'Living in Emergency': Film follows Doctors Without Borders in Liberia, Congo

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 2009

It isn't easy watching a doctor stick his hands in the living viscera of another human being, or seeing the look on a girl's face as she wakes from surgery to the realization that her parents are dead. But for the thousands of people who gather Monday night in movie theaters across the country to watch a new documentary about Doctors Without Borders, there is at least this comfort: They will be surrounded by like-minded viewers, sympathetic to the organization, and more than usually passionate about a difficult and often depressing film.

"Living in Emergency," about the French-based humanitarian agency, is billed as the first documentary to receive full and uncensored access to the group's missions into war zones and strife- and famine-ravaged regions around the world. Directed by Mark Hopkins, the film was made independently but with the cooperation of the group known as MSF, the initials of its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières. The documentary has already received several important nods on the festival circuit, including news last month that it is one of 15 films in the running for an Oscar nomination in the same category that shut out Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story."

But its screening Monday night, in almost 450 movie theaters, is interesting for another reason: as part of a nascent trend that links documentaries, organizations, emerging networks of interested viewers and a now well-established, digitally integrated system of theaters that is challenging old habits of cultural consumption.

Connecting to audience

"This is like appointment cinema," says Hopkins, who turned to a company called Fathom Events to organize the screening. Since 2002, Fathom has been building a network of movie theaters into a nationwide web of venues presenting live, digitally uplinked events in real time. Perhaps most famous is Fathom's work with New York's Metropolitan Opera, which has built a new following throughout the United States (and, with other partners, around the world) for regular live presentation of opera in movie houses.

But Fathom uses its system to present a wide array of events, including programming such as Monday night's, which will mix the screening with a live panel discussion beamed out of New York University.

"We know that this film leaves people with more questions than answers," says Jason Cone, communications director for MSF's U.S. branch. "We wanted to create an experience where people didn't have to leave the theater without a chance to carry on the conversation."

For Hopkins, it's a chance to get his film out to an extraordinarily large audience, compared with, say, a two-week run in a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

"The traditional theatrical options we were given were not that attractive, and I thought this is a great emerging model," says Hopkins.

Fathom has produced similar events with other documentaries, including "I.O.U.S.A.," a film that analyzed U.S. budget deficits, and "Race Across the Sky," about a 100-mile mountain bike race in Colorado. In each case, it chose a niche film with appeal to a passionate subculture and, working against the assumption that consumers want everything personally, instantly and privately delivered to smaller and smaller viewing devices, created events that gather large numbers of people for wide-screen, high-def entertainment.

"We found that fans and consumers still wanted to gather together," says Fathom Vice President Dan Diamond, "and have a like-minded experience that they couldn't by themselves."

That's certainly proven true for the Met, which has not lacked opportunities to reach people by electronic means. For more than 70 years, it has had a live Saturday afternoon radio broadcast. And it has appeared on public television. But in 2006, it bet on Fathom to build a larger network of viewers who might enjoy seeing the opera together, in real time, and with the added benefit of backstage interviews and other features.

"It was a bit of a gamble," says Elena Park, the Met's assistant manager. "We weren't sure what the appetite would be."

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