Co-founder of RYOT Media, a media outlet which strives to link journalistic content with the pursuit of action and change, documentarian David Darg has received his first Oscar nomination for his powerful Body Team 12, which documents a team of workers who dealt with the bodies of the deceased at the height of Liberia’s Ebola crisis. Darg put himself at great risk while filming the short, often concerned that he was experiencing the initial symptoms of the illness and editing the film in self-imposed quarantine back in the States. Below, Darg discusses the genesis of his work in documentaries, the risks taken in pursuit of a story that needs to be told, and storytelling for the Facebook generation.
You started out as a first responder covering natural disasters and wars abroad. How did you find that specialization, and settle into your work as a documentarian?
I’ve been a first responder from two perspectives—not only as a journalist, but also as a humanitarian, and that was really my entry into that world, to doing a lot of aid work, relief work, for a long time, and so I responded to many of the world’s largest natural disasters and crises in the last fifteen or so years. Primarily, I would go in as a relief worker, and oftentimes would be on the scene after a big catastrophe or something even before some of the networks would get there. So I began as a contributor to some of the major networks, just as a voice on the ground early in an outbreak or an earthquake.
Through that, I learned to tell stories very quickly, and that’s really how I learned to do a lot of short-form filmmaking, and that eventually developed into longer and longer films, and now it has become short documentary filmmaking.
Bryn Mooser, the producer on Body Team 12, and I worked together in Haiti after the earthquake. We both lived there for two and a half years and share a mutual passion for using story and filmmaking to affect social change, and so we’ve made several short films together, all of which are around social issues, and so, together, we founded RYOT Media in 2010. That’s grown to be a cross-platform media company and website where we have daily news, and we’re doing a lot of virtual reality content now, as well as traditional documentary filmmaking.
You grew up in the Middle East and England, and have spent a great deal of time traveling. Did this international background lend itself to an awareness of these larger global issues?
Yeah. My father’s a journalist, so I moved around a lot as a kid. I lived in the Middle East for a long time, and then after England, I lived in Africa for several years. I also lived in Senegal for four years. So, yeah, I definitely have a great global awareness that I grew up with, and so when the Ebola outbreak happened in Liberia, it was on my radar early on as a potential major crisis, and so my first trip to Liberia as a first responder was very early, before it really got a lot of traction in the media.
Putting yourself in the middle of this growing epidemic, were you worried about contracting Ebola yourself? It reminds me of the way in which your fellow Oscar nominee, Matthew Heineman, put himself in harm’s way to capture Cartel Land.
Matt’s a good friend of mine—I love Cartel Land. Yeah, it was a really tough film to make, from that perspective, in that it was so dangerous, and from the perspective that there was super high anxiety because Ebola’s an invisible threat, and I’m used to being in a lot of crazy, difficult, dangerous places where, most of the time, the threat is a known quantity where you can at least anticipate it, visualize it.
But Ebola’s one of those very sinister, invisible threats, and I compare it to my time being in Japan after the tsunami and earthquake there—the Fukushima disaster where, for the first couple of days, I was very close to Fukushima, and none of us knew whether or not we were being contaminated, what was happening. It was very sinister, and I had that same feeling in Liberia.
It was a very difficult film to produce because of that unknown quantity, and you were working under really tough conditions. I had to wear protective gear for many of the scenes I was shooting when I was getting very close to their Ebola victims, and in that gear, you’re working in 100-degree heat. It’s grueling, hot conditions, and you get home at the end of the day, and you’re fatigued, and you have a headache, and those are the first symptoms of Ebola.
Every day, you’re always on edge wondering, could I be next? And that anxiety really starts to play with your head after a while, so that was tough for me, but it also gave me a glimpse into what the average Liberian was experiencing on a daily basis, for month after month, and what the body teams are experiencing on a much greater level, on a daily basis.
A recent headline that got a lot of attention was regarding Chris Christie being sued for detaining a nurse returning from Sierra Leone, claiming she demonstrated symptoms of Ebola. Were you detained when you made your way back to the States?
I made four trips to Liberia during the production, and two of those trips were right at the height of the crisis. The first trip, as I mentioned, was early on before even the media had really taken notice, and certainly, the US hadn’t put any travel restrictions on at that point. But by the second trip, the (Center for Disease Control) was concerned with anyone returning back.
They had put in place a protocol whereby anyone traveling from those regions had to check in with the CDC twice a day. Because of the hysteria that was going on in the US over anyone that had been in the region, and people like that nurse that was all over the TV, it had turned into quite a scandal in many instances. Because of that, I did a self-quarantine after both of those two middle trips.
I was quarantined in my home for 21 days each time, and during that time, I had to check in with the CDC twice a day monitoring my symptoms, taking my temperature, and talking to a nurse, and so spent 42 days, in total, in quarantine. It was a great opportunity for me, actually, because I had a lot of time where I could work on this project and edit the film. The film was actually edited while I was in self-quarantine.
You’ve worked with Olivia Wilde on a number of films now. How did your working relationship with Wilde begin, and what does she contribute as a producer?
Olivia’s been a dear friend for a long time and is a humanitarian herself, and she actually spent a lot of time in Haiti with Bryn and myself when we lived there. She made several trips and has been a great supporter of our projects. She’s been a really great partner in the post-production process. We bounce ideas off her. She looks at cuts of the film, gives notes, and then, of course, it’s wonderful now because she can really lend her voice to help spreading the message and getting more eyeballs on the film.
The film is told from the perspective of the only female member of Body Team 12, so you’re beginning with a unique perspective on this crisis—that of the Body Team—and making the perspective even narrower. Did you know from the beginning that the story would be told from that perspective?
We didn’t set out to tell it specifically from a woman’s viewpoint, but we did want to tell the story of who these brave Liberians were that were doing this incredibly dangerous work. So much of the media in the west was taken up by images of these guys wearing their yellow suits and masks and goggles—they’re very sinister looking images, and no one was really telling the story of who these people were that were actually on the frontlines. Really, the film is a tribute to that bravery. I ended up spending the first day reviewing my footage and realizing that I’d really focused in on Garmai as a character, and it was so apparent because of her resilience, her strength, her personality and her charisma that I really did want to focus in on her.
It’s an interesting point that it’s actually a policy of the Red Cross that each one of those teams had to have a female member of the team because they made the best negotiators in those moments where the families were grieving and really reluctant to relinquish the body to the team. She, ironically, had the most difficult job on the team, which was to negotiate with these angry family members, which was a really tough thing to do, from a mental standpoint.
She went through a lot of physical danger, being potentially exposed to Ebola, and a lot of mental anguish in that not only was she dealing with those angry relatives, but her own relatives had abandoned her. Her friends and family ostracized her because of the stigma of Ebola at the time, and so it was just a shocking thing to see any human endure, not only doing that fearsome work, but also remaining strong during the whole ordeal.
For her, particularly as a woman, it’s such an incredible narrative, and we have actually been considering the potential of taking this to a narrative (feature film) in the future, but it’s early stages still, and we’ve been so busy with the award season and all this stuff that we haven’t really taken the conversation far enough, but I think for sure it’s something that we’re interested in.
Your film is by far one of the shorter entries in the Documentary Short category this year, at a running time of 13 minutes. How much footage did you go through before arriving at that point, and how many iterations of the short did you go through?
We have a lot more footage than made it into the cut and not only around the body teams. Before we decided to make a film to focus on the body team, I had been shooting everything that was happening as the Ebola crisis unfolded. We certainly had enough footage to even make a feature doc, but our style of storytelling tends to be through the eyes of an individual and tends to be as concise and hard-hitting as possible to get the point across.
I just think storytelling has been evolving over the years to where now modern day audiences, especially with the advent of Facebook and the Internet, are really looking to consume shorter stories, but we’re into making films to be as impactful as possible. So it was a big internal debate, honestly, about what the final length should be. We feel as though what we did with the run time is the strongest film we could possibly have made.
The tagline on your RYOT Media website says, “Every story lets you take action.” What are the hopes for a film like Body Team 12 beyond spreading awareness?
This film actually has a great action component tied to it, in that now that Ebola has ended and the World Health Organization declared West Africa Ebola free, Garmai of course is no longer working as a body team member, but is now working on a program to care for children that were orphaned by Ebola. Even though Ebola has ended, the legacy of the Ebola will continue for a long time, and one of the legacies is that there’s a huge epidemic of orphans now.
These are kids that lost at least one parent, but many lost both parents to the disease, and Garmai, in her capacity as a body team member, has the locations of every household where there were children who lost parents to the disease. She’s now caring for 300 orphans that lost both parents to the outbreak, and part of that program is providing food, school scholarships, clothing, health care, all the essential things they need moving forward.
We’ve actually raised quite a bit of funding through the film and its campaign as we’ve taken it on the road, and so it’s a really beautiful story for us to see how the film is helping her do this wonderful work, and it’s also great to see how she’s benefitting from this work, as well, because having gone through so much as a body team worker, she’s actually going through a time of healing now, being able to connect with these kids— that she was there at these kids’ time of greatest grief in their life. She’s now able to work with them to help them heal as well, and it’s helping her heal. Like we say on the site, yes, all of our stories are associated with some great work that a nonprofit’s doing somewhere in the world, and we’ll continue to make films to help spread awareness and help people take action.