We hadn’t set out to make a film about Ebola. We’d been shooting a different film, a film about land rights, resource extraction, and cultural transformation in Liberia, when the first Ebola cases appeared in Monrovia in June 2014. We were disheartened by Western media coverage that ignored economic, political, and social conditions in West Africa conducive to the virus’s spread. At the same time, we were immersed in the lives of Liberian colleagues and friends who found themselves reliving the memory of a civil war and the objects of international fear and alienation. So our film crew began documenting the crisis. Alexander Wiaplah, a talented Liberian videographer on our team, was on the front lines gathering the voices and perspectives missing in so much of the media coverage: those of Liberians themselves. Emmanuel Urey and his family generously granted us, during a very trying and emotional time, access into their lives. We saw their personal story as critical to countering what Johanna Crane describes as the distancing and exoticization found in American coverage of global health crises.
We had no idea how the story would end when we began. In fact, the ending is still unclear. The number of new infections has dwindled, but we are only beginning to grasp the enduring economic and public health toll. A recent commentary suggests that more people have died from the “epidemic’s crippling effect” on an already crumbled medical and public health infrastructure than “from the virus itself.”[i] In the Shadow of Ebola “is suggestive of many things, conclusive of little,” writes Peter Redfield. We couldn’t agree more. We wished to unsettle the neat straight-line narratives from crisis to solution that frame heroic humanitarian accounts. The unused Ebola Treatment Units have become another part of Liberia’s post-conflict landscape of abandonment and decay. They stand, not as monuments to Western biomedical triumphalism. Instead, they stand as telling signs of the “temporary infrastructures of emergency humanitarianism,” which, Michelle Murphy notes, are “deployed at great cost without durability.”
Film as a medium depends critically upon point of view. In the Shadow of Ebola was never meant to be a comprehensive story of the Ebola outbreak. We wanted to introduce points of view that came from local responses and ordinary lives. In doing so, we hoped to offer a more personal, intimate, humane view of the outbreak. But we also appreciate Johanna Crane’s warning. Given the absence of international aid workers in the film, students might readily fill in the blank with humanitarian “rescue” narratives. It certainly was not our intention. In the ending cards, we alluded to the fact that the number of new Ebola cases began to decline in October, before the significant influx of international aid. We thought the ending of the film, focusing on the efforts of local Liberian NGO’s and hipco musicians, absent international aid, would be enough to challenge such rescue narratives. We may be mistaken. That is why Julie Livingston’s recommendation that the film be taught alongside reading and lectures to contextualize the story is most welcome. To that end, we have provided a sampling of learning resource materials at the film’s website to help with this task.
Film, as a collaborative medium, incurs many debts. To the long list of people who made In the Shadow of Ebola possible, we would like to include a special thanks to Johanna Crane, Julie Livingston, Marissa Mika, Michelle Murphy, and Peter Redfield for such thoughtful and informed commentaries and to Deanna Day and Eugene Raikhel for this roundtable on the film in Somatosphere.
[i] Craig Spencer, “Ebola Isn’t Over Yet,” New York Times, 17 August 2015.
Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Sarita Siegel is an award-winning documentary producer and co-founder of Alchemy Films.