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Somatosphere | September 15, 2015

Film Forum:

In the Shadow of Ebola


Johanna Crane
University of Washington Bothell

Julie Livingston
New York University

Michelle Murphy
University of Toronto

Peter Redfield
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Gregg Mitman
University of WisconsinMadison

Sarita Siegel
Alchemy Films
Edited by

Marissa Mika
University of Pennsylvania
It was only a year ago that the Ebola epidemic in West Africa was highly visible. Images of health
workers dressed in hot and heavy hazmat gear, body bags being tossed into shallow graves, and
press conferences with top international health officials routinely peppered the nightly news cycle.
Perhaps you, like me, promptly added a week on the Ebola crisis to your introductory course on
global health, the politics of humanitarianism, African history, media studies, race and social
justice, or science and technology studies. Or maybe you featured the epidemic prominently in
your course on postcolonial futures or war and its afterlives. Or maybe you put together an entire
syllabus on the Ebola crisis of 2014 and 2015.
In spring 2015, teaching about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa as part of a general unit on
postcolonial science, medicine, and technology, I found myself cobbling together a lot of different
media sources in a quest to close the distance between our comfortable classroom in California
and the streets of Monrovia or Freetown. I opted to stitch together the CBS news magazine 60
Minutes piece on treatment camps in Liberia, which focused almost exclusively on the plight of
white emergency physicians, some short documentary footage from Sierra Leone via Okayafrica,

Film Forum: In the Shadow of Ebola

and Donka: X-Ray of an African Hospital, a deeply affecting documentary on a day in the life of
Guinea's major public hospital in Conakry in the wake of structural adjustment.
In 2015, as many of us prepare our syllabuses and return to the classroom, I highly recommend
putting In the Shadow of Ebola at the top of your list for teaching about a crisis that is still quietly
unfolding in West Africa, despite the forgetfulness of Western media. All of the issues that I would
incorporate into a unit unpacking the Ebola epidemic are in this film histories and legacies of
civil war, the politics of infrastructure, the centrality of family, mutual aid, militarization,
complications of humanitarian aid. The focus on the story of a family caught between two worlds
makes it all the more powerful.
In the short essays that follow, Johanna Crane, Julie Livingston, Michelle Murphy, and Peter
Redfield all offer their highly perceptive reflections on the film. Crane and Livingston both provide
accounts of how they used In the Shadow of Ebola as a teaching tool in the classroom. Murphy
situates the film within longer histories of infrastructural atrophy and American colonialism. And
Redfield meditates on the film's visual and narrative portrayal of the epidemic itself. Filmmakers
Gregg Mitman and Sarita Siegel engage with the essays and offer some broader reflections on how
they came to make this film.
Film Summary
In the Shadow of Ebola is an intimate story of a family and a nation struggling against the Ebola
outbreak in Liberia. We follow a Liberian student and his family living divided between the United
States and Liberia. As the crisis unfolds, loved ones are isolated in Monrovia where the
government is shut down, schools and markets are closed, and food prices are rising.
Liberians find themselves fighting an invisible war that is painfully reminiscent of the chaos and
confusion of the fourteen-year Liberian civil war, which ended a mere decade ago. When the
Liberian government responds to the crisis initially with military-enforced quarantines and
curfews, mistrust and anger among Monrovia's residents grow.
As the death toll from Ebola climbs, and a quarantine results in the shooting and death of a 15year-old boy, mistrust and disbelief are replaced by compassion and inner resolve to combat the
spread of the virus. With international aid slow to arrive, Liberians turn to each other for help, as
healthcare workers, musicians, and artists join forces on the front lines in public health education
campaigns. The steps toward community empowerment and action help to build trust and stabilize
the number of new Ebola cases. But the ripple effects food insecurity, overwhelmed medical
infrastructure, and economic isolation endure.
A slightly truncated version of In the Shadow of Ebola can be viewed for free online via
PBS/Independent Lens: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/in-the-shadow-of-ebola/. The full
version of the film is available through Films Media Group for rental or purchase:
http://www.films.com/ecTitleDetail.aspx?TitleID=95496.

Somatosphere | September 15, 2015

Film Forum: In the Shadow of Ebola

Johanna Crane
University of Washington Bothell
Emmanuel Urey and Gregg Mitman did not initially plan to make a film about Ebola. Urey, a
Liberian doctoral student at the University of WisconsinMadison, and Mitman, a professor in the
history of science, medicine, and the environment, went to Monrovia to work on A Film Never
Made, a project about land, colonialism, and the legacy of the Firestone rubber company in Liberia.
But they put work on that film on temporary hold during the summer of 2014 in order to document
the rapidly unfolding Ebola crisis. The film that resulted is the engrossing 26-minute documentary,
In the Shadow of Ebola.
In the Shadow of Ebola follows Urey as he returns home to Monrovia to visit family in the summer
of 2014. The escalation of the Ebola epidemic and the Liberian government's response to it are
narrated by Urey, his wife Vivian, andperhaps most remarkablyone of their four young sons,
Joseph, or "JU." This is a global family: at the start of the film, Emmanuel and Vivian live in
Madison with one of their sons, while the other three stay in Monrovia with their grandmother. It
is the narration of Ebola through the voices of this family, rather than the voices of journalists or
health experts, that makes this film an exceptional teaching tool for global health.
In my experience, most students enter the classroom with two default frameworks through which
they understand Ebola: fear and rescue. These frameworks echo dominant depictions in the U.S.
press, which toggled between terrifying scenes of contagion and death and heroic intervention by
foreign aid workers. The voices of Africans were mostly absent except in coverage of angry crowds
attacking Ebola treatment centers, where they were depicted as irrational. By allowing viewers to
see the crisis through the eyes of Urey and his family, In the Shadow of Ebola provides welcome
fodder for a more complex conversation.
The film's power lies in its pairing of the unfolding cataclysm of Ebola with ordinary moments in
the life of Urey's family. The closure of the nation's school system is seen through the eyes of
Urey's children, who, in their house-bound restlessness, disobey their grandmother and frustrate
their father. Footage of the quarantine of the West Point neighborhood and the horrific shooting
of 15-year-old Shaki Kamara by Liberian security forces is interspersed with shots of Vivian and
Emmanuel, who watch the footage on a laptop from their home in Madison, their faces frozen in
shock and grief. The diagnosis of Ebola in a New York City doctor and the threat of a travel ban
are relevant not because of the threat posed to Americans which was negligible but because
they further complicate Emmanuel's efforts to bring his son Nelly to the U.S. "I don't think they

Somatosphere | September 15, 2015

Film Forum: In the Shadow of Ebola

should do a travel ban," JU tells us over shots of him in his parka, boarding the bus to school in
Madison. "People want to come here for peace, and then you stop them? Everyone's trying to
protect their country." This quiet linkage of the spectacular to the mundane effectively draws the
viewer into the unfolding drama from the perspective of one transnational Liberian family,
challenging the distancing and exoticization that is so common in American coverage of global
health crises.
Just as this film's Liberian narrators make it stand out, the film is also notable for who does not
speak. The voices of international aid workers are nearly absent, save a brief clip of the president
of MSF addressing the United Nations, as are the voices of West African health experts. This
choice presents both an opportunity and a risk. On one hand, it successfully de-centers
international responses to Ebola and instead focuses on local responses. These include serious
errors by the Liberian government, but also more successful efforts launched by Liberian NGOs
and radio and music personalities. On the other hand, it leaves the international response largely
free of scrutiny. The risk here is that students may fill in the blank with humanitarian "rescue"
narratives, especially since the film ends on a hopeful note that describes international aid arriving
and Ebola rates on the decline. Yet, we now know that declining infection rates in Liberia preceded
the arrival of significant international aid, and were attributable primarily to grassroots
interventions developed at the community level. These revelations came after the fact, once In the
Shadow of Ebola was largely finished, and so their absence from the film is an artifact of timing.
But it is an important lesson for both students and global health experts, and for this reason I would
recommend supplementing the film with material that can help students understand this point more
explicitly.
Part of the work of teaching Ebola (and critical global health more generally) is challenging
students to understand epidemics as political, rather than simply bio-behavioral. In the Shadow of
Ebola is an excellent tool for this purpose, and gives students and instructors plenty of starting
points from which to explore the political and economic context of the outbreak and responses to
it. Emotional and sometimes violent footage is paired with individual interviews and commentary
from Urey that provides social context: an angry crowd protests at the gates of a hospital too
overwhelmed to adequately care for patients; a bystander despairs over the body of a pregnant
woman left in the street for hours due to lack of public health infrastructure; frightened residents
of West Point rail against a government quarantine that leaves them without access to food and
water for their children. Through the eyes of Urey, his family members, and other ordinary
Liberians, outrage, grief, and distrust are made rational. The epidemic is made political.

Johanna T. Crane is a medical anthropologist and an assistant professor at the University of


Washington Bothell, where she coordinates the major in Science, Technology, and Society. She is
the author of Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise, and the Rise of American Global Health
Science (Cornell Press, 2013).

Read this piece online at: http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/comments-crane

Somatosphere | September 15, 2015

Film Forum: In the Shadow of Ebola

Julie Livingston
New York University
This past spring, as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa faded from the American newsscape I
screened In the Shadow of Ebola in two different undergraduate classes at NYU. It proved a
tremendous teaching resource for an American college classroom. At the center of the short film,
Emmanuel Urey, a Liberian doctoral student at University of Wisconsin offered a stunning yet
clear narration of a difficult, complex, and still unfolding event. The film follows Urey on a trip
back to Monrovia to visit his three young sons who are staying with his wife Vivian's grandmother
in the squatter community of Sinkor, just behind JFK, the central hospital for the country. While
he is there the Ebola epidemic picks up pace. The film traces its intensification and shows various
familiar scenes from the epidemic: sick people arriving at the hospital gates by wheelbarrow and
taxi; corpses being disinfected with bleach by teams of workers in space suits. But unlike most of
the western journalism covering the epidemic, which focuses on American or European health
workers, the film consistently focuses on Liberians themselves, who explain to the camera the
scenes unfolding around them from the death of a pregnant woman on the street while a
concerned crowd waited for an Ebola team to come; to a group of people in a town upcountry who,
because of roadblocks meant to stop the virus, find the price of food has skyrocketed beyond reach;
to radio djs and musicians warning about the epidemic and advising people on how to cope. We
see JFK shut down entirely and begin to get a sense of just how long Liberians went without health
care during a major public health crisis, despite international awareness of the gravity of the
situation. In other words, it is a film about Liberia and Liberians, rather than a mirror onto
American fantasies about Liberia. When Emmanuel returns to Madison where Vivian and his other
son are waiting, at first he is only able to bring one more of his children from Monrovia. Illustrating
the impact of American panic over the virus, despite the small number of cases in the U.S., we
watch Emmanuel and Vivian's anxiety as they wait for a visa for another son who then joins them.
In a perfect world, In the Shadow of Ebola would be three times as long, allowing the filmmakers
time to offer necessary historical background to explain Monrovia's degraded infrastructure, the
nature and legacy of its war, its long and complicated relationships with the U.S., its domestic
political tensions, and popular evaluations of the Sirleaf-Johnson government. For the informed
viewer, these factors are all accounted for. But given that they are not elaborated, I think the film
should be taught alongside a set of readings and lectures that do this work of contextualizing.
The first class in which I showed the film was a seminar with twenty-two students called Dying in
the City that met once a week for a three-hour block. This course was split into four units: the first

Somatosphere | September 15, 2015

Film Forum: In the Shadow of Ebola

paired Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Chicago heat wave of 1995; the second, two
deaths at the hands of police Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York; the
third was the Ebola epidemic in Monrovia; and the final section focused on high-tech death,
nursing homes, and end of life care in New York. Together seminar participants tried to understand
particular contemporary urban patterns of dying by undertaking a social autopsy to examine their
roots, their conditions of possibility. We asked what effects such deaths have on survivors as
individuals, and on the broader social and political communities in which they occur. We thought
about race, class, gender, and citizenship and how they impact patterns and meanings of dying; we
talked about the importance of caring for the dying as well as for human corpses; we looked
carefully at the production and circulation of statistics or their absence. And we thought about how
experiences of dying necessitate complex evaluations of technology and its promise in
ameliorating suffering.
We spent four weeks learning about Monrovia and Ebola situating them historically,
intellectually, politically, ecologically, and socially within Liberia, the broader West African
region, and globe. The first week I gave the students a lecture on Liberian history and the Liberian
civil war, then we discussed a set of background articles we'd read on history, ecology, land tenure,
and politics. The second week in this unit, I asked students to assemble an annotated timeline of
at least ten critical events in the epidemic and to come to class prepared to explain why they chose
the events they did. As they had been consistently throughout the semester, the students were
wonderfully energetic, critical, and curious. Many of the timelines were quite thorough and
detailed, far exceeding the ten minimum entries. Some began with the founding of Liberia in the
nineteenth century, others with the Liberian civil war, still others with the massive land sales and
agribusiness that produced shifting ecological conditions which might have shifted the habitat of
the fruit bat thought to be the animal reservoir of the virus and also produced large-scale urban
migration, still others began with the index case in Guinea. The first half of the three-hour class
we assembled a master timeline using their research. Then we watched In the Shadow of Ebola.
The film enabled students to visualize Monrovia, to get an aesthetic sense of the city. It offered
them the opportunity to hear a diversity of Liberians talk and analyze the epidemic, to critique the
various government and social actions taken; it showed that Liberians were anything but passive.
In our discussion after the film my students began to question why only two of them had used
sources from the Liberian press in assembling their timelines, though these sources were easily
accessible on the internet. Then we began to see how the absence of Liberian perspectives had
shaped our narrative of the epidemic. We learned we had a very crucial critical event to add to our
timeline the military shooting of Shaki Kamara, a fifteen-year-old boy in West Point, the lowincome, high-density neighborhood of Monrovia that the President put under quarantine. The film
helped us question the logic of the quarantine itself and to think through its health effects on
residents, who now struggled with skyrocketing prices for food and water. Emmanuel Urey and
his wife Vivian watched the police shooting on their laptop in Wisconsin. Horrified and disgusted,
Emmanuel questioned the logic of shooting someone in the name of public health. Students in this
class had already spent many weeks learning about Michael Brown and Ferguson and St. Louis,
and Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans (where police also opened fire on residents). Now we
learned that even after crossing the Atlantic to Liberia, the relationship between the politics of
urban space, private property, and the police were still on the table. Yet again we found ourselves

Somatosphere | September 15, 2015

Film Forum: In the Shadow of Ebola

contemplating the purpose and procedures of the police, hospitals, courts, and other institutions in
critical circumstances.
The second course in which I screened In the Shadow of Ebola was a small class (a dozen students)
on the History of Health and Healing in Africa. Our Ebola discussion came at the end of a semester
that moved both chronologically and thematically. Here the film served a different, but no less
important, purpose. It brought together and dramatized the contemporary effects of a series of
themes from the course development of hospitals, privatization, the gendered nature of care,
epidemics, global public health, the civilizing mission, and the salvation industry. Students, who
had been reading about epidemics and their trajectories all semester long, were able to see some
of the dramaturgy of the epidemic unfold. Having learned about structural adjustment and
privatization, they could see how this determined the lack of sufficient ambulance and hospital
services. Having read Gregg Mitman and Paul Erickson on Firestone rubber and the history of the
Harvard Liberia expedition they were able to place the epidemic as yet another intensified moment
in a long, layered, and often fraught history of Liberian-American relationships. Like their peers
in Dying in the City, they too found Emmanuel Urey and his family members to be intelligent
narrators, bringing integrity to their analysis and illustrating the high stakes of health policy,
medical citizenship, and care during an epidemic.

Julie Livingston is a Professor of History and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.

Read this piece online at: http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/comments-livingston

Somatosphere | September 15, 2015

Film Forum: In the Shadow of Ebola

Infrastructures Built and Unbuilt


Michelle Murphy
University of Toronto
In the Shadow of Ebola wrestles with the life and death consequences of Liberia's broken health
care infrastructure, an absence that shows itself in the abandonment of bodies in the street, the
violence of emergency measures, and the endurance required of community organizations. The
film reminds viewers that the history and politics of infrastructure is crucial to understanding
recent Ebola epidemics.i War in Liberia from 1989 to 2003 had demolished much of the
infrastructure in the country. At the time of the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, there were only some 50
Liberian doctors in the country.ii Protective gloves and basic medical supplies were scarce. When
JFK Hospital in Monrovia closed during the height of the Ebola epidemic, it was not just one clinic
among many. It was the central hospital in a country already struggling to provide adequate health
services. The deaths of doctors, nurses, and medical staff aiding Ebola sufferers were not
accidental, but instead infrastructural.
In the film we read the words "Cholera Unit" painted on the doors of the JFK hospital gate.
Cholera, a diarrheal infectious disease that can kill within hours, is an entirely preventable illness.
It is well known that cholera only occurs when infrastructures for clean water or sanitation are
absent or damaged. Cholera, and its emergency remediation, is an achievement of the politics of
infrastructure; it is the result of the purposeful building of some infrastructures and not others, of
funding emergency medicine to save from death and not durable systems to protect health. In The
Shadow of Ebola suggests something similar about Ebola. In many ways, the deadliness of the
epidemic was the manifestation of a layered history that has physically and systemically structured
precarity into Liberian life, as manifest in high maternal mortality rates and near endemic cholera.
The medical anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz, who works on post-conflict Liberian health and
medical humanitarian, has argued that the Ebola epidemic was fueled in part by the state's slowness
in responding to calls by people who were identifying early symptoms of Ebola, leaving contagious
sick people in the care of their families. Moreover, according to Abramowitz the fragile condition
of the post-conflict health infrastructure in Liberia was exacerbated in 2007 when MSF and World
Vision both began to withdraw some of their emergency medical humanitarian supports. These are
consequential histories of infrastructures built, broken and undone.iii
More than just noting the absence of health infrastructure, the film pays careful attention to the
complex matrix of other systems shaping the Ebola epidemic, such as schools, agriculture,
policing, burial workers, and media. The containment of the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic in Liberia is
in part credited to the campaigns of community organizations that are featured in the film.iv These

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Film Forum: In the Shadow of Ebola

organizations, composed as much or more by people than technologies, are another kind of
infrastructure built out of relationships, community, and endurance. Only belatedly did U.S. state
medical assistance arrive in the form of eleven military-built emergency treatment units, a project
costing hundreds of millions of dollars. These facilities treated only 28 patients in all, and many
units treated none.v While WHO and the humanitarian medical industry will no doubt write reports
re-evaluating their Ebola responses, the temporary emergency response is habitually deployed at
great cost and without durability.
In addition to grappling with the politics of absent infrastructure, the film provokes attention to the
embedded histories of American colonialism, of global capitalism, and of resource-extractionfueled conflict that have structured the distributions of precarity in Liberia and West Africa.
Liberia was founded in 1847 with the support of the white American Colonialization Society that
sought to establish an African country in which to "resettle" free blacks. In the mid-twentieth
century, the interior of Liberia became the site of an immense Firestone's rubber plantation,
providing materials for America's World War II military as well as feeding America's auto-centric
domestic infrastructures.vi Today, palm oil plantations are again changing the political economy
of resource extraction. This history of natural resource extraction and land in Liberia is a concern
of scholarship by Emmanual Urey, whose family is featured in the movie, as well as Gregg
Mitman, one of the films directors.vii Liberia in the cold war period had an "open door" policy to
U.S. economic activity, and thus was opened to transnational extractive industries of gold, iron,
and diamond mining. Its civil war, as well as the rule of now convicted war criminal Charles Taylor
in Liberia, was fueled by diamond extraction in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone, with its own recent
history of an eleven year conflict, is still (as of the writing of this essay) struggling to control the
Ebola epidemic. When I googled diamond mining and Ebola in hopes of learning more, I found
myself reading, not critical accounts, but instead calls by the diamond industry to ensure that Ebola
does not affect its operations in the region juxtaposed with suspicious theories that Ebola might be
a human-made weapon tied to a diamond mining conspiracy.viii In our contemporary historical
conjuncture, history seems to repeat, where infrastructures to secure the global logistic chains that
maintain resource extraction are protected while the task of affirming human health remains the
concern of temporary infrastructures of emergency humanitarianism.
In the Shadow of Ebola makes infrastructural politics personal. While latex, gold, and guns can
flow across borders, and Western humanitarian workers can arrive by jet with medical supplies,
the film shows how Liberians' own mobility and access to food and water is intensely constrained
both by transnational regimes of immigration and citizenship and the security logics that
underwrite Liberia's own public health measures. The consequences of calls in the U.S. to institute
travel restriction to Liberia and West Africa are here made manifest in the lives of Emmanuel's
family, only some of whom end up joining him in Wisconsin.
What to make of this tremendously uneven and complex matrix of infrastructural presence and
absence? The geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, writing about the American prison industry,
defines contemporary racism as "the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of
group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death."viv Building on her argument, might the
infrastructures that intensify vulnerability to premature death in Liberia and elsewhere, and which
manifested in the Ebola epidemic, be understood as part of a globalized history of racism that
traces to a large degree the contours of American empire, of global capitalism, of extraction, of

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10

war, and of global public health "emergency" logics? While one might think of health and
humanitarian medicine as the infrastructures primarily at stake in the Ebola epidemic, other
infrastructures built by histories of extractive relations have exacerbated this differential
distribution of vulnerability to mortality. In the Shadow of Ebola challenges viewers to think harder
about the body counts, wealth, and aspirations that make up infrastructures both built and unbuilt.
Notes
i

See for example, the analysis by Alice Street here in Somatsophere and the special issue of
Limn, "Ebola's Ecologies." Alice Street, "Rethinking Infrastructures for Global Health: A View
from West Africa and Papua New Guinea," Somatosphere, December 11, 2014,
http://somatosphere.net/2014/12/rethinking-infrastructures.html; Andrew Lakoff, Stephen J.
Collier and Christopher Kelty, eds., "Ebola's Ecologies," Limn, January 2015,
http://limn.it/issue/05/.
ii

The number of doctors in Liberia was a frequent fact in Ebola reporting. See for example,
Kevin Sieff, "Liberia Already Had Only a Few Dozen of Its Own Doctors. Then Came Ebola.,"
The Washington Post, October 11, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/liberiaalready-had-only-a-few-dozen-of-its-own-doctors-then-came-ebola/2014/10/11/dcf87c5c-50ac11e4-aa5e-7153e466a02d_story.html.
iii

Sharon Alane Abramowitz, "How the Liberian Health Sector Became a Vector for Ebola
Cultural Anthropology," Fieldsights Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology Online, October 07,
2014, http://www.culanth.org/fieldsights/598-how-the-liberian-health-sector-became-a-vectorfor-ebola.
iv

See also Sharon Alane Abramowitz et al., "Community-Centered Responses to Ebola in Urban
Liberia: The View from Below," PLoS Negl Trop Dis 9, no. 4 (April 9, 2015): e0003706,
doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0003706.
v

Norimitsu Onishi, "Empty Ebola Clinics in Liberia Are Seen as Misstep in U.S. Relief Effort,"
The New York Times, April 11, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/world/africa/idleebola-clinics-in-liberia-are-seen-as-misstep-in-us-relief-effort.html.
vi

Gregg Mitman and Paul Erickson, "Latex and Blood Science, Markets, and American Empire,"
Radical History Review no. 107 (March 20, 2010): 4573, doi:10.1215/01636545-2009-034.
vii

Emmanuel K. Urey, "Corridors, Concessions, and the Extraction of Natural Resources in


Liberia," Arcadia, Environment & Society Portal, 2015,
http://www.environmentandsociety.org/arcadia/corridors-concessions-and-extraction-naturalresources-liberia.
viii

See for example, http://www.estellelevin.com/the-impacts-of-Ebola-on-diamond-mining-inliberia-and-efforts-to-remediate-them/ and http://www.diamonds.net/News/NewsItem.aspx?


ArticleID=47852&ArticleTitle=Ebola+Virus+Hurts+Sierra+Leone+Diamond+Production

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11

viv

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing
California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 28.

Michelle Murphy is Professor of History and Women & Gender Studies at the University of
Toronto, as well as Director of the Technoscience Research Unit and co-organizer (with Natasha
Myers) of the Technoscience Salon. She is the author of the forthcoming The Economization of
Life (Duke UP), as well as Seizing the Means of Reproduction (Duke UP 2012) and Sick Building
Syndrome and the Politics of Uncertainty (Duke UP 2006).

Read this piece online at: http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/infrastructures-built-and-unbuilt

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12

Shadow Stories
Peter Redfield
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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

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13

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.
Work cited
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.

Read this piece online at: http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/shadow-stories

Somatosphere | September 15, 2015

Film Forum: In the Shadow of Ebola

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Response
Gregg Mitman and Sarita Siegel
University of WisconsinMadison and Alchemy Films
We hadn't set out to make a film about Ebola. We'd been shooting a different film, a film about
land rights, resource extraction, and cultural transformation in Liberia, when the first Ebola cases
appeared in Monrovia in June 2014. We were disheartened by Western media coverage that
ignored economic, political, and social conditions in West Africa conducive to the virus's spread.
At the same time, we were immersed in the lives of Liberian colleagues and friends who found
themselves reliving the memory of a civil war and the objects of international fear and alienation.
So our film crew began documenting the crisis. Alexander Wiaplah, a talented Liberian
videographer on our team, was on the front lines gathering the voices and perspectives missing in
so much of the media coverage: those of Liberians themselves. Emmanuel Urey and his family
generously granted us, during a very trying and emotional time, access into their lives. We saw
their personal story as critical to countering what Johanna Crane describes as the distancing and
exoticization found in American coverage of global health crises.
We had no idea how the story would end when we began. In fact, the ending is still unclear. The
number of new infections has dwindled, but we are only beginning to grasp the enduring
economic and public health toll. A recent commentary suggests that more people have died from
the "epidemic's crippling effect" on an already crumbled medical and public health infrastructure
than "from the virus itself."i In the Shadow of Ebola "is suggestive of many things, conclusive of
little," writes Peter Redfield. We couldn't agree more. We wished to unsettle the neat straightline narratives from crisis to solution that frame heroic humanitarian accounts. The unused Ebola
Treatment Units have become another part of Liberia's post-conflict landscape of abandonment
and decay. They stand, not as monuments to Western biomedical triumphalism. Instead, they
stand as telling signs of the "temporary infrastructures of emergency humanitarianism," which,
Michelle Murphy notes, are "deployed at great cost without durability."
Film as a medium depends critically upon point of view. In the Shadow of Ebola was never
meant to be a comprehensive story of the Ebola outbreak. We wanted to introduce points of view
that came from local responses and ordinary lives. In doing so, we hoped to offer a more
personal, intimate, humane view of the outbreak. But we also appreciate Johanna Crane's
warning. Given the absence of international aid workers in the film, students might readily fill in
the blank with humanitarian "rescue" narratives. It certainly was not our intention. In the ending
cards, we alluded to the fact that the number of new Ebola cases began to decline in October,
before the significant influx of international aid. We thought the ending of the film, focusing on

Somatosphere | September 15, 2015

Film Forum: In the Shadow of Ebola

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the efforts of local Liberian NGO's and hipco musicians, absent international aid, would be
enough to challenge such rescue narratives. We may be mistaken. That is why Julie Livingston's
recommendation that the film be taught alongside reading and lectures to contextualize the story
is most welcome. To that end, we have provided a sampling of learning resource materials at the
film's website, http://intheshadowofebola.com, to help with this task.
Film, as a collaborative medium, incurs many debts. To the long list of people who made In the
Shadow of Ebola possible, we would like to include a special thanks to Johanna Crane, Julie
Livingston, Marissa Mika, Michelle Murphy, and Peter Redfield for such thoughtful and
informed commentaries and to Deanna Day and Eugene Raikhel for this roundtable on the film
in Somatosphere.
Notes
i

Craig Spencer, "Ebola Isn't Over Yet," New York Times, 17 August 2015.

Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History of Science,
Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of WisconsinMadison.
Sarita Siegel is an award-winning documentary producer and co-founder of Alchemy Films.

Read this piece online at: http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/response-2

Somatosphere | September 15, 2015