Whiteness through Its Negation

From the Series: Survivors

Photo by Rui Miguel Félix, licensed under CC BY NC.

Survivors (WeOwnTV, 2018) offers a glimpse into the lives of four individuals living in Freetown, Sierra Leone, during its Ebola outbreak in 2014. The story is told through four main protagonists: Mohamed (Nengue), a senior ambulance driver; Margaret, a nurse who has been seconded to the Ebola response from the main public hospital; Foday, a boy who earns his living picking through trash with his friends; and Arthur, one of the filmmakers. Each has a story to tell: Arthur wants to remedy a representation gap he sees in international reporting about the epidemic. Margaret is driven by her faith and compassion to care for others who are sick and dying from Ebola. Foday is trying to make ends meet without the support of his parents; in the film, he is later reunited with his aging father, who fears for his safety and wellbeing as the disease claims more lives among Freetown’s residents. Nengue works tirelessly to move patients between their homes and the Ebola treatment center and trains other personnel to carry out their duties safely.

A stated purpose of the film is to de-center Western (read: white) perspectives. In some ways, the filmmakers are successful. The film does not rely on a consistent, singular “authoritative” voice and text usually associated with documentary film. Names of people and places are not signaled by captions. No official timeline for the outbreak is recounted for the viewer. No narrator explains what is happening on camera. Occasionally, we see and hear health education messages broadcast on local television and radio, a presidential radio address declaring a state of emergency, and voiceovers spliced together from national and international news sources. That we see and hear these clips on a television or radio sitting in someone’s parlor, rather than raw footage spliced into the film, gives the viewer a sense of “being there” in ways that subvert narratives constructed from a distance. Yet, for these reasons, even someone who is both familiar with the epidemic’s dynamics and the city of Freetown–and I count myself in that group—might have trouble following the film’s narrative thread.

Survivors has been praised for centering the experiences of Sierra Leoneans and downplaying the role of white foreigners. Locals’ centrality is only punctuated, some suggest, when a foreign white health worker expresses joy at a patient’s survival, or when Nengue and his coworkers suggest that a white manager’s absence has resulted in a markedly different standard of triage and care (“wi blakman, wi no lek wisef”). Yet, the filmmakers’ expressed objective to re-center Sierra Leoneans may at times bring the whiteness of aid and attendant development ideologies into stark relief. Film editors’ use of conventional visual tropes (for example, long overhead tracking shots of “African” terrain) work subtly against this objective, as do Arthur’s references to how Africans behave socially. Specifically, when Arthur discusses “African behavior” and how protocols to stop Ebola transmission disrupt “regular” African social interactions, the presumed addressee is someone for whom caregiving and communal sociality is foreign. (In other words, it is a critique of what white socialities are presumed to be: individualistic, uncaring, and distant.)

Visually, a foreign presence haunts the frame via humanitarian capital, goods, and symbols. NGO and donor logos are plastered on billboards and neighborhood signposts; donated program vehicles are lowered from ships at the Freetown port under the watchful eyes of white British personnel and their Sierra Leonean counterparts; key actors wear work uniforms emblazoned with program logos. Even the film’s public relations materials bear the names of their funders, many of which are located in the United States and the United Kingdom. Thus, the filmmakers’ attempts to correct foreign opinion and representation of Sierra Leone’s Ebola epidemic, articulates whiteness through its negation and its ghost-like presenceby disappearing white people for the most part but not their market symbols.