Chiara Lepora, an Italian toxicologist who oversees missions for Doctors Without Borders, the international medical humanitarian group, has come from a grueling stint in the outback of Liberia, and is poolside at an R&R camp.

Emotional, frustrated, but still brimming with idealism, Lepora offers a telling analogy for Mark Hopkins' cameras in his documentary Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders.

"You're driving somewhere and you have a car crash happening in front of you," she says. "You have the duty of stopping and doing something.

"And Liberia is a huge car crash - a big, big car crash."

Indeed. The graphic scenes of surgery - abdominal, neurological, a leg amputation - are hard things to watch, and not just because there's blood and guts involved. Essentially, Liberia, still reeling after years of civil war, is a country without a health-care system, and poverty and disease have left millions in need of one.

A similar story - or car crash - can be found in war-torn Congo, where another Doctors Without Borders team (or Médecins Sans Frontières as the French organization is known) struggles to save lives in a makeshift facility.

Living in Emergency focuses on four doctors who have temporarily abandoned their homes and careers in the West to treat people in the bleakest of conditions. There's Chris Brasher, an Australian anesthetist with an eyebrow pierce and a cigarette habit. There's Tom Krueger, a surgeon from Tennessee who reflects that "somehow fixing other people seems to fix myself." There's Davinder Gill, another young Australian whose nerves are tested under dire circumstances.

And there's Dr. Lepora, a willowy European with curls of red hair (and a cigarette habit) whose dramatic manner, and dramatic wardrobes, sometimes seem at odds with the trauma in her midst.

Living in Emergency can be frustrating in the stories it chooses to tell - and the ones it doesn't. And the focus is definitely on the volunteer doctors, rather than the nurses and medicos they work with in Congo and Liberia. But the film is nonetheless gripping, sobering, inspiring stuff.