while fully valuing their independence — all attributes they feel missing in some way from mainstream practice. So in terms of your analogy, I suppose there’s a degree to which many independent filmmakers place a similar value on these attributes, and presumably find them missing somewhat in mainstream filmmaking.
What would making the Oscars’ final five in feature documentaries mean to you? In making the short list so far, are you feeling some validation about your career choices? Or more confident about your role as a director as well as a producer?
The short list inclusion is obviously a great honor, and something that does indeed validate the efforts of the many people that put so much into getting the film made. Difficult to say much about any further recognition — we’re all just very humbled by the overall response to, let’s face it, a fairly uncompromising film.
When you watch movies yourself, given your mixed cinematic background, what type of fare do you like most these days?
I watch a bit of everything, mainstream, indie, new, old. I just re-watched The Tango Lesson, by Sally Potter, which I think is a great look at the interplay between filmmaker and subject.
I liked Bruno Coulais’s original music for Living in Emergency, but I also really enjoyed all the African pop tunes you cut in. I guess those were Tracy McKnight’s selections? Where’d she find them?
Actually I chose most of the selections, together with the edit team. Tracy was more involved with securing Bruno and negotiating the rights to the additional tracks, which she did brilliantly.
I imagine you thought of your MSF contacts during the recent rescue efforts in Haiti. Given what you’ve seen of their work, is there a difference in the way you see or respond to such tragedies?
Absolutely. While every crisis is different, there are of course similarities in terms of working conditions, and the mindset that people adopt in oder to get things done. Having had the privilege of being able to spend time in the field, I can somewhat put myself into that mindset, and anticipate some of the challenges people face on the ground, in a way I would never have been able to do before my time with MSF. I also know several people that have gone to Haiti, and can also somewhat imagine on a personal level, how they as individuals are responding.
What’s the distribution situation with the film now? How, and when, can people see it if they haven’t yet?
We are looking to do an encore presentation of the nationwide cinema broadcast (film +panel), and in the process of securing limited-run engagements in major cities. For those interested, updates on how to see the film are posted to the film’s Facebook page.
I really appreciate your time!