“In Ebola's Wake”: A Q&A with Carl Gierstorfer

Every Sunday, Mabel Musa attends church praying for her patients to stop dying from Ebola.
Image credit
© DOCDAYS Productions/Carl Gierstorfer

During the height of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia in the fall of 2014 as perhaps hundreds of people were being infected daily and 5,000 had already died, Carl Gierstorfer traveled to the country to document the virus’s effects on people in rural Bong County. The result of his work is “In Ebola's Wake,” a documentary that will be shown on Al Jazeera America on Sunday, Jan. 31 at 10 p.m. ET.

His film demonstrates the horror that Ebola brings not only to its victims but also to the survivors. As he says, Ebola brutally upended lives in an instant.

Gierstorfer, a journalist based in Berlin, talks about the documentary, lessons for the global health community and his hopes for the film’s impact in this Q&A with Brian W. Simpson, GHN editor-in-chief.

The journalist and colleagues also produced a multimedia documentary called “Mawah” that tells the story of one village's fight against the virus. 

Why did you set out to make this documentary?
I really wanted to get an inside perspective: How does it feel to be in the midst of this outbreak? I did not want to focus on the international relief effort but rather on how ordinary Liberians experienced the outbreak. How did it affect tightly knit communities in rural Liberia? How did Ebola force people to make hard choices - whether to help or not? In the end, I realized that Ebola affected everybody one way or the other. And the consequences were often profound.

Why is it important to have reporting like your documentary after the epidemic and the related media frenzy has subsided?
“People still die in their hearts” is what Liberians told us. The suffering continues after so many lives have been lost; communities have been torn apart, the health system has been destroyed. But did we learn the lessons? We have forgotten about Ebola while Zika, another virus, is spreading through the Americas. I believe that in this inter-connected world, where humans come into ever more intimate contact with wildlife, emerging diseases are a major concern. This is why we need to move beyond the media frenzy and think really hard about how we can tackle this problem.

One of the most painful parts of the documentary is watching a man grieve at the graveside of family members who died from Ebola. Can you talk about your decision to include this in the documentary?
This is the opening scene of the film. Stanley made a tragic decision which introduced Ebola to his village and eventually lead to more than a dozen deaths. Stanley asked me to come to the graveyard with him. I think he wanted a witness for his sorrow. At the same time, he was overcome with grief, because he finally understood what had happened. Stanley was excluded from his community, there were people who wanted revenge - even kill him. So he had to seek forgiveness. Stanley was a survivor of Ebola, whose suffering hadn’t ended. For me he stood for all that Ebola was: it could turn your life upside down in an instant. It was brutal and merciless, but often people responded with resilience and mercy. This, I found inspiring.

What surprised you the most in your reporting?
The way Liberians understood that Ebola was a common enemy that could only be defeated by changing lifestyles and habits in a very short period of time. In a culture, where physical closeness and proper burial of the dead are very important, I was surprised that, after all, Liberians could adjust very rapidly. This change of habit eventually defeated Ebola.

What message would you have for people in the global health community based on your experiences in Liberia?
Culture is everything. If you want to defeat a virus like Ebola, that spreads through physical contact and burials, you have to understand the local culture. It’s like a crash-course in anthropology.

What are your greatest hopes for the documentary and what it might accomplish?
To give a voice to those who were really at the front lines: Liberians, Sierra Leoneans and Guineans. The international community did a tremendous job. But the local people made the difference. They ended the epidemic. They deserve the credit. 

Are you planning to return to Liberia?
Yes. We will show the film in Bong county were we did all our filming. The people gave us so much - showing them what me made out of their hospitality in times of crisis is the least we can do

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