This past spring, as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa faded from the American newsscape I screened In the Shadow of Ebola in two different undergraduate classes at NYU. It proved a tremendous teaching resource for an American college classroom. At the center of the short film, Emmanuel Urey, a Liberian doctoral student at University of Wisconsin offered a stunning yet clear narration of a difficult, complex, and still unfolding event. The film follows Urey on a trip back to Monrovia to visit his three young sons who are staying with his wife Vivian’s grandmother in the squatter community of Sinkor, just behind JFK, the central hospital for the country. While he is there the Ebola epidemic picks up pace. The film traces its intensification and shows various familiar scenes from the epidemic: sick people arriving at the hospital gates by wheelbarrow and taxi; corpses being disinfected with bleach by teams of workers in space suits. But unlike most of the western journalism covering the epidemic, which focuses on American or European health workers, the film consistently focuses on Liberians themselves, who explain to the camera the scenes unfolding around them — from the death of a pregnant woman on the street while a concerned crowd waited for an Ebola team to come; to a group of people in a town upcountry who, because of roadblocks meant to stop the virus, find the price of food has skyrocketed beyond reach; to radio djs and musicians warning about the epidemic and advising people on how to cope. We see JFK shut down entirely and begin to get a sense of just how long Liberians went without health care during a major public health crisis, despite international awareness of the gravity of the situation. In other words, it is a film about Liberia and Liberians, rather than a mirror onto American fantasies about Liberia. When Emmanuel returns to Madison where Vivian and his other son are waiting, at first he is only able to bring one more of his children from Monrovia. Illustrating the impact of American panic over the virus, despite the small number of cases in the U.S., we watch Emmanuel and Vivian’s anxiety as they wait for a visa for another son who then joins them.
In a perfect world, In the Shadow of Ebola would be three times as long, allowing the filmmakers time to offer necessary historical background to explain Monrovia’s degraded infrastructure, the nature and legacy of its war, its long and complicated relationships with the U.S., its domestic political tensions, and popular evaluations of the Sirleaf-Johnson government. For the informed viewer, these factors are all accounted for. But given that they are not elaborated, I think the film should be taught alongside a set of readings and lectures that do this work of contextualizing.
The first class in which I showed the film was a seminar with twenty-two students called Dying in the City that met once a week for a three-hour block. This course was split into four units: the first paired Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Chicago heat wave of 1995; the second, two deaths at the hands of police — Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York; the third was the Ebola epidemic in Monrovia; and the final section focused on high-tech death, nursing homes, and end of life care in New York. Together seminar participants tried to understand particular contemporary urban patterns of dying by undertaking a social autopsy to examine their roots, their conditions of possibility. We asked what effects such deaths have on survivors as individuals, and on the broader social and political communities in which they occur. We thought about race, class, gender, and citizenship and how they impact patterns and meanings of dying; we talked about the importance of caring for the dying as well as for human corpses; we looked carefully at the production and circulation of statistics or their absence. And we thought about how experiences of dying necessitate complex evaluations of technology and its promise in ameliorating suffering.
We spent four weeks learning about Monrovia and Ebola — situating them historically, intellectually, politically, ecologically, and socially within Liberia, the broader West African region, and globe. The first week I gave the students a lecture on Liberian history and the Liberian civil war, then we discussed a set of background articles we’d read on history, ecology, land tenure, and politics. The second week in this unit, I asked students to assemble an annotated timeline of at least ten critical events in the epidemic and to come to class prepared to explain why they chose the events they did. As they had been consistently throughout the semester, the students were wonderfully energetic, critical, and curious. Many of the timelines were quite thorough and detailed, far exceeding the ten minimum entries. Some began with the founding of Liberia in the nineteenth century, others with the Liberian civil war, still others with the massive land sales and agribusiness that produced shifting ecological conditions which might have shifted the habitat of the fruit bat thought to be the animal reservoir of the virus and also produced large-scale urban migration, still others began with the index case in Guinea. The first half of the three-hour class we assembled a master timeline using their research. Then we watched In the Shadow of Ebola.
The film enabled students to visualize Monrovia, to get an aesthetic sense of the city. It offered them the opportunity to hear a diversity of Liberians talk and analyze the epidemic, to critique the various government and social actions taken; it showed that Liberians were anything but passive. In our discussion after the film my students began to question why only two of them had used sources from the Liberian press in assembling their timelines, though these sources were easily accessible on the internet. Then we began to see how the absence of Liberian perspectives had shaped our narrative of the epidemic. We learned we had a very crucial critical event to add to our timeline — the military shooting of Shaki Kamara, a fifteen-year-old boy in West Point, the low-income, high-density neighborhood of Monrovia that the President put under quarantine. The film helped us question the logic of the quarantine itself — and to think through its health effects on residents, who now struggled with skyrocketing prices for food and water. Emmanuel Urey and his wife Vivian watched the police shooting on their laptop in Wisconsin. Horrified and disgusted, Emmanuel questioned the logic of shooting someone in the name of public health. Students in this class had already spent many weeks learning about Michael Brown and Ferguson and St. Louis, and Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans (where police also opened fire on residents). Now we learned that even after crossing the Atlantic to Liberia, the relationship between the politics of urban space, private property, and the police were still on the table. Yet again we found ourselves contemplating the purpose and procedures of the police, hospitals, courts, and other institutions in critical circumstances.
The second course in which I screened In the Shadow of Ebola was a small class (a dozen students) on the History of Health and Healing in Africa. Our Ebola discussion came at the end of a semester that moved both chronologically and thematically. Here the film served a different, but no less important, purpose. It brought together and dramatized the contemporary effects of a series of themes from the course — development of hospitals, privatization, the gendered nature of care, epidemics, global public health, the civilizing mission, and the salvation industry. Students, who had been reading about epidemics and their trajectories all semester long, were able to see some of the dramaturgy of the epidemic unfold. Having learned about structural adjustment and privatization, they could see how this determined the lack of sufficient ambulance and hospital services. Having read Gregg Mitman and Paul Erickson on Firestone rubber and the history of the Harvard Liberia expedition they were able to place the epidemic as yet another intensified moment in a long, layered, and often fraught history of Liberian-American relationships. Like their peers in Dying in the City, they too found Emmanuel Urey and his family members to be intelligent narrators, bringing integrity to their analysis and illustrating the high stakes of health policy, medical citizenship, and care during an epidemic.
Julie Livingston is a Professor of History and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.