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In late 2014, postings and word-of-mouth offerings for journalism jobs to cover the Ebola crisis in West Africa began popping up. Tellingly, one of the stipulations was that if you were to assist on-site with producing a documentary, you'd have to be available for a 45-day quarantine upon your return to the States. News coverage was fast out of Sierra Leone and Liberia and Guinea, which together suffered some 28,000 cases and 11,000 fatalities during the epidemic (which, though contained, still smolders; four Ebola deaths were reported in Guinea in mid-March of this year). But the more thorough or independent documentaries were, by dint of the conditions, more time-intensive.
This month HBO released companion short documentaries that illuminate the conditions and the fallout from the height of the outbreak. (Easiest way to watch them is online, in the documentaries section of HBO GO or HBO NOW.) "Ebola: The Doctors' Story," directed by Steven Grandison, and "Orphans of Ebola," by Ben Steele, are both productions for HBO, which the network has packaged with Oscar nominee "Body Team 12." The director of that short, David Darg, edited the film during self-imposed quarantines in his home, checking in with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention twice a day to make sure he wasn't going to be bleeding from his eyes.
Yet in all three documentaries, the filmmakers all but melt away as they put you in harrowing proximity to the people who were living through, and dying from, the epidemic. As a troika, these films will take you about 80 minutes to watch, so long as you don't take cry breaks. For the time-pressed, favor the 12-minute "Body Team 12," narrated by its protagonist, Garmai Sumo. She's a Red Cross worker on a crew that goes house-to-house in Liberia to truck out the corpses of Ebola victims, over the yells and threats of grieving relatives. She is an uncommonly brave and compelling center to the tale, and the camera follows her team — mummified in yellow plastic suits and aprons and goggles, like lanky Minions — through alleys, into homes, to do the dangerous, taboo labor as a stand for her country against the disease. (She has an 8-year-old son who calls her "Ebola hero" when she comes home from work.)
Steele likewise cast "Orphans of Ebola" brilliantly, singling on the journey of a 12-year-old named Abu, one of the 20,000 children who lost a parent to Ebola. In all, eight members of Abu's family, including both his parents, succumbed; over the four-month shoot, you can see the toll it takes on the sensitive, jocular boy, as when he and his adopted brother Abdul contemplate their shared, lonely fates as motherless children. "The one that loves you most is gone," Abu tells Abdul. "The one that loves you more than anyone is gone. When your mama dies."
Even as "Ebola: The Doctors' Story" guides us through a Doctors Without Borders field hospital, putting us in near-direct contact with dying patients via a small camera on a doctor's goggles, it can't reach that level of heartbreak. It brings the disaster into a different sort of focus: As we make the rounds over weeks with a visiting emergency doctor, people simply drop and drop and drop — in beds, on the ground, in the shower, sometimes in a blink. Still, hope emerges from the carnage; treatment and care in the hospital increases a patient's chance of survival from 30 percent to 45.
The three films, taken together, offer a wide view of the consequences of the disease, through sickness and death and survival. They're courageous films, about people in real peril making sacrifices. This is the hallmark of excellent crisis coverage: Getting close enough to a subject to make the numbers recede to abstraction. The real tragedy of the Ebola outbreak isn't thousands of people sickened: it's a single 12-year-old boy missing the person who loved him most in the world. There's no quarantine from that sort of sorrow. We come dangerously close as viewers in all of these films to trespassing on strangers' grief. But they make implicit that the next outbreak on this scale demands we not look away.