When the Ebola worker was named Time Magazine‘s Person of the Year in 2014, the cover saw a nameless person wearing a full-body protective suit, face mask and goggles. Filmmaker David Darg sought to humanize this faceless worker in his documentary short Body Team 12, one of ten docs that were shortlisted for Oscar nomination.
Darg, who is the co-founder of the activist-inspired news site RYOT News, traveled to Liberia to help with the relief effort and returned with a documentary about a team of Liberians who have the incredibly dangerous job of removing the infected bodies of their deceased countrymen. The Ebola crisis is told through the eyes of Garmai, the sole female worker on Body Team 12.
The director talked to THR about making a movie in the midst of an outbreak of one of the world’s deadliest diseases.
How did you first get involved with the body team?
When Ebola first started I got involved with the relief effort and so my first trip to Liberia was working with a non-profit organization, helping with logistics. Through that work I started documenting the crisis as it unfolded so that I could help some of the non-profits I was working with try to raise money and spread awareness because this was in the early days in the outbreak when it still hadn’t hit the press in the U.S.
Through this work, I became aware of this incredibly brave work that these body teams were doing, going into these neighborhoods where people were dying and extracting the bodies. I was so fascinated by their work that I contacted the Red Cross and asked if I could embed with one of the teams. And on that first day I was randomly assigned Body Team 12 and went out with them that day and that is when I met Garmai.
How did you find a narrative through-line in something as expansive and chaotic as the Ebola epidemic?
So much attention had been put on the crisis in the Western media and the image that everyone was seeing coming out of Liberia were these people in yellow suits, goggles and masks. That was all you were seeing and there was no one telling the story of the people underneath those suits. Body Team 12 is the story of the people underneath the suits. Really, the film is a tribute to their bravery and the incredible work that they did against all odds.
Did you know from the beginning that your documentary would be focusing of Garmai, or was that a decision made later?
As soon as I embedded with them the first day and met her, it was clear. She is so dynamic and powerful and such a strong woman. The first day I embedded I spoke to all of the members of the team, and her perspective was just so strong and powerful. She is a mother, so having a young child while going out day-in, day-out was so incredible. She has been ostracized by her community, her neighbors, her friends because there is such a stigma associated with the virus.
What was the filming process like when dealing with an infectious disease?
It was really complex and scary. On the first outing I was advised by the Red Cross to keep my distance, wear long sleeves and not touch anything, but at the end of the day that wasn’t enough. I was freaking out. I got to experience the anxiety that everyone in the nation was living with for months. I got back to my place at the end of the day and you’ve got a headache naturally but that headache really plays with you because you start to wonder: “Could this be it?” After the first day of filming, I learned I had to take better precautions which included protective gear that included a suit, gloves, goggles and a mask. That made me feel safer and also allowed me to get closer. I was right there with the team when they were extracting bodies.
Do you have any one moment from production that sticks out as particularly memorable?
There was one moment where we were chased through a community. The job is difficult for multiple reasons — the obvious one being that you are potentially exposed to one of the deadliest viruses in the world. On top of that, the job that they are doing, extracting dead bodies, is going against local customs where people like to bury their loves ones and have a grave site and it is very traditional, but the mandate was that the bodies need to be taken away for cremation. One of Garmai’s roles was that she was the negotiator. It was a policy to have a female on every body team because they made the best negotiators. Every time there was quite a bit of resistance, but there was one moment where a young member of the family started chasing them through these alleyways.
What do you hope audiences take away from their viewing experience of Body Team 12?
I have never seen human beings doing anything as dangerous as what these guys were doing, so I really hope Body Team 12 is a tribute to that bravery and what they went through. Garmai is a character that I really hope a lot of people get to connect with, because she is so inspirational as a mother and as a fighter.