Emmanuel Urey and Gregg Mitman did not initially plan to make a film about Ebola. Urey, a Liberian doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Mitman, a professor in the history of science, medicine, and the environment, went to Monrovia to work on A Film Never Made, a project about land, colonialism, and the legacy of the Firestone rubber company in Liberia. But they put work on that film on temporary hold during the summer of 2014 in order to document the rapidly unfolding Ebola crisis. The film that resulted is the engrossing 26-minute documentary, In the Shadow of Ebola.
In the Shadow of Ebola follows Urey as he returns home to Monrovia to visit family in the summer of 2014. The escalation of the Ebola epidemic and the Liberian government’s response to it are narrated by Urey, his wife Vivian, and—perhaps most remarkably—one of their four young sons, Joseph, or “JU.” This is a global family: at the start of the film, Emmanuel and Vivian live in Madison with one of their sons, while the other three stay in Monrovia with their grandmother. It is the narration of Ebola through the voices of this family, rather than the voices of journalists or health experts, that makes this film an exceptional teaching tool for global health.
In my experience, most students enter the classroom with two default frameworks through which they understand Ebola: fear and rescue. These frameworks echo dominant depictions in the U.S. press, which toggled between terrifying scenes of contagion and death and heroic intervention by foreign aid workers. The voices of Africans were mostly absent except in coverage of angry crowds attacking Ebola treatment centers, where they were depicted as irrational. By allowing viewers to see the crisis through the eyes of Urey and his family, In the Shadow of Ebola provides welcome fodder for a more complex conversation.
The film’s power lies in its pairing of the unfolding cataclysm of Ebola with ordinary moments in the life of Urey’s family. The closure of the nation’s school system is seen through the eyes of Urey’s children, who, in their house-bound restlessness, disobey their grandmother and frustrate their father. Footage of the quarantine of the West Point neighborhood and the horrific shooting of 15-year-old Shaki Kamara by Liberian security forces is interspersed with shots of Vivian and Emmanuel, who watch the footage on a laptop from their home in Madison, their faces frozen in shock and grief. The diagnosis of Ebola in a New York City doctor and the threat of a travel ban are relevant not because of the threat posed to Americans — which was negligible — but because they further complicate Emmanuel’s efforts to bring his son Nelly to the U.S. “I don’t think they should do a travel ban,” JU tells us over shots of him in his parka, boarding the bus to school in Madison. “People want to come here for peace, and then you stop them? Everyone’s trying to protect their country.” This quiet linkage of the spectacular to the mundane effectively draws the viewer into the unfolding drama from the perspective of one transnational Liberian family, challenging the distancing and exoticization that is so common in American coverage of global health crises.
Just as this film’s Liberian narrators make it stand out, the film is also notable for who does not speak. The voices of international aid workers are nearly absent, save a brief clip of the president of MSF addressing the United Nations, as are the voices of West African health experts. This choice presents both an opportunity and a risk. On one hand, it successfully de-centers international responses to Ebola and instead focuses on local responses. These include serious errors by the Liberian government, but also more successful efforts launched by Liberian NGOs and radio and music personalities. On the other hand, it leaves the international response largely free of scrutiny. The risk here is that students may fill in the blank with humanitarian “rescue” narratives, especially since the film ends on a hopeful note that describes international aid arriving and Ebola rates on the decline. Yet, we now know that declining infection rates in Liberia preceded the arrival of significant international aid, and were attributable primarily to grassroots interventions developed at the community level. These revelations came after the fact, once In the Shadow of Ebola was largely finished, and so their absence from the film is an artifact of timing. But it is an important lesson for both students and global health experts, and for this reason I would recommend supplementing the film with material that can help students understand this point more explicitly.
Part of the work of teaching Ebola (and critical global health more generally) is challenging students to understand epidemics as political, rather than simply bio-behavioral. In the Shadow of Ebola is an excellent tool for this purpose, and gives students and instructors plenty of starting points from which to explore the political and economic context of the outbreak and responses to it. Emotional and sometimes violent footage is paired with individual interviews and commentary from Urey that provides social context: an angry crowd protests at the gates of a hospital too overwhelmed to adequately care for patients; a bystander despairs over the body of a pregnant woman left in the street for hours due to lack of public health infrastructure; frightened residents of West Point rail against a government quarantine that leaves them without access to food and water for their children. Through the eyes of Urey, his family members, and other ordinary Liberians, outrage, grief, and distrust are made rational. The epidemic is made political.
Johanna T. Crane is a medical anthropologist and an assistant professor at the University of Washington Bothell, where she coordinates the major in Science, Technology, and Society. She is the author of Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise, and the Rise of American Global Health Science (Cornell Press, 2013).