Film Update

September 24 2018

POV: 'Survivors' | Film Update

In September 2018, POV asked Survivors filmmaker Arthur Pratt what's happened since the cameras stopped rolling.

How did you all work together? What was your process?

Working together with Banker on film projects has been a long time collaboration. He came to Freetown in 2009 with a project called WeOwnTV, where we collaborated on training young adults to tell their own stories with filmmaking. Out of that project, came the Freetown Media Center that Barmmy and I run, which is a collective of professional filmmakers. When we started working on Survivors in 2014, it was like a crisis response to the outbreak. Very little planning, but we had this working relationship with the U.S. team as a foundation. The Media Center reacted to the crisis first by making PSAs to help people locally get life saving information about the disease and how to stop its transmission. At that time, the center was made up of over 15 camera men and assistants and we also began filming events related to the outbreak all around the country. The U.S. team began working to find support for the various projects, funding for the film and working on access issues and partnership with organizations operating treatment centers.

As our focus on the feature film intensified, we were in conversations almost daily with Banker and Anna. The outbreak came to Freetown, the capital city and where the media center in located, and it became all consuming. We talked about what to shoot and how to formulate the story throughout production, but also about the personal side of how this was affecting me and the other members of the center. This is when we talked a lot about the role my voice and life would play in the story.

Often we would upload low-res footage to share and discuss things immediately or send drives with doctors traveling to and from the U.S. Banker began editing right away and we continued editorial concurrently with production. We used those early scenes that Banker cut to help us make character choices and find the tone of the film.

It was not until the very end of Ebola (November 2016) that I was able to get a visa to the U.S. to join Anna and Banker for two months of the edit. It was not until the screening in Shanghai in June of 2018 that Barmmy, Anna Banker and I were all in the same place together. It was a very unique collaboration in the sense that the vast majority of communication was across Skype.

Can you give us an update on Mohammad, Foday, Margaret, and the other film subjects?

At the end of the outbreak, Mohamed returned to his job with the Ministry of Health where he works as a driver for the District Medical Office in Freetown. He has moved from the residence at Calaba Town where we meet him in the film. We see at the end of the film that he bought property at Waterloo in the western rural area. He has built a home for his entire family, which includes his wife, children and parents. His wife also gave birth to a baby girl in February this year.

Margaret went to work for the HIV/AIDS secretariat in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She was posted to work in a private facility where her skills and compassionate care have been recognized. She was promoted to a professional counseling nurse with her duties now including patient counseling in addition to testing and treatment. She is no longer living with her family, some of whom were not happy with her role during the Ebola. She is living with her two-year-old son whom she gave birth to just after the outbreak.

Foday has grown into a fine young man. Unfortunately, he dropped out of school after his father died and moved in with his mother and stepfather. Still passionate about his music career, Foday comes down to the Freetown Media Center weekly to work on music and develop his skills on Adobe Premiere and Photoshop. He also has been apprenticing to become an electrician with an elderly man who lives in his stepfather’s compound.

How did the community react to filming?

The reactions were varied. In Sierra Leone, it is true that most people are skeptical about seeing camera men and journalists around. But during Ebola, there was such intense fear, that we did not receive that type of community resistance. Additionally, when we took the time to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it as West African mediamakers, I think that seeing the camera gave them hope and made them want to participate in the project. There is even a scene that we removed from the film in the edit where you see community members desperately waving at the camera calling, “camera, camera, come here.” They were terrified because someone had died in a house. Five days had passed since they called the 117 emergency line and still no ambulance or burial team had arrived. They were literally desperate to have their voices heard, to have someone pay attention to them,

How did you (Arthur) get into filmmaking?

I started my career as a stage actor, director and playwright. Many of my community theater projects were very collaborative. We worked with community members, not stage actors. In some ways, these collaborations and working on creative projects that address social issues we were all facing together felt similar to the work I am doing now in documentary. I got my first real taste of documentary filmmaking in 2009 when I met with Banker White, Zach Niles and other filmmakers who had come to Sierra Leone to teach a workshop on filmmaking. Having roots as a local activist and pastor working in communities, I got very excited about documentary as a tool for profound impact and one that could have great reach to get our stories out of Sierra Leone.

What inspired you to create the public health messages?

One of the first things we began doing was producing and distributing educational materials and public health messages. We noticed early on that the first round of public health messaging produced by foreign NGOs were not being received well. They were overly simplistic and they relied too much on fear, stressing “Ebola kills, Ebola kills.” We knew that for people to trust these messages, they needed to address the issue with more nuance and complexity. Additionally, many of these messages were only being produced in English. So we created dramas that engaged some of the critical issues—burial practices, eating bush meat, sanitation, et cetera—we created this life-saving, culturally sensitive material in local languages at a critical time on virtually no budget and for this we are extremely proud.

We distributed these videos directly in communities and they received frequent airtime on radio and TV. Thesae films were quickly identified by healthcare professionals in the region as being extremely effective in getting the messages out in a way local communities could relate to. Here are some reports about their efforts covered on BBC NEWSHOUR and Daily Beast that praise our efforts.

At the end of the film you say, “That is why we are here, to give meaning to life.” How do you think this quote shapes the film?

I think what I say before that in the film is, “The greatest miracle is to make a change in the life of somebody.” That is what life is about. If you cannot make a positive impact on the lives of those around you then this earthly journey that we are on is meaningless. As a filmmaker, it means allowing people to see how life is precious and what it means to maintain it. The opportunities are endless. As a Pastor, I believe that everyone has a duty in life and for you to participate in making sure someone finds his true meaning in life is one of the greatest gift any man could possess.

What are you up to now?

We are busy on a variety of projects, many of which are closely related to the Survivors film and WeOwnTV. WeSurvive: Stories of the Ebola Outbreak is a web-based, oral history database that allows users to access a substantial collection of personal video testimonials from Ebola survivors, their family members, and other community members affected by the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak. The original idea for the project grew out of our desire to make the most of the incredible stories that had been shared with us, a small percentage of which actually makes it to the final cut. We have continued to collect new stories and forge partnerships to grow the database and its potential impact.

In 2016, towards the end of production on Survivors, we also launched the WeOwnTV Filmmaker fellowship, an 18 month program open to filmmakers living and working in Ghana, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The program provides filmmakers with funding for their project, filmmaking labs, one-on-one mentoring, professional development workshops and networking opportunities.

In July 2018, WeOwnTV welcomed seven new fellows to our 18-month fellowship program. You can read more about the program here.

I also recently began a project I am calling The Curiosity Project which is a research project that is exploring African-American identity, ethnicity and the concept of blackness. My co-director Barmmy Boy Mansaray is also in mid-production on a documentary called The New Boats which presents an eye-opening look at the impact of international industrialized fishing in West African waters. Local fisherman and activists are desperately trying to prevent an environmental disaster with West African fisheries on the brink of collapse.

Learn more about the film, filmmakers and WeOwnTV program below: