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In 'Survivors' documentary on Ebola, Sierra Leoneans finally have their say

Why We Wrote This

Four years after the Ebola outbreak, the world is still asking questions about its response. But an essential voice has often been ignored in that conversation: Sierra Leoneans who survived and fought the epidemic.

Courtesy of WEOWNTV/Freetown Media Center
Kadiatu holds Ibrahim in the documentary “Survivors.” Director Arthur Pratt was determined to ensure that the perspectives of Sierra Leoneans were accurately represented in the film about overcoming Ebola.

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Filmmaker Arthur Pratt was busy in 2014, as Ebola swept across Africa. Everyone wanted footage of the epidemic, it seemed. But broadcasters were looking for the types of scenes their audiences had come to expect: wailing ambulances, haggard patients. To Mr. Pratt, that seemed like an incomplete picture. Thousands of Sierra Leoneans had died. But Sierra Leoneans were also survivors and heroes. “These international broadcasting entities had a certain story they wanted to tell, and often it was about people who were ignorant, backward, and helpless,” he says. “That doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth.” Four years later, the result is his documentary “Survivors: Hope and Resilience in the Time of Ebola,” which has premièred on PBS and is streaming on its website. The film is told intimately, from Sierra Leoneans’ point of view, following first responders into homes and hospital wards. It’s meant to prompt Sierra Leoneans to reflect on the crisis, Pratt says, but also viewers abroad. “I want people to look at how they talk about and write about people outside their own communities,” he says.

As Ebola swept across West Africa in early 2014, Arthur Pratt’s phone began to ring. Journalists and documentary filmmakers from all over the world were scrambling to report on the outbreak, and they needed footage. Many hired Mr. Pratt and the film nonprofit he helps run, WeOwnTV, to shoot the now-familiar scenes of the crisis: ambulances wailing as they careened through city streets and haggard patients calling out to family members through the chain-link fences of treatment wards.

But when Pratt saw his footage being used, he felt something was missing. “These international broadcasting entities had a certain story they wanted to tell, and often it was about people who were ignorant, backward, and helpless. It was a story about people who were not doing anything to help their own situation,” he says. “I don’t want to blame foreign filmmakers. But when you come to communities that aren’t yours, people will often tell you what you want to hear, what they need to say so you will have pity on them. And that doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth.” 

And so, he says, his collective made a choice. They would tell their own story.

Four years and thousands of hours of footage later, the result is “Survivors: Hope and Resilience in the Time of Ebola,” a documentary about how Sierra Leoneans acted in the shadow of a crisis, told from the perspective of those who lived it. The documentary premièred on PBS on Sept. 24 and is currently streaming on pbs.org.

Some of the characters are a familiar type. There is an ambulance driver named Mohamed, who spends his days in a blur of high-speed chases through the tree-lined streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone, ferrying people between their houses and treatment centers. And there is a devoutly Christian nurse named Margaret who, dressed in a full hazmat suit, frequently bends to pray over her trembling patients. (“Are you a Muslim?” she asks one of them. “That’s good. Religion isn’t here to separate us. I just want to pray for you so that God can heal you.”) But the film also follows people on the epidemic’s margins, those simply looking for ways to carry on in the midst of a crisis. A homeless child named Foday roams a local dump, acrid smoke from burning garbage swirling above his head. He is looking for recyclables to trade for a bit of cash, picking through the heaps with his bare hands. 

Pratt, too, is there in the documentary, teasing his pregnant wife, Valrie, for becoming “fat like a watermelon.” She jokes back, claiming she married him “as a birthday gift.” But worry thrums below the surface of their relationship. Freetown’s hospitals are full up with Ebola patients, or else closed down. It’s becoming harder and harder to seek out other medical care like a cesarean, which Valrie is told she will need to have. 

“Survivors” is told intimately, in a mix of close-up footage recorded by amateur filmmakers trained by WeOwnTV across the country and scenes shot from body cameras strapped to the front of hazmat suits – shaky, jolting camera angles that follow first responders into people’s homes and inside hospital wards. 

Despite the bravery of many of its characters, “Survivors” isn’t a story of uncomplicated heroism. Mohamed is eventually fired from his job for getting in too many car accidents. While Pratt’s wife is having a prenatal checkup at a local clinic, nurses coldly turn away a possible Ebola patient, saying they are afraid to help her. In another scene, nurses at a quarantine facility brusquely separate a weeping young mother from her sick baby, quickly shouting the name of the hospital where they’ll be taking him as they speed off. 

“We want Sierra Leoneans to look and celebrate how we survived, but also to reflect” on how Sierra Leoneans face crisis, Pratt says. And he hopes the film will cause international audiences to reflect, too. “I want people to look at how they talk about and write about people outside their own communities,” he says. 

Sierra Leoneans, after all, were not only Ebola’s victims. They were also its fighters. They were its mourners. They were the ones who survived.

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