Sierra Leone filmmakers join forces to document the devastating effect of Ebola in their country
SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: The 2014 Ebola outbreak, which left more than 30 000 people infected and over 11 000 dead, remains one of the deadliest health disasters in West Africa. While the plague is said to have begun in rural Guinea, it quickly spread to other countries, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, challenging the already poor health systems in these countries, and slumping their economies and populations in just 24 months.
Out of the country’s darkest moments came great heroes and amazing stories of survival. The stories of these brave survivors are captured in a new documentary aptly titled Survivor.
“In Sierra Leone, we do not have Spiderman or Superman or Captain America as heroes, what we have are these men who are risking their lives to save ours. It can also be seen as raising the confidence bar in Sierra Leone. The lack of confidence in ourselves and our total dependency on the West for aid in everything can be overcome if we are able to see ourselves as being capable. It is my desire for the world to know that we did what we can and what we did as individuals and a country collectively was worthwhile,” expresses Arthur Pratt, a filmmaker and pastor from Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone.
Pratt is the co-founder of the Sierra Leone Film Council, the country’s first media-makers’ union. He is also the co-founder and manager of the WeOwnTV programme, an organisation which was actively involved in informing and educating the nation about the Ebola virus during the outbreak.
WeOwnTV, in association with the Sierra Leone Film Council, designed public service announcements which included short videos to help dissolve the many rumours and myths hindering the fight against Ebola. “The first video we did, titled Waytin ar For No But Ebola (What I Need to Know About Ebola), was designed to answer key questions that were considered issues by the general population such as: What is Ebola? How is it transmitted? What are its symptoms? What are the precautionary steps to take in case of a suspected case? The second short film was designed to specifically target the issue of lack of trust for the medical sector – which by then was resulting into an ever-increasing rate of infection as people sought traditional help rather than going to the hospitals,” informs Pratt.
However, in the film Survivor, Pratt decided to pursue a collaborative project whereby he led a team of 18 Sierra Leonean filmmakers to film in different parts of the country. The film, shot over two years, includes accounts from when the outbreak was at its worst, up until the country was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Making the film was also a personal journey for Pratt who says that he was sick and tired of the global image depicted about the Ebola virus in his country. “The Western countries were quick to lead with flashy headlines that presented a negative image of Africa playing into and contributing to the stereotype of dependency and ignorance. Most stories focused on the efforts of western intervention. Headlines missed the complexities. Yes, burial practices contributed to the spread of the disease for example, but our religious leaders and institutions were also instrumental in helping communities change their behaviours. Not to mention the omission of the massive contribution of African nationals in the fight. They were the foot soldiers of this war. There was an incredible spirit of volunteerism in my country that was missed. I needed to tell the stories of those brave men and women who without the much talked about protective gears and very little or no knowledge of the disease, braved the situation to help those dying and in need.”
In the film, Pratt sets out to explore his characters thoughts, struggles and efforts during one of the most frightening and deadliest times in Sierra Leone. “At the start, we were following many characters, and as the production continues, we began to focus on Mohamed, Margaret and Foday. We developed quite close relationships with them and also felt their stories each contributed unique elements to the story and how it is told,” Pratt says.
It has been reported that before Ebola struck, there were 136 doctors and 1 017 nurses serving six million people. During the epidemic, 488 of these health professionals lost their lives. Mohamed Bangura, a senior ambulance driver and Margaret Sesay, a nurse at the Emergency Ebola Treatment Centre, are two individuals that the film follows as they risk their lives to save those who are infected.
In Survivor we see Bangura carry a sick man on his back because the man lives at the top of a hill, on a treacherous route, that a vehicle cannot access. As a driver, Bangura is forbidden from touching sick people.
Sesay, who has worked with Pratt in various community outreach projects, initially was not working when the Ebola outbreak hit. She, like many other citizens, was afraid of contracting the disease and feared being abandoned by her family if she continued with her nursing duties. Pratt intervened, making Sesay recite her nurse’s pledge, and within weeks she was working at the Emergency Ebola Unit without her family’s knowledge.
The youngest person featured in the film is a brave 12-year-old boy, named Foday Koroma, who hustles through life and lives in the streets with his friends. The film shows the young boy and his friends desperately trying to rent a room when they are told to wait 21 days as most vacancies have been quarantined as a result of former tenants carrying the virus.
Pratt helps the young boy to return home where he finds his old and frail father. His father encourages him to go back to school before he succumbs to his death as a result of a long-term chronic illness. Koroma carries on living in the home he shared with his father while continuing with his schooling.
In darker scenes, health workers are seen carrying dead bodies and sick patients away from their homes as their families look on helplessly.
The film was shot on the Canon DSLR 7D, the Sony EX1 and the GoPro 4. A DJI Phantom 4 drone was also used to capture aerial views in some areas. “The Sony EX1 was very important in terms of the observational shoot, interviews and ambulance chase – the picture and sound quality is exceptional. The Canon 7D was a ‘ready-to-go camera’, as we used it when shooting in more volatile areas and it is easy to set-up and carry. For obvious reasons, the GoPro camera was used mostly in the red zones in treatment centres and with the ambulance team for pick-ups.”
Survivor recently had its African premiere at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival in Cape Town and later went to China to showcase at the Shanghai International Film Festival.
“The reception was great. We came to Encounters first because we wanted the African audience. They seemed to understand the nuances of the humanitarian organisations and the communities they serve. They got the humour. We also had many medical workers who had actually worked in Freetown during the outbreak. They commented that they appreciated seeing this side of the story, that it was an important insight and they are now planning screenings of the film for their organisations,” Pratt informs.
Survivor will be broadcast in North America on PBS’s POV television series later in the year.
“We plan to premiere the film in Sierra Leone in November during the three year anniversary of the end of Ebola. We also have extensive plans to screen the film in communities around the country,” adds Pratt.
In conclusion, Pratt says that viewers can learn so much about African people in general, and about his home country of Sierra Leone. “Even though we can be poor, we are not naïve, and we are strong people. The world needs to understand that we agree that there are problems but in my view, they should not be used to negatively brand an entire nation. People should also look at themselves and at the way they interact with their own family and community and country. Our characters make complicated ethical decisions throughout the film. How would you react? What can these heroes teach us?”
Camera: Sony EX1, Canon 7D and GoPro 4 cameras
“The Sony EX1 was very important in terms of the observational shoot, interviews and ambulance chase – the picture and sound quality is exceptional. The Canon 7D was a ‘ready-to-go camera’, as we used it when shooting in more volatile areas and it is easy to set-up and carry. For obvious reasons, the GoPro camera was used mostly in the red zones in treatment centres and with the ambulance team for pick-ups.”– Arthur Pratt
Director: Arthur Pratt
Directors: Banker White, Anna Fitch, Barmmy Boy
DOP: Barmmy Boy and MJ Sessy Kamara
Producers: Anna Fitch, Arthur Pratt, Banker White, Barmmy Boy, Samantha Grant, Sara Dosa
Editors: Banker White, Don Bernier
By Gezzy S Sibisi