Body Team 12 production team from RYOT and Vulcan, from left to right: Molly DeWolf Swenson, Bryn Mooser, Carole Tomko and David Darg
"One day history will look back and ask, what did we do to help Liberia. I hope Body Team 12 will be remembered for playing a part in saving our country."
At the height of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Vulcan Productions partnered with director David Darg and RYOT Films, to capture the story of a small but courageous group of Liberian Red Cross workers tasked with collecting the dead during the height of the Ebola outbreak: Body Team 12.
Told from the ground in Monrovia, the hard-hit capital of Liberia, this short and powerful film is communicated through the eyes of the only female member of the team, Garmai Sumo, and reveals the heartbreaking but lifesaving work of removing the dead from the homes of the victims’ loved ones in order to halt transmission of the disease.
Now up for an Oscar alongside Last Day of Freedom, Chau, Beyond The Lines, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Vulcan Productions’ General Manager and Creative Director Carole Tomko shares how the film came to be and what she believes its message can inspire.
How did you first get involved with Body Team 12?
During the Ebola crisis, we were tapped into the humanitarian efforts addressing the Ebola outbreak and had heard about Darg’s work as a relief worker dispensing chlorine in Liberia.
Darg, called us to not only speak about a philanthropic partnership but about the work he was doing with a Red Cross team. He was embedded with Body Team 12 and had been given permission to start filming their story. This Liberian Red Cross team had the grueling task of removing bodies from loved ones in order to halt transmission of the disease. Each team has one female and he wanted me to see some footage they had shot.
What was your first reaction to seeing the early footage of the film?
It hit me in the gut to be honest. This was the first footage I had seen that really made me feel like I was in the middle of the crisis. I was compelled to respond. The female member of the team, Garmai Sumo was unbelievably inspiring and ultimately we decided to tell the story through her eyes. We completely fell in love with Garmai and her story and they asked if we would come on board to co-produce the short with them.
Was it easy to say yes to a partnership with RYOT?
The minute I saw the footage I knew we needed to do this project but we were in the midst of a lot of projects being considered for approval so we had to do some convincing as to why we would invest in a short doc. The financial commitment was nominal, but when you’re being considered along with multi-million dollar contracts to NGO’s and aid organizations, it took a while to secure the yes. We had never worked with filmmakers who were humanitarian responders first and foremost.
What I appreciated about our partnership with RYOT was that Darg and Bryn Mooser, producer of Body Team 12 and RYOT News co-founder, really understood the crisis and how profound and wicked Ebola was compared to any other crisis they had experienced.
This type of background allowed them to see what others couldn’t, giving the viewer a true sense of how chaotic this outbreak was. They effectively were filming in a health war zone.
Any particular moment in the production of Body Team 12 that stands out?
I never thought we’d be in a scenario where someone was editing while in quarantine, but that was the case for this film. Darg made four trips to Liberia and was in quarantine in the U.S. twice. It made for some very focused editing!
I also remember talking to Darg on the phone while he was in Liberia—you could hear how exhausted he was. Imagine doing the humanitarian work, plus filming, plus being in those sweltering PPE’s.
Darg also had to rig a special camera to get those amazing shots. But, when you look at the grief that they captured of those families, you just can’t get it out of your mind. In the scene where the woman is crying with outstretched arms because she can’t hold her dying baby—I can’t imagine her grief and pain.
I’d never worked with a team at the intersection of such bravery and journalism they were able to capture a story that would have such profound effect on changing behaviors for people on the ground.
How does this film fit in with the other work Vulcan Production does?
We produce stories that create understanding and inspire action and Body Team 12 is a great example of this. It is arguably one of the most impactful projects we’ve worked on for two key reasons—
In a time of crisis, information is aid and this project was part of delivering life-saving information to change behavior to halt the transmission.
It was critical to me to shine a light on the health care workers to a global audience. Hopefully people will be grateful and inspired when they will see the grueling and critical work that health care workers provide.
Did you ever imagine this film would be up for an Oscar nomination?
I knew that we had something really special. We knew that by sharing Garmai’s story, we were putting a face on the heroism of people fighting Ebola on the ground.
What do you hope is the lasting message people take from the film?
The film Body Team 12, more than anything else, is a tribute to the heroism of health care workers like Garmai, who risked their lives every day to save others. I don't think we can underestimate how critical the roles these people played in the Ebola crisis and will continue to play in future crises to come. This film shines a light on the bravery of the unsung Ebola health care workers on the front lines.
Will Vulcan Productions do more work like this?
We certainly plan to pursue involvement in this kind of work moving forward. As part of Paul Allen’s $100 million commitment to stop the spread of Ebola, we saw a need for life-saving information about Ebola. Body Team 12 filled this gap on a global scale and in an artful, engaging way. We’re committed to continue to look for ways in which film can fill these gaps and ignite action.
What has been surprising about the Oscar-nomination process?
One of the surprising things is the amount of work that happens once you are nominated. Most people don’t realize that it’s a full on assault of organizing events, screenings and working with publicists and influencers. The votes aren’t magic and you become part of the Academy machine. There is a branch for each of the categories with voting members and you have to do everything to get them to watch your doc and review it favorably. We’ve had a number or screenings with branch members, including this past weekend in Los Angeles. There are extraordinary rules and regulations in terms of what, where and how you can show the film, how you can talk about it and even whether you can have food or drinks around the screenings. It’s a bit terrifying on our first round because we don’t want to inadvertently violate some rule.
It’s honestly an honor to have executive produced a project that has had such impact around Ebola and to have it be recognized by the Academy. If it wins, it should go to honor Garmai and the people of Liberia.
Where can we see the film?
You’ll be able to see Body Team 12 on HBO starting March 14.