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Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma

New doc about former MSF president casts a passionate eye on the human condition

By David Wilson

Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma
Directed by Patrick Reed (White Pine/NFB)

Nobody should have to make the decisions Dr. James Orbinski has had to make. In a succession of humanitarian crises in the 1990s, Orbinski faced the simplest yet most morally complex question in medicine: who will live and who will die? Often it boiled down to scrawling a number on foreheads: “1” meant treat immediately, “2” meant treat within 24 hours, “3” no hope.

Orbinski, of Toronto, served as a field doctor for Médecins Sans Frontières during the 1992 famine in Somalia, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1996 refugee crisis in Democratic Republic of Congo. He and his MSF colleagues saved thousands of lives and watched helplessly as countless thousands of others ebbed away.

In 1999, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize as president of MSF. But as this fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking film makes clear, celebrity is the last thing Orbinski seeks. A big part of his life in recent years has been his quest to come to grips with the horrors he witnessed during the ’90s and the countless life-and-death decisions he had to make. The film follows him from his home in Toronto, where he’s writing a book he hopes will sort it all out, back to Africa and a past that is painful, harrowing but ultimately hope-affirming.

Viewers are drawn into a world where the scars of conflict remain livid, and into a personality that is by any objective measure heroic. Yet if the film is awestruck by anything, it is Orbinski’s simple, deep humanity — his compassion for the sick and the wounded, his rage at indifference, his need to understand his own small place amid the suffering. Its overriding message is that great humanitarians begin as good human beings. Orbinski himself puts it best: “I don’t think it’s heroic. I think it’s decent. I think it’s normal.”

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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