The Academy Awards and Trauma Porn

Ebola

She died facing eastward. A bleach stained traditional cloth called a lappa wrapped around her waist.  She was topless in the one-hundred-degree heat and her body temperature, before it began to cool, was 104. Algor mortis would not have changed her temperature much.  When we touched her she was still hot.  She had been septic, encephalopathic, disoriented and, based on the hand-off of care report we got from the two physicians who had seen her twenty minutes ago, was unable to walk.

She bowed prostrate.  Her arms and torso symmetrical in child’s pose.  She died praying.  The cool concrete floor and her faith were her two interregna from Ebola.

Susie and I found her. We entered the red zone with our normal supplies plus two doses of diazepam. 10mg per syringe, both dedicated to the woman I will call Isatu.   We had planned to administer the medications to ease her anxiety, respiratory effort and, we hoped, ultimately, her suffering.  Our pharmacy of only nine medications to treat every medical condition we saw, including Ebola, bound our interventions to a select few.

Stillness radiated from Isatu’s body. She was a narrative of contemplation, humility, gentle and ephemeral pride.  Across the ward from her another patient lay dying. The calm of the room  cooled the jagged respirations of the woman who lay on a cholera bed living out what were to be her last 12 hours. The descending afternoon light pushed through the cracks between wooden window frames and the concrete blocks that precariously held these false barriers.  There was no Harmattan wind that day and the sliver of sky that we could see was clear.

There was no tell-tale puddle of stool or vomitus, no sign of struggle.  Isatu’s hands were not reaching upwards, contracted as if grasping for a last vision.  Her mouth was not open, nor were her eyes wide like so many of her community members who had proceeded her in death.  She was so perfectly holy in that moment; Susie and I paused and watched her.  Was she breathing?

*   *   *

On February 28th millions will watch the film industry’s pinnacle event.  New celebrity will be established, old celebrity reinforced, a lifetime of achievement will be honored as will shallow debate of what was worn and what words were blundered. We will argue, more importantly, about racism in the industry.  And I am hopeful (albeit skeptical) that there will be additional discussion that challenges the role of the resource-wealthy world in our documentation of the poor and suffering.

Body Team 12 is a horrific, short-documentary.

I want no one to watch it; I think that everyone needs to see it.

Last year I sat in the Innovation Hanger at the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts surrounded by many influential and contemporary minds of global health, medicine, the military and humanitarian response agencies.  We were invited by Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to talk about innovation and Ebola.  Allen, the film’s executive producer featured Body Team 12 as a part of the opening remarks.

For industry standards, the film is well done.  For conference standards, the meeting was enlightening and likely profitable for a few.

While everyone had some loose connection to the crisis, some of us at the meeting actually worked in the Ebola response too.  There were many people, with many ideas –voices shouting to be heard” to borrow a phrase from William Alexander Percy that were powerful and yet completely disconnected from the realities of Ebola.

All voices, however, were silenced for a few minutes by the shrill howl of loss, the primal cry of mothers wailing for their dead children, harmonizing with the muted rumble of fathers overcome by sorrow—the opening sounds in Body Team 12.  I turned away from the screen that repeated images of black and white body bags stacked in the back of trucks.

I scanned the rest of the room.  The audience was transfixed, enraptured in the violence before them.  Mostly white faces reflecting the rapid fire flash of dolor.  I scanned the biographies of speakers—there were hardly any representatives from West Africa in the audience. Here, in this room, sitting shoulder to shoulder with leaders in the tech world, with masterminds of the humanitarian response machine, we were spectators absorbing the distant suffering. And even though we had access to the yet-to-be-Oscar-nominated film, the crisis remained thousands of miles away, it remained a crisis of the “others” we watched die in the media.

Juxtaposed with the eloquent and impassioned words of the short documentary’s heroine, nurse Garmai Sumo, are callous images of Liberians in agony’s throws.  They wail watching loved one’s bodies get wrapped in thick plastic bags.   Close ups of women and children convulsing in tears, shocked faces and men fighting on the streets bookend a parade of healthcare workers, in coverall suits, rubber gloves and goggles who bring out the dead to be burned or buried.  The film is grotesque.  The film inspires horror.  The film is important.

I wonder if the mother saturated by tears gave the filmmakers permission to show her, up close, in what could have been her weakest moment?  I wonder if the young boys in the crowd witnessing yet another dead body collected by these plastic ghosts, their faces catatonic would be proud to be seen by the rich world in this way.

What if that woman was my mother and the child my son? What is it to be immortalized in a short film that may bring its producers, director and crew the highest American film honor?

I would be a hypocrite to omit the fact that I too have benefitted in some ways from the Ebola crisis.  Those of us who work in humanitarian aid, emergency response, development have jobs and opportunities because suffering exists.  But to what extent do we reap the benefits?  If this documentary wins an academy award, if its filmmakers have an opportunity to give the acceptance speech, who will receive the credit?  What is more, what benefits will nurse Garmai Sumo inherit?  How about the families of the dead or the communities where the film crew collected the footage?

*   *   *

Susie and I kept our distance from Isatu.

Once we yelled, “Corpse Team” a group of young men and women would don their protective gear and enter Isatu’s room with a white body bag and gallons of bleach.  They would saturate her body, repeatedly, with the toxic chemical so much that her lappa would look like a second layer of skin.  They would roll her corpse, then zip her in in a body bag before carrying her to a make-shift morgue.  That room was made of two-by-fours walled with white plastic sheeting.  It was a translucent place when the sun was at its fullest.  The white body bags would glow in the light until the pick-up truck, just like the one in Body Team 12, would arrive to escort Isatu to the community graveyard, laid upon a pile of “others.”

*   *   *

All of us who witnessed the massacre of Ebola in the nations of West Africa have memories in extremis; many of us want to share those stories.  Body Team 12 tells a jarring story, a real story with, of course shrewd editing to manipulate the eye and entrance the viewer. What is our role as artists, activists, writers and storytellers working in a post-colonial world where a few have access to the suffering of many?  How can and should we tell those stories that we may cause no harm and that our profits, first and foremost, provide benefit to those who lost everything?

As a nurse I profited from knowledge gained having witnessed first hand the failures of the Ebola response and I also profited from witnessing resilience, compassion and unconditional love. Students and scholars profited by applying new technological ideas to this crisis, though many innovations did not reach the people for whom they were intended.  Countless NGOs profited from grants and media air-time.  New careers were established; new channels of funding were born.  And now perhaps an Academy Award will be added to the list.

Whose voices are the loudest among all of those “shouting to be heard?”  I fear that the those most desperate to be compassionately and honestly heard are lost among the yowls of the privileged.

The international Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent created a 10-point Code of Conduct  establishing ideal standards of behavior for humanitarian work.  Point number 10 states: “In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognize disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects.”

*    *    *

Isatu died a horrific death and yet she faced it with dignity and immeasurable strength.  She was not longer supposed to be able to walk, she was thought to be obtunded and she should have been based on the pathophysiological progression of the virus. She, we thought, had no more cognitive reality.  But Isatu, alone, pulled herself out of bed and faced east.  One last prayer to close a shortened, but immaculately profound life.

 

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