David Darg says Body Team 12 stands as "tribute to the bravery of young Liberians" who battled the outbreak
When most people heard about the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa they preferred to stay as far away as possible. Not David Darg.
"My first initial reaction was, 'I need to be there,'" Darg recalled, "as an aid worker... to help with the emergency situation."
The fact that [Liberian body teams] managed to endure everything they went through was so astonishing to me.
Darg is not only an aid worker, but the co-founder of RYOT and an award-winning filmmaker.
"For the last decade I've been responding to a lot of major disasters, crises, partly to get my hands dirty and get my boots on the ground," Darg told Nonfictionfilm.com. "But because I'm a filmmaker I always have a camera in tow and I'm documenting the things I'm seeing."
His new short film, Body Team 12, documents the teams who handled the grim but critical task of disposing of the bodies of Ebola victims to inhibit the further spread of the disease. Body Team 12 won Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival, went on to earn an IDA Award nomination and recently made the Oscar shortlist.
"I was there seeing this whole thing unfolding in front of my eyes...I saw the work of these incredible body teams and was so taken by their bravery," Darg said. "We were in the midst of a nation in crisis with people dying, dropping all around us, dying from this deadly disease yet there were young Liberians brave enough to volunteer to stand up and say, 'We’re not going to allow this to take our country.' I was so impressed by that bravery that I wanted to start documenting it and that’s where Body Team 12 came from."
The main character in the film is Garmai Sumo, a Liberian woman who along with other volunteers risked her life to dispose of the remains of Ebola victims.
"It was extremely difficult work for the obvious reasons of you’re being exposed to one of the most deadly viruses in the world, potentially exposed — so that’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the world just for that reason alone," Darg said.
But that was not the only challenge facing Sumo and other body team members.
"You have the added threat of being threatened with violence day in day out by families who were upset with what was happening, that their relatives were being taken away forcibly," Darg said. "Plus they were ostracized by their communities, by their friends and family who were afraid because of the stigma. So the psychological toll on these body team workers was immense and the fact that they managed to endure everything they went through was again so astonishing to me."
There were other hardships.
"Add the long working hours and extremely hot conditions, humid conditions wearing these [hazmat] suits."
Darg got a feel for that himself.
"He shot the film in a hazmat suit," producer Bryn Mooser, co-founder of RYOT, told a group in Hollywood that gathered for a reception in honor of the film. "And he edited it in quarantine."
While he wasn't filming, Darg focused on other mission-critical tasks.
"I was doing a lot of logistics and we were working on manufacturing liquid chlorine which is the liquid that you use to disinfect and spray bodies."
He said a lot was learned from the outbreak, which claimed almost five thousand lives in Liberia alone.
"We were slow to respond... and had the world responded sooner it wouldn’t have gotten as out of control as it did. So I think we learned a hard lesson — perhaps a bit of a shameful lesson — that it shouldn’t take a disease coming to our shores for us to start paying attention, that the earlier we start to identify and respond the better. And so that was an exceptionally strong learning curve for the world."
Darg can point to one positive that did result from the Ebola response.
"You turn on the TV today and the world looks like a really dark place, there’s wars and crises happening all over the place. But when you look at the story of people like Garmai and these brave body team workers it’s inspiring to me and it offers me hope that history is defined by people like that — who despite all of the adversities — are willing to stand up and fight."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.