In the Shadow of Ebola

Dr. Rahul Mukherjee ruminates on In the Shadow of Ebola, a documentary film co-directed by Gregg Mitman and Sarita Siegel, screened as part of PPEH's Engagement event, part of a series of five symposia on the Curriculum for the New Normal. 

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The question of position and perspective is central to a socially committed documentary film. In the Shadow of Ebola, co-directed by Gregg Mitman and Sarita Siegel, is not about how Western media depicts Ebola, nor is it about the effortless (and disturbing) ease with which discourses of pandemics, of contagion, of immunity, get transferred to discussions of terrorism and immigration. Rather, In the Shadow of Ebola is about how ordinary Liberians responded to the escalating Ebola crisis, and specifically how Liberian NGOs and RadioFM personalities spread awareness about the disease.

Epidemics can look like wars in which a country battles a virus. But a country cannot be fighting its own people, something that Liberian scholar Emmanuel Urey notes in the film. Urey and his family are important to the narrative of this documentary. Some people believe that documentary films present arguments, not narratives, but then others would argue that arguments need narratives to be argued through. The narrative of Urey going from Madison to Monrovia with his children and then suddenly finding himself in the shadow of Ebola, unable to return back with all his children because of the quarantine in place, is significant. The voices of Urey, his wife Vivian, and the lives of his sons and his mother all bring to the documentary (and to its global audiences for that matter) a much needed change of perspective: a position that is in sharp relief from expert voices reiterating their preparedness to combat disease or journalists making a spectacle out of an epidemic where health workers get portrayed as heroic and patients are depicted as unreasonable and angry. Rather, ordinary moments are what make this film remarkable. Vivian in Madison, Wisconsin worries about Urey and her children in Monrovia. The school is closed in Monrovia, and so Urey’s kids remain home, a bit restless, they want to go out, perhaps play with other children, but they cannot, there is a curfew. (Refer to Somatosphere Film Forum for some of these discussions).

But epidemics are difficult. People die, passions are enflamed, and what is perhaps even more saddening is that life and death sometimes lose all their dignity, and the documentary does not flinch from showing that. The frustrations of a government health worker dressed in a hazmat suit who cannot get his fellow citizens to trust him that there is indeed an epidemic, that for now, certain homes and places cannot be entered. A bystander is outraged that a pregnant woman is left unattended in the streets to die because the country’s public health infrastructure has crumbled. These affectively-charged documentary testimonies are too easy to sensationalize but there is much restraint in the camerawork and the editing, which create a sobering effect. Alexander Wiaplah, the Liberian cinematographer filmed under difficult conditions with a Press Pass providing him greater access.

Another montage sequence that soon follows the announcement of curfew to control Ebola depicts shots of hens running, clothes drying, rain droplets falling on a puddle, and the window curtains blown gently by the wind. This sequence seems to suggest that despite curfew to restrict movement, the elements in nature move: the wind, the rain, the hen.

Mitman and Siegel make audiences understand that this distrust in government and lack of health infrastructure has a history: fourteen years of civil war across Liberia, the scars of which still remain in the city of Monrovia as it heals: the opening vignettes (almost montages) of the film that offer shots of the city were particularly evocative and informative. Another montage sequence that soon follows the announcement of curfew to control Ebola depicts shots of hens running, clothes drying, rain droplets falling on a puddle, and the window curtains blown gently by the wind. This sequence seems to suggest that despite curfew to restrict movement, the elements in nature move: the wind, the rain, the hen. An intimacy is suggested, a suggestion that is not without politics for what quarantine does is to render intimacy so difficult: Ebola patients could feel so helpless in isolation, yearning for intimacy.      

This is a short film. It had to be economical, and so scenes where the camera lingers for a second (or two seconds) longer make one wonder about more complex significations. One such scene is when the central hospital JFK closes down, refuses to admit more patients, and after the angry crowd disperses, we are left with the writing in red “JFK Cholera Unit” over the blue background of the hospital gate. Is this the documentary’s way of gesturing from one epidemic, Ebola, to another, Cholera: Cholera, we all know has been contained much more successfully globally than Ebola. Why? What are the reasons for it? How are histories of Cholera different than those of Ebola outbreaks? I do not know the specific answers, but I want to. 

I hope we can talk about the new regime of securitization and the new discourse of preparedness that has come to animate global health infrastructures. This discourse focuses on how we need to prepare “now”—“in the present” to combat a future epidemic threat.

The documentary in some ways invites us to talk across pandemics: cholera, ebola, avian flu, zika, the H1N1 influenza – never collapsing the differences between them, and also not collapsing the different cultural ecologies of fear they create in different contexts/regions/nations. I hope we can talk about the new regime of securitization and the new discourse of preparedness that has come to animate global health infrastructures. This discourse focuses on how we need to prepare “now”—“in the present” to combat a future epidemic threat. I am afraid that some of these regimes and discourses have lead to disease surveillance systems that while well-intentioned (and at times, invaluable), seem to normalize the collection of vast amounts of data (big data) about disease outbreaks to tackle, anticipate, and apprehend the yet-to-come pandemic (for more, see Lindsay Thomas’ fantastic work on disease surveillance).

The film shows that another world is possible: that human bodies are not isolated, pathologized, and stigmatized, but that an intimate living-in-common is realizable

This is a project that will bring Penn’s digital humanities and environmental humanities initiatives closer together. Such discussions about pre-emptive medical analytics, the ethics of care, of what should and should not be extracted out of patients, might be other constellations of conversation we want to have around Mitman and Siegel’s deeply moving film, which ends on a hopeful note. A man comes out of quarantine and is welcomed into his community. The film shows that another world is possible: that human bodies are not isolated, pathologized, and stigmatized, but that an intimate living-in-common is realizable (for more on the politics of proximity in documentaries dealing with pandemics, see Bishnu Ghosh’s essay The Proximate Truth: Reenactment in the Pandemic-Era HIV/AIDS Documentaries; also it remains to be the told that the ending I mention here is the version of the film that was screened on PBS. The longer version ends with Urey and Vivian’s son returning to Madison, and Gregg Mitman mentioned that the other ending suggests that life goes on).

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Rahul Mukherjee is Assistant Professor of Television and New Media Studies in the Cinema Studies program (Department of English) at University of Pennsylvania. He examines mediation of environmental controversies including those related to digital media infrastructures as a way to theorize materiality of technoscience publics. His writings have appeared in the journals Media, Culture & Society, BioScope, New Media & Society, and Science, Technology & Human Values, and the edited book collection Sustainable Media.