The Role of Filmmakers in Documenting Global Health Crises

By Kristal Sotomayor
Posted on April 24, 2020

Survivors filmmakers reflect back on Ebola crisis in age of COVID

Filming Survivors while on motorbike

Filming Survivors while on motorbike

Survivors, directed by Banker White, Arthur Pratt, and Anna Fitch, provides an overview of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone through Pratt’s on-the-ground lens. The film weaves an intimate chorus of voices including ambulance driver Mohamed, field nurse Kadija, young school child Foday, and community members that are all impacted by the outbreak. Set between 2014 and 2015 in Sierra Leone, many of the scenes in the film are eerily reminiscent of the current effects of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) with cities quarantined, schools shut down, and families divided. The ITVS Open Call-funded Survivors originally aired on POV on PBS in 2018, and is back online available for free streaming on the PBS site and app through May 15.

Filmmakers Banker White and Arthur Pratt spoke with me for ITVS about the relevance of the film during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

How did you go about making Survivors in Sierra Leone in the midst of a deadly outbreak?

Banker White: Survivors is the result of a collaboration more than a decade in the making. As a producer/co-director, I made my first film in Sierra Leone between 2002 to 2005. I returned to Sierra Leone in 2010 and co-founded the WeOwnTV Freetown Media Center with Sierra Leonean filmmakers Arthur Pratt and Barmmy Boy Mansaray [director of photography on Survivors]. Today the media center houses the country’s most experienced media collective and also serves as an important media education hub. 

This collaboration took on new meaning in the context of the Ebola outbreak, which struck in 2014. Since the earliest days of the outbreak, WeOwnTV supported the production of educational materials that rapidly disseminated life-saving, culturally sensitive information at a critical time. These films were quickly identified by healthcare professionals in the region as being extremely effective in getting the messages out in a way local communities could relate to. Led by Arthur, the team intimately documented the experience of those on the front lines of the outbreak.

Arthur Pratt: We started Survivors after we began working for big news media corporations. We noticed that the stories going out were not the realities we found out on the ground. We decided to make a film to tell the truth from our own perspective. We also wanted to look at health workers because they are the first responders at the frontlines and nothing was heard about them. 

I personally made sure that the story of the Ebola outbreak is told from our perspectives as Sierra Leoneans. An outbreak of that magnitude in a selected place in the world can define that particular geographic area. Many people have been using diseases to define Africa as an entire continent. It’s important that people know our rules and responsibilities and what we did as local Sierra Leoneans to ensure that we beat the outbreak.

Arthur Pratt and Banker White (l-r)

What are the parallels and differences between the Ebola outbreak and COVID-19 pandemic?

White: Some of the strongest parallels and challenges of the disease come from how contagious it is. It is spread through families, often by family members lovingly caring for each other. Disease prevention asks us to radically change our behaviors. With each outbreak, there have also been the negative impacts of heavily politicized environments and rampant disinformation that have eroded trust and complicated the effectiveness of public health efforts. 

With Ebola, the global conversation was all about containment and it was successful. There were no significant outbreaks outside of just three countries in West Africa. Thinking locally, however, and what Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea were going though, the feeling of always just being a few steps behind where we need to be, having public health messaging change reacting to new realization — that feels very similar to what we all are experiencing now. 

Pratt: There are a lot of parallels between COVID-19 and the Ebola outbreak. For example, these are outbreaks that affect our social life as Africans. It affects the social life of the entire world, splits families, and creates tensions. In dealing with COVID-19, candidly, you need a lot of experience, and those experiences, we had during Ebola. Many of these steps taken to deal with COVID-19 are the very steps taken to deal with Ebola.

If you are at an institution that has had an Ebola outbreak, you will find that it’s going to be a little easier dealing with COVID-19. The biggest difference is that COVID-19 is airborne while Ebola is not airborne. 

It’s a pity that Sierra Leone has not been able to make use of the lessons learned during the Ebola outbreak. We have struggled with knowledge management about COVID-19. If we had been successful in the lessons learned from Ebola, we would not have cases that are increasing.

"Independent doc filmmakers who passionately work to record and share these counter-narratives are so important to ensure that the way history is recorded is responsible to the truth."

In Survivors, Arthur makes a very powerful case: "I need to tell the world how my people survived Ebola. We’ve seen people making sacrifices -- sacrifices worthy enough of mentioning. These are the stories I want to tell. This is what I want the world to see that all is not lost in Sierra Leone." What do you see as the role of filmmakers in documenting global health crises?

White: I love this quote, too. Totally captures Arthur’s sense of duty and responsibility to the truth. The WeOwnTv team worked as primary camera and as correspondents on a lot of segments for major news outlets at the start of the Ebola outbreak. Most commissioners had a sense of the story they wanted to tell and the most important element that was missing was a recognition of the critical role that Sierra Leonean first responders played in the fight. 

Independent doc filmmakers who passionately work to record and share these counter-narratives are so important to ensure that the way history is recorded is responsible to the truth.

Pratt: In every outbreak that affects the country or a community, it’s about the community. To defeat that outbreak, the community needs to agree. If the community does not agree with the policies, whether it’s from the government or the medical sector, it’s going to be very important. For me, communities are the heroes. Communities themselves are the decision-makers. 

Communities are the reason why we succeed or do not succeed. For us to defeat COVID-19, we need the community. In a documentary setting, you want to make sure that people understand how decisions are taken and from what point of view decisions are taken during an outbreak. There is no way, as a filmmaker, that you can take out the community. 

At the end of the day, it’s the story of the community and those people in the community that are able to influence one another and to make sure decisions are taken. It’s very important, as a filmmaker, that we know the background of how and why things happen in certain locations before we go in to depict the community.

A beautiful part of the film was the inclusion of community stories as a Greek chorus. What brought about the inclusion of these oral history interviews?

Pratt: We wanted to document individual stories of infected people who survived and those affected by the outbreak. After the outbreak, we went out collecting these stories. Once we collected the community stories, we realized that they do have a place in the film as a powerful transition. It helps people know what the story is all about and how it was like in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak. You might not have a picture of someone in the hospital or quarantined in their home but, when you introduce these testimonies, you have a feel [for it] and are able to develop images in your own mind to see what it was like. 

Some of those interviews [were] done during the outbreak itself. One of the things we did when we went out to film people in quarantined homes was encourage them to tell their stories. We also intend to continue collecting those stories for the database WeSurvive: Stories of the Ebola Outbreak. So that after the outbreak, people can listen to the stories and learn how communities or individuals can deal with outbreaks, what needs to be done medically, politically, socially, and economically.

Survivors cinematographer Barmmy Boy Mansaray with health care workers in Sierra Leone

White: WeSurvive is a web-based, oral history database that allows users to access a substantial collection of personal video testimonials from Ebola survivors, their family members, and other community members affected by the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak. We are highly motivated to preserve this archive and to continue our work to facilitate the inclusion of African voices in the telling of African history. We hope that these interviews will aid in a deeper level of understanding and improve strategies implemented by foreign systems in the future. A central goal of this project is to ensure West Africans contribute directly and significantly to the historical record of this global health crisis and to enrich how the Ebola crisis and the region are understood.

[See WeSurvive videos testimonials here:]

Many filmmakers are currently working toward documenting COVID-19. Do you have any recommendations for documentarians putting themselves on the frontlines?

White: I think it is really important to be flexible and open-minded. Of course, access issues are extremely complicated in the context of this kind of health emergency. 

This was also true in production on Survivors. Arthur began recording video diaries at home as we worked to help facilitate access and press credentials. Interestingly these video diary entries proved to be critical to the film’s narrative. Developing a good safety protocol is also really important. In addition to following WHO guidelines, we consulted with NGO’s working in Sierra Leone to help the team stay safe. 

When they were filming within the controlled environment of the treatment centers and hospital systems, these protocols were strictly enforced. Out in the communities, things are more hectic—less control and chaotic distraction—the team had to make sure to adhere to guidelines on their own. It took real discipline and care.

Pratt: There are a lot of ways to tell stories. In telling my stories, I try not to be a character but it’s very difficult for me. As a filmmaker, you might have a strong story to tell. Filmmakers should begin to look at themselves, their stories and situations in the first place. Taking into consideration the risk of COVID-19, which is said to be airborne, while Ebola wasn’t airborne— COVID-19 could be said to be more dangerous than Ebola. It might be very difficult to go into medical centers or to go into homes if you’re looking at characters outside of your own home. 

People should start looking at personal stories, at this particular point in time, when the risk in filmmaking is there. By the time the outbreak ends, we might begin to have other people who want to participate and tell their stories so you might be able to find ways to expand on your film. This is the right time for filmmakers to collaborate. 

For example, filmmakers collaborating with themselves from different parts of the world gathering stories. You get stories about yourself personally and about your communities and see how the stories blend. I’m sure interesting stories will come out if people are creative in terms of storytelling.

Arthur Pratt filming Survivors

Another impactful quote from Survivors is when Arthur describes the impact of the Ebola outbreak: 

“I [saw] Ebola as an enemy to West Africans because it attacks the very fabric, the foundation of our beliefs... of what makes us Africans, and that is our ability to associate with each other, our ability to come into contact with one another. Physical contact is very, very important. It’s virtually impossible for me to meet someone in the street, without having a handshake or a hand or some form of bodily contact. So, with the advent of Ebola, it’s like everything that makes me who I am is under attack.” 

What do you think is the effect that COVID-19 has or will have on communities and filmmakers?

White: I was just talking to an advisor to the film, someone involved with the edit and who knows the film very well. They just had watched it a second time and were so struck with what had changed for them, that it felt so much closer now. They said they remembered thinking that this could happen here one day, but that was very different than actually feeling it, actually living it. I think the impact on how we regard the concept of community will be very different. 

The outbreak is showing us how very connected we all are. I imagine the reactions will be strong and maybe polarized—we are seeing intense xenophobia and racism already here in the US. Even if we contain this current outbreak in a few months, the effect of the pandemic will be felt for decades, most likely more than any other event in my lifetime. And for many, this has helped all the noise just fade away and people have been given a perspective that helps prioritize what is important and act with more compassion. 

Many are looking desperately for ways to help and are considering how their actions affect not just their individual health, but the health of their community, and beyond.

Pratt: The way we look at family in Africa is not exactly the same in the West. You have a lot of people in the West living independently. These are times when you really depend on families for survival. It might not be economic survival or financial survival but the support and the encouragement of having someone around you and that you are not alone, even if there is the issue of social distancing. Social distancing attacks what makes us human beings. Your humanness is when you can connect with someone physically and mentally. 

And physical interaction is very important at a time like this. When you’re sick, you want someone to be there for you, someone to hold your hand and give you hope. These outweigh the Ebola and Coronavirus outbreaks that actually creates a situation where you’re not able to have the physical and mental contribution toward your healing. If you’re infected, you have the hope to overcome it. If you’re not infected, you can beat the psychological impact that comes with all of the issues surrounding the outbreak itself. 

The way we are dealing with it is that we are living in a cluster, in a compound. In a typical African compound, there are different families living within that space. So no matter how you talk about social distancing, it’s not actually 100% followed in Africa, there’s a semblance of being together. Humans can never go without 100% interaction.

Do you have any take-aways or words-of-advice for communities facing COVID-19 from your experience making Survivors and documenting the Ebola outbreak? Do you have any pearls of wisdom from having overcome the challenges of the outbreak both as a human being and a filmmaker?

White: I have been thinking a lot about the power of individual choices. I remember being in awe of the personal sacrifice being made by local healthcare workers in Sierra Leone, putting their lives at risk, day-after-day, on the frontlines. And now this is happening all over the world. It is a critical time to lead by example and help those around you; be patient, be kind, make sure to express gratitude for our healthcare workers and consider how your actions affect other peoples’ lives—stay home, stay safe and help save lives.

Pratt: At this particular time, if anyone wants to make a film, I think you need to be stable and mentally healthy. Whatever you want to focus on as a filmmaker is up to you but you have to be human enough. It’s about you being strongly human and powerfully considerate. It's very important that the human side of you, not really the creative side, takes over. The creative side can come in the edit. 

But making films right now about mental health or the outbreak, it’s more about you the filmmaker being human and approaching every topic and issue being aware that you are human and that you could be in that position and that the stories you are telling are not your stories but the stories of the characters themselves. 

As filmmakers, we tend to hold the subject of a film with our whole hearts. How did you navigate issues of mental health while making such a heavy film?

White: Survivors was a difficult project for me emotionally and in a way, it is hard to admit that because I produced and edited from the safety of our office here in San Francisco. We worried a lot about the health of our characters and for the filmmaking team in Sierra Leone for the better part of two years. In addition to being in very close contact with the team, we were also editing concurrently and were living the material in that way. 

It is also hard to separate the projects from what was happening in our lives as our projects tend to be all-consuming work. Over the course of production, Anna and I had a second child, I lost my mother and we lost a series of close friends, but I credit our strong collaboration and friendship for helping validate these few years.  

We all felt responsible to each other and there was a lot of dialogue and support that came from that. That feeling of being a part of something that was important was definitely a motivator. 

Pratt: There was a time when, after filming in the provinces for quite some time, I thought I was sick. I thought I had been infected with Ebola. A friend of mine advised me to quarantine myself for a few days and then I realized I wasn’t sick. It was a mental thing because I had been in a hot spot for quite some time. Mental health is a tough one when it comes to filmmaking. 

I think that being focused on storytelling, being sure that you’re aware of what you are doing helps you to keep going. Having people you talk to is always important. As a filmmaker and someone working at stressful times like these, you need to be talking with people. You cannot be alone. Banker was always there for us. We go back and forth every day. All of that helps you cool down, prepare for the next day, and see these things from a perspective without stress. All of that helps you a lot. Human interaction is key. You realize you are not alone in this.

Kristal Sotomayor is a bilingual Latinx filmmaker, festival programmer, and freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. They serve as the Programming Director for the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival. Kristal is in post-production on Expanding Sanctuary about the Latinx immigrant community in Philadelphia.


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