After completing High School in the UK, Mark attended Georgetown University where he majored in Philosophy. During this time he spent 8 months in Vietnam studying History and teaching English at the University of Hanoi.  

Mark’s film career began as an assistant to New York-based producer Scott Rudin, working on such films as; The Truman Show, A Civil Action, Bringing Out The Dead, Angela’s Ashes, Sleepy Hollow, Wonder Boys, and Shaft. He left to start an independent production company, with the aim of focusing on non-fiction storytelling.   

In 2001 Mark began working with documentary director George Butler, helping to develop and produce his films. The association began on the award-winning documentary The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, followed by Roving Mars, and included a series of shorts directed by Mark for Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment. He later went on to produce George Butler’s critically acclaimed film Going Upriver: the Long War of John Kerry. 

Living in Emergency is Mark’s feature length directorial debut.

Q: Where did the idea of making a movie about MSF come from?

I have a strong interest in humanitarian affairs, and have been following the work of MSF for many years. I felt they would make a great subject for a film in part because of their clear focus on emergency medical assistance, an arena that brings out the most extreme nature of the challenges facing humanitarian actors – challenges that I think that are very interesting.

Q:  If you had to summarize the film in one line what would it be?

A journey that explores the limits of idealism. We structured the film to reflect the journey of the MSF experience from first-timer to veteran: how their ideals, perspectives, and motives are transformed over time by their lives spent in field, a journey that challenges and shapes a person’s views.

Q: What do you hope people take away from this film?

I hope they get sense of what life in the field is like for MSF doctors.  Beyond that, hopefully an unburdened sense of interest in the humanitarian arena: an understanding that these guys are not heroes, they’re not saving the world, and that the work is engaging and rewarding in its own right – it doesn’t need ideas of big accomplishment to justify itself – the patient in front of you is more than enough. We didn’t make the film to deliver a message, the idea was more to immerse people in the MSF environment.

Q: Did you have a certain expectation of what you would find in the field?

Not too many expectations. That said, we had a sense of the type of story we wanted to tell beforehand, and were very fortunate to encounter so much material that enabled us to make the film we wanted.

Q: Were you at all afraid of going? Was it ever dangerous?

Not afraid, more anxious that we were going to find the type of material we had thought of when imagining the story, a concern that was quickly dispelled. In terms of being in danger, not really, because for the most part we were with MSF, who take great precautions, and who are, for the most part, shielded from the violence of the areas they work in. Only a couple of possibly dangerous instances I can think of, though I’d imagine there might have been occasions in which we were in greater danger than we understood.

Q: What most surprised you in the making of this film?

The degree to which all the seasoned field hands shared a no-nonsense, un-grandiose and non-benevolent perspective of their work in the field.

Q: In terms of logistics, what was the hardest thing to film?

The shoot at the SMS bar in Kayna. Because it was frequented by military groups (it was the only bar around), it was not the safest place to shoot in terms of security. It had to start as an HD camera shoot, an interview, and then move to a 2 camera shoot of a verité scene when the rest of the doctors showed up, as the light changed from late afternoon to night. We had to set up the lights beforehand by jerry-rigging an unreliable generator – other than big fluctuations in the lights, it worked out ok.

Q: What do you think will most surprise people who see this film?

They might find it surprising that there isn’t much in the way of patients falling over themselves with gratitude – but it wasn’t really there to film; the patients are grateful that they are being treated in the way that they deserve to be, but no more than that. There is not much focus on where the doctors come from and why they join, nor on the patients’ personal back-stories. We wanted to keep the focus on the challenge of being a humanitarian doctor in the field.  For a doctor, a patient is a patient, and it shouldn’t matter what the political or personal reasons are for their suffering.

Q: MSF has been reluctant to grant access to filmmakers in the past; why do you think they were willing to let you film and how did you get access?

It was a long process of establishing trust, acquiring and demonstrating an informed understanding of their work, and how they see it – that got us into the field. From then on, it was a question of continually proving our compatibility with the field teams, engaging in the debates, and keeping up with their aggressive work hard/play hard ethic.

Q: Was MSF concerned about your portrayal of the organization?

Obviously, yes. It is, at its core, a small group of people who behave like a close-knit family, and who live, breathe and care passionately about what they do. Having invested their lives in their work, they were understandably concerned about how it would be portrayed.

Q: Were the doctors comfortable in front of the camera?

When working, they were almost oblivious to it.

Q: Why wasn’t there more focus placed on the patients or the political context?

The film is about emergency medicine from a doctors’ perspective, and I think it accurately reflects their life in the field and the issues that engage them. As an organization, MSF is apolitical, so the underlying reason for why people are suffering is not their primary concern; their interventions are first and foremost about addressing a medical emergency. The film is not meant to be a call to action, but more of an immersion into the MSF environment.

Q: What do you think sets MSF and its doctors apart from other humanitarian relief agencies and their staff?

They are not development oriented or unrealistic about what they can accomplish. There is a strong volunteer spirit, and they are very open to in-house criticism and debate, from all levels of MSF experience. They constantly question their mandate and how it is reflected in their operations, something that gives them a dynamic and un-bureaucratic approach that I think is rare in organizations of their size.

Q: Some of the footage like the amputation is pretty graphic, what was your reason behind showing this?

I think it is important that people see the field through the eyes of the doctor – at least enough so that they appreciate the stakes.

Q: Was it difficult to make a film where you witnessed so much trauma, and then re-lived the events watching and re-watching the footage in the cutting room?

At times, but I am more humbled by the thought of how much horror people like those in the footage have seen or endured, and how they have managed to cope.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of making this film?

Going from a 5 hour assembly to a 90 minute film.

Q: How do you respond to the criticism that there isn’t enough hope in the film?

I believe the film accurately reflects the doctors’ lives in the field. If people feel the doctors’ perspective is bleaker than they’d like it to be, I think that’s more a reflection on how some people might wish things were, and not how they are. I suppose the film requires some people to re-adjust their expectations of hope, but from my point of view, I feel it actually is quite hopeful because despite the overwhelming nature of the situation, there are people who are willing to engage so much of themselves in doing what they can, without the need for some big picture sense of accomplishment. The work in and of itself is enough – that is a tremendously powerful statement, especially when you think of it in the context of overwhelming need. Regardless, to have created a feel-good story with a happy ending would have been disingenuous to the reality of the subject.

Q: What do you think other potential criticisms of the film might be?

Some people may take issue with the principle voices being western, and there not being enough focus on the national staff. While the national staff perspective is obviously a very important part of MSF, it is very different, however – it would need to be its own film to really do it justice. This film is about the journey of volunteer humanitarian doctors, so the national staff are part of it in so much as they are a part of that journey.

Q: Are you concerned that people will see your film as a story of western doctors saving helpless Africans?

Not really, if anything, the film shows that non-Africans have just as hard a time working in such harsh conditions. The film certainly doesn’t give you a sense that benevolent westerners can solve all the world’s problems. MSF’s work is a drop in the ocean.

Q: In some ways this movie leaves more questions unanswered than answered.

I hope so.