In January of this year, the World Health Organization officially declared an end to the Ebola epidemic in Liberia. After over 11,000 deaths, the war against this horrific virus had finally been won. For those of us in the United States, who enjoyed the relative luxury of fretting over the remote threat of an outbreak within our borders rather than experiencing the full-blown crisis endured by West Africa, this inevitable end to the epidemic may have seemed inevitable. But Ebola did not simply go away, it was defeated by some incredibly courageous individuals who sacrificed their own health and safety to fight this vicious disease. And even though Ebola has been beaten back, it has left deep wounds in West Africa, including some 20,000 children left orphaned by the virus.
A trio of documentary shorts airing on HBO (“Ebola: The Doctors’ Story,” “Body Team 12,” and “Orphans of Ebola”) spotlight some indomitable souls amidst the utter brutality of Ebola. “Ebola: The Doctors’ Story,” about a Liberian Ebola treatment facility run by Doctors Without Borders, and “Body Team 12,” a brief portrait of Garmai Sumo, a Liberian Red Cross worker who works with a team that collects up dead bodies to prevent further transmission of the disease, reveal the courage of the aid workers. While “Orphans of Ebola” tells the story of its title subject through the lens of two brothers, Abu and Abdul, who struggle to find some sense of stability in the wake of their parents’ deaths.
Taken together, these films paint a harrowing portrait of a region wracked with unfathomable loss and devastation. “Ebola: The Doctors’ Story” offers a doctor’s-eye perspective on the crisis. At a treatment facility located deep in the jungles of Liberia, Dr. Javid Abdelmoneim, a newly arrived English doctor—personable, ruggedly handsome and fiercely moral in the way I imagine all members of Doctors Without Borders to be—does his best to treat his patients while also dealing with his own fears of becoming infected. Due to fears of transmission, these doctors can only see patients while wearing a complicated hazmat suit that make them look like alien invaders. They also must maintain an emotional distance to preserve their sanity in the face of overwhelming death. Without treatment, 70% of Ebola patients die; with treatment, the chance of death decreases to 55%—meaning, even with their best efforts, the majority of these doctors’ patients will die.
Garmai Sumo, who is profiled in “Body Team 12” (which was nominated for Best Documentary Short at this year’s Academy Awards) deals with death even more intimately. She drives around in a truck with a small team tasked with collecting dead bodies from the cities and villages of Liberia. Though this task is essential to preventing the spread of Ebola, she must deal with many people who refuse to give over their loved ones’ bodies. Some even threaten the body team with violence. They know that once the body is gone, it will be incinerated, leaving no grave to visit. But Sumo, the only female worker on her team, persists in the face of this intransigence, driven by a patriotic commitment to her country.
“Orphans of Ebola” covers four months in the lives of Abu and Abdul, whose parents were killed by Ebola. The brothers bounce around to the homes of various relatives, trying to find solid ground. But it is difficult to go on when, as Abu puts it, “The one that loves you most is gone.” Eventually, Abu and Abdul must separate, but Abu—whom the film follows more closely—finds a new life, a new mother, and a new school in Freetown.
All three films are strong, moving, and emotionally draining. “The Doctors’ Story” is journalistic in form, essentially a piece of reportage, but its intimate footage of doctors and patients struggling against death makes it the most harrowing of the three. “Body Team 12” is more impressionistic and inspiring, a quasi-tone poem about the triumph of hope in the face of endless despair. “Orphans of Ebola” is, I think, the very best of the three, a highly engaging portrait of Abu, a young boy who refuses to let the deaths of nearly all his family members beat him down. Directed by Ben Steele, it is a surprisingly beautiful film highlighting the gorgeous scenery of Sierra Leone while never turning Abu’s story into mere tragedy tourism.
What all three films share is an ability to find some shining points of light in the midst of an incredibly dark situation. While altogether these three shorts run less than 90 minutes, the experience of watching them back to back is not easy. Ebola wrought so much despair on West Africa, and even the narrow slice of that horror which these three films show is almost more than one can bear. But we cling to Javid, Garmai, and Abu, whose stories suggest the best of humanity, even as the world’s response to Ebola was not as courageous as we might wish to believe. For months, the west largely ignored the outbreak, until it started to hit home in a few isolated, scattered cases in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy. The sad fact, as Javid says near the end of “The Doctors’ Story,” is that “the world only wakes up to it when a few white people are infected.” Perhaps next time we will do better.