TFF: David Darg Shows That Ebola Was No Match for "Body Team 12"
Playing at Festival David Darg Shows That Ebola Was No Match for Body Team 12
(from Sag Harbor Express Online June 4, 2015)
Body Team 12 takes away the bodies of people killed by Ebola
By Danny Peary
One of the most powerful films I saw at the recent Tribeca Film Festival was only 13 minutes long. In fact, Body
Olivia Wilde, Bryn Mooser, and David Darg on the Today Show.
Team 12, which was directed, written, coproduced and filmed by the award-winning David Darg and executive produced by actress Olivia Wilde, was selected Best Documentary Short at the festival. It allows us the unique opportunity to follow a team of brave and dedicated individuals who had one of the most dangerous and gruesome jobs in the world: collecting and disposing of bodies from the streets of Monrovia, Liberia at the height of the Ebola epidemic and preventing its spread throughout the country and the world. Darg’s spotlight is on the unassuming female worker on the team, Garmai Sumo, a heroine you won’t forget. The filmmaker was right there with her, also wearing one of those familiar yellow suits and masks but carrying his trusty camera–and earning our admiration as well. Darg, who has been a first responder and frontline contributor for Reuters, the BBC and CNN at numerous trouble spots around the world for the last decade, and who with Bryn Mooser cofounded RYOT, the first breaking news site that connects every story to an action, had just returned from Nepal when I had the following conversation with him.
Danny Peary: I’ve read that over the last couple of years you’ve been to the Philippines, the Arctic, Nigeria, Iraq, Liberia, Nepal, and other trouble spots. Where do you live?
David Darg: In Virginia, but RYOT’s head office is in L.A. I was born in Virginia, but I’ve lived in other countries and spent most of my life living in England. My family still lives in England. Most of my work is outside of this country, so for the last decade I’ve been living abroad, in Africa, and Haiti, where I was there for two and half a years. I moved back to the States about two years ago, and L.A. is where we’ve been working with RYOT full-time. We have a staff of about thirty.
DP: You have gone into disaster areas for years as a first responder. Have you always had a camera with you?
DD: I have, yeah. I have a sort of interesting career that’s a mixture of aid work and journalism. I have a passion for both. I always go into a trouble spot as an aid worker and then become a journalist, too. So when Ebola hit my entry into Liberia was through working with non-profit organizations. I had a camera with me because I was first and foremost there to capture the news as it emerged, and those stories helped with the fund-raising efforts by the non-profits. I’m always on the hunt for a really good story that might work for us as a film, and in Monrovia I met these incredible characters who worked on teams that took away dead bodies so the disease didn’t spread. I felt really compelled to tell their story at that point.
Garmai Sumo tries to convince people to let her take away the dead bodies of their relatives.
DP: Because you went into Liberia as a first-responder, you got amazing access to the front-lines to film the fight against Ebola. Were there other first-responders with cameras, perhaps people you hung out with who were also making documentaries, or were you basically alone?
DD: In Liberia, I was alone. It was interesting because even in the aid community there was lot of reluctance of people wanting to go in because of the risks involved.
DP: When the spread of Ebola in West Africa dominated the news here in America, all of us wanted to stay away from it, but there you were going toward it.
DD: Yeah, yeah. I had spent lots of time in Liberia. My first trip there was in 2006, and because of my experience there and because of the need for aid, I wanted to be there to tell the story and do what I could to help with the relief effort. I really understood the threat of Ebola and thought that I could take care of myself and avoid getting sick.
DP: In your Director’s Statement, you say this was the most dangerous situation you’ve ever been in.
DD: Potentially, yes. I said that. It’s not the most dangerous situation I’ve been in personally, but it’s the most dangerous film I’ve made. Making this film required me to be in very risky situations.
DP: Nobody here in America really knew how dangerous it was, which was why everybody was so frightened. We didn’t know if those spacemen suits were good enough. Did you have to have a conversation with yourself, to steel yourself and make you go in, or did just having a camera make you feel you could do it?
DD: I did need to have that conversation with myself. I couldn’t even tell my wife, because she’d only allow me to go to Liberia with the provision that I would stay as safe as possible. She’s used to my getting into pretty crazy situations, but because of the nature of what it would take to make my film, I didn’t want to tell her what I was doing. So she actually had no idea I’d made this film until she saw one of the final cuts, and when she did see it, she was mad at me.
DP: Then it’s a good thing that it’s a good film. Did she know where you were?
DD: She knew I was in Liberia working with the relief effort, but she had no idea I was coming that close to dying and dead people. I sort of told her I wouldn’t be. To be honest, as an aid worker I thought I’d be working in the background and helping with logistics and things like that. I never expected to be face to face with dead Ebola victims and that type of thing. Just to keep my wife sane and for her to continue to allow me to make the film, I kept what I was doing quiet from her.
DP: I’m sure you didn’t go to Liberia already saying, “I’m going to make a 13-minute short.” When did you decide to do it?
DD: The film was made over the course of four trips to Liberia last year. It was really over the course of the second and third trips that the bulk of the film was made. Like you said, I didn’t go there on the first trip thinking, “Let’s make a doc,” and even on the second trip, when I landed in Liberia, I was there as an aid worker and to tell stories about the relief efforts, fundraising, and other general things. I followed the media closely and I was seeing film of people in yellow suits with masks, but I wasn’t being told their stories. People were thinking that these have got to be totally crazy, but I was so inspired by these young Liberians who were willing to risk it all to save their country. Who was underneath the yellow suits, masks and blue aprons? It wasn’t until my second trip that I discovered Garmai Sumo, the main character in the film. I met this incredible human being who had a family herself and didn’t have to do the job of collecting dead bodies, but she risked her life for her country and for all of us. It was that inspiring story I was witnessing, about Garmai and her body team, that I felt compelled to tell.
DP: The first responders at Ground Zero in New York city after 9/11 were never told fully of the risks. Were all those people in the suits aware of how dangerous it was, or did they go in thinking that if they wore a suit and mask they were going to be safe?
DD: Initially they assumed that the suits would protect them. But then they became aware that people wearing the suits had started to die around them. I don’t know what kept them going at that point other than sheer bravery. History is defined by brave people who are willing to sacrifice everything, and that’s what I saw in these relief workers. They were surrounded by death, sorrow, and the most horrific things you’ve ever seen, yet they were willing to face it..
DP: You made your film about Body Team 12. How many body teams were there?
DD: In the city of Monrovia there were 12 teams, so they were the 12th. Typically teams were 5 to 6 people, and it was a requirement to have one be a female because of their ability to comfort women and children better, and to comfort the men on the team and pull the team together. It’s an interesting policy that they have to have a woman on each team, but Liberia has a history of strong women and was in fact the first African nation to have a woman president.
DP: Part of Garmai’s appeal is that she comes across as an ordinary person yet does extraordinary things, which is the definition of a hero. Did you watch her for a while when you were an aid worker and introduce yourself?
DD: I met her through the aid effort I was part of, trying to get some liquid chlorine to the teams because they used it to spray everything. So I got it from Red Cross headquarters in Monrovia. I wanted to go out and see these teams working, and when I did I became fascinated by this woman on the 12th team. Garmai was so dynamic that after my first day with the team, I asked if I could embed with it and focus on her in particular.
DP: Were they okay with having the cameras? Especially during confrontations with family members who didn’t want them to take away the corpses and break tradition?
DD: They were. I was certainly not the first to embed with them, but I was the first filmmaker to do it. They had lots of journalists come along who were there for the day and then were gone. Those journalists were the ones who would tell the stories of the people wearing the masks and the yellow suits. As a filmmaker I wanted to dig deeper and tell the stories of these masked heroes. And as I embedded with them, they opened up and trusted me a lot more and started to talk to me a lot more, and I really felt that eventually they treated me as part of the team. Especially because I was wearing the same suits they did and blended in for some of those scenes. Everything was so chaotic and the team was so focused on the task at hand that it was almost impossible for me to be a distraction in all of that grief and misery. They were happy to have me along, I think.
DP: Did you show them dailies, or were there no dailies?
DD: There weren’t dailies, no, but we did have a really great screening of the film on my last trip a couple months ago. They really loved the film and it was a special time,
DP: I’m sure the whole experience was a blur to them, and all of a sudden there it was on film. Do you agree with that?
DD: Absolutely, yeah. As far as they were concerned I was going to do the same as all the other journalists–do a story, then see you later. So I think they were really impressed that a much deeper story was being told, I think they really appreciated that, because they want to be appreciated and respected for what they accomplished.
DP: It’s touching when Garmai says at the end of the short that the people in the body teams want to be remembered for helping their country, for saving their country. Did she actually say that on the last day you filmed or earlier?
DD: It wasn’t the last day I filmed. I did a series of interviews with her, and it was over the course of one of those interviews that she said that. I was probing, asking her why she did it. I was really trying to get to the root of why someone would sacrifice everything.
DP: And also deal with so much grief. In fact, how did you handle just standing there passively and watching families refuse to let the body team take away the bodies of loved ones? It was probably the law there that they had to let the bodies be taken away and burned, but some resisted vigorously. That must have been unbelievable.
DD: In one section of the film, we were actually chased away by an angry family member who was threatening the team with a knife, and we had to run through these alleys to get away. It’s always tough. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience with that type of the situation. Because of the work I do I’ve been exposed to so much grief, but it never gets easier.
DP: You’ve worked with Olivia Wilde on previous shorts, and you again approached her to be the executive producer on this film. Is she the perfect partner for you on these projects?
DD: This is the fourth film we’ve worked on with Olivia, and she’s an incredible partner. She’s a great filmmaker herself, and she really has been a great contributor in the post-production process, bouncing ideas off of us, giving us notes, and suggesting cuts. Also she obviously helps elevate the film once it’s complete, getting us a much wider audience because of her reach. That’s really spectacular for us, so we just love having Olivia on all our projects.
DP: I watched you, Olivia Wilde, and your producing partner Bryn Mooser being interviewed on Today, and you talked about the orphans in Liberia. Are you still paying attention to the orphans there?
DD: Yes, that’s an on-going project, and that’s a beautiful part of Garmai’s story. Now that she no longer works on the body team, she’s running a program caring for these orphans. It’s especially meaningful because she was there at the moment of sorrow when these kids’ dead parents were carried away, and now she’s there to help the children heal. It’s really helping her heal as well after all the horrors she experienced.
DP: Did you ask her to take on this role?
DD: I actually made it happen for her, through a non-profit that wanted to take care of the orphans. Because of her story and the access she has to the orphans, I connected her with the non-profit. It was a match made in heaven because she knew where all the children were and had the heart to help them. Most of these kids were absorbed into extended families and it has been a burden on these families because they’re extremely poor and probably have their own children. So the program is providing food and school scholarships for the orphans, so they’re no longer a burden to the extended families. And so they’re not vulnerable. Without this program many of them wouldn’t have been able to go to school or get enough nutrition. And it’s an on-going thing and we’ll see how long we can keep it going. Garmai’s looking at this as a career now, really digging in to make sure these children are cared for. There’s actually a video of her in her new role with a lot of these children.
DP: Is there a charity that people can contribute to?
DD: The Ebola Orphan Project. You can find it online.
DP: How can people see your movie, because it’s not easy to see shorts?
DD: Unfortunately that’s still to be determined, but we are playing at several festivals–Seattle, AFI Docs in DC, the Rhode Island Film Festival, and several other festivals are coming up. We’re still working on the distribution plan but we should know that very shortly.
DP: Is there a website for us to go to so we can keep up with your film?
DD: Yes, go to bodyteam12.com
DP: You’ve been to Tribeca Film Festival four different times, which I would imagine is the all-time record. What have you had there?
DD: We started with a film called Sun City Picture House, out of Haiti, and then Baseball in the Time of Cholera was also out of Haiti. After that we did a film called The Rider and the Storm in New York, out of Hurricane Sandy.
DP: At this year’s festival, you won the award for Best Documentary Short. I’m sure that was very gratifying for you.
DD: It was very exciting for us. Fourth time lucky, I guess! Of all the films we’ve made Body Team 12 is the most meaningful to me because it’s a tribute to Garmai and the other workers, so to be given recognition is wonderful. That’s only going to raise the potential it has to tell the story to many more people.
DP: After Liberia, you were in Nepal following the earthquake.
DD: Yes, I was there before the second quake. It was crazy, I got home from Tribeca on a Friday, and the quake happened on Saturday–so I had no time to breathe and was on a flight to Nepal. It was tragic what happened there. It’s a huge disaster and ongoing, so I’m going back there in a couple of weeks. And who knows, there could be another film project that emerges from that, because we’re already seeing incredible stories, inspiring stories, stories of tragedy.
DP: Is there anything people here don’t know about the Nepal disaster, a story we’re not hearing about?
DD: The thing that I’m most concerned about is that as tragic as this disaster was, it might be the calm before the storm. Because monsoon season is about to start, we’re racing to reach a lot of these communities in the mountains that are cut off. And if we don’t get to them now, we’re not going to get to them for months, and the monsoon could create more landslides, more disease. The rains could bring a much bigger disaster than the earthquake was in the first place. And I don’t think there’s anyone telling that story yet. I’m scared that it will be a story in the next few months.
DP: You have said that Body Team 12 is probably the best of your films. Do you think you are you becoming a better filmmaker as you experience more and make more films?
DD: I really feel like with every film I mature a little bit more. I learn more how to make things better, and the technology is improving as we go along. Body Team 12 was shot on a new camera. We used a GoPro, a stabilized camera that’s tiny and enabled me to shoot really incredible stuff in really tight and difficult spaces. We’re constantly trying to develop and pioneer things and learn from previous films how we may have told the story better. And that’s really exciting to me.
DP: I’m sure you were thrilled when Liberia was recently declared Ebola free.
DD: I was thrilled because these guys in the film played a really big part in making it possible. If this is really it and Ebola doesn’t come back in Liberia, I think we’re really going to use this film for them, to get them acknowledged for their work. They won, you know, so it’s a success story.