Like war, an epidemic tangles many narrative threads. It weaves banal episodes into tragic events, mixes frenzied action with periods of anxious waiting, rips apart routines and leaves many ends hanging. Anyone trying to document such circumstances runs the unexpected risk of telling too simple a story. Following Carolyn Nordstrom (2004), I thus take this film’s title metaphor of shadow seriously. An appeal to shadows admits uncertain vision, recalling the illusions created by our own clear categories and expectations of certain, complete knowledge. Sudden darkness also heightens contrasts, revealing patterns muted in too bright a light.
Seen through the eyes of Emmanuel Urey and his Liberian family, Ebola is less a particular virus than a broader social threat, one that disrupts their already complex lives between two continents. A student at the University of Wisconsin, Emmanuel has a foothold in North America, where he resides along with his wife Vivian and one of their children. When Ebola spreads through West Africa in 2014, he grows increasingly worried about his country, friends, and relatives. In particular he and Vivian fret over the other children they left behind, and seek to bring them to Madison. By interspersing this personal quest with a range of other commentaries and images related to the outbreak, In the Shadow of Ebola documents the struggle to hold some things together, even as others fall apart. It tempers major failure with minor success, recalling that one does not have to fall ill to be afflicted, or to die to be touched by death.
In keeping with its subject, the film remains suggestive and full of partial connections that extend beyond the field of view. It hints at deeper legacies of violence and inequality but brings them only partly into focus. Emmanuel mentions the earlier civil war and Liberia’s lack of health infrastructure. He watches as video shows security forces struggling to enforce quarantine in the West Point neighborhood of Monrovia, and reacts in stunned disbelief when they fire into a crowd, fatally wounding a young boy. He observes bitterly that this graphic footage reveals the ultimate hypocrisy embodied in armored forms of humanitarianism, in a public health that seeks to save people by shooting them. Yet neither Emmanuel nor anyone else explains or dwells on background issues such as war, rubber plantations, or the deeper history of slavery and the country’s founding. We find out little of our protagonist’s own backstory either, including how he came to Wisconsin. Rather, the film concentrates on the blur of experience and the urgent concerns of a moving present. The forces of health care appear as a welter of people in various forms of biohazard suits, an overwhelmed hospital, roaring NGO vehicles, a paltry sack of rice to feed the masses, and frenzied construction of new clinics. People talk heatedly about unmet needs, but it is not always clear who might bear responsibility: the government, surely, various agencies, the world at large. People gesticulate urgently, bang on rusty gates. Anger and fear are in the air.
The film itself offers little direct moral injunction, limiting its narrative framing to brief statements of fact. Much of the action in this family drama remains understated and off-screen; bureaucratic struggles over immigration documents proceed and stall alongside the wider ebb and flow of efforts to respond to the disease. Not all the children are able to travel, and the one son finally permitted to leave is too young to grasp the gravity of the situation, focusing on the excitement of the journey and a ready supply of sweets instead. We never learn the rationale of why this child and not his older sibling. Nor do we hear much of the heated debate over travel bans, learn a lot about the Liberian diaspora, or follow the precise links between Monrovia and Madison. Yet the very fact of this journey is telling in its own way. Despite the Ebola outbreak, despite hysterical hand wringing and efforts to impose quarantines large and small, a child ultimately travels to rejoin his parents. He is able to board an aircraft with a family friend, to cross a border, and (after a twenty-one-day waiting period to guard against infection) to start a new school. It is a particular, partial success for Emmanuel Urey, against a backdrop of personal worry and a greater spectacle of intense national suffering. It is a shadow story, suggestive of many things, conclusive of little.
Approaching the recent outbreak from such an oblique, understated angle helpfully shades our understanding of West Africa’s encounter with Ebola. It stands in contrast with heroic humanitarian accounts, which too often ignore anything that does not appear a straight line between a crisis and its solution. One of the lessons of this outbreak surely lies in its stubborn resistance to a simple “technofix” — a magic shot of biomedical intervention that would snuff out the disease even in the absence of a stable health care system. Ebola became a large problem because of many other problems, and as it did so it altered many lives. Telling a few less linear stories — a boy shot protesting in the street, another boy crossing an ocean to rejoin his parents — moves the epidemic away from moral fable, back to the troubling, clouded, but human realm of history.
Nordstrom, Carolyn (2004). Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Peter Redfield is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.