For much of the western world, the Ebola crisis came and went without much fanfare. Perhaps we were jolted by the initial news stories, taken aback by the images from affected areas, and slightly unnerved by the travel advisories as we entered security lines at the airport. But for the most part, the Ebola outbreak was an abstract crisis affecting people on the other side of the world, multiple continents away. The closest that most Americans came to Ebola was to hear in the news about the four diagnosed cases in Texas and New York City. It is safe to say that most of the world remains unaware of the depths of this crisis in the West African hotspot countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, New Guinea, and Nigeria.  

Arthur Pratt is a Sierra Leonian pastor and filmmaker, and he witnessed firsthand the invisible enemy that threatened to destroy his country, the communities, and the families that lived there. Despite the human cost that this disease extracted from the West African people, Pratt was inspired by how the people in Sierra Leone rose up to defend their country from a viral invasion that was attacking “the fabric of what it means to be African.” He felt it necessary to tell the world the story of Sierra Leone’s unsung heroes, and so he created a documentary titled Survivors, which focused on the work done by the ambulance drivers and nurses, interwoven with personal stories of children, mothers, fathers, and communities touched by the disease. Survivors gets up close and personal to the 21-month battle against Ebola in West Africa, and shows how the common people of Sierra Leone risked everything to come together and fight back against an existential threat.


As the film depicts the outset of the Ebola outbreak, we witness what must have been a terrifying scene for the Sierra Leonians: white men in hazmat suits dragging away the bagged corpse of one of their fellow villagers, who they toss in the back of a truck and drive away. Every day, health workers are blaring messages from megaphones telling citizens to avoid physical contact with the sick and the dead. When Pratt speaks of the threat to the “fabric of what it means to be African”, this is what he is referring to. The ability to touch one another, to shake hands, to hug – these are the fundamental ways in which people associate with each other. The Ebola epidemic then, was not just a public health issue, but an identity crisis for the West African people.

The documentary focuses on the stories of different characters, such as an ambulance driver, a nurse, a homeless child, and a mother with her 18-month-old baby. Mohamed Bangura is a senior driver who was commissioned to go out into affected districts of Sierra Leone and bring sick people from the community to the hospital in order to screen them for the virus. In the documentary, a narrator speaks about how the epidemic put a strain on the West African health systems, and during one roundup, Mohamed finds himself caught in the middle of a health system spread too thin. With a sick, disabled man at the top of the hill, and no one but smaller female nurses available to transport him down to the ambulance, the task falls to Mohamed to bring the man down. “You know, drivers aren’t supposed to do this,” he says, as he suits up in protective gear. In a later scene, his frustrations and weariness from the job boils over, and he launches into a tirade:

“Look up on the hill beyond that pole. I carried a patient on my back, when there was no stretcher. I put on protective gear and carried him on my back! If you saw me, I wanted to die that very day. I carried him on my back, and even our new bosses heard that and threatened me, ‘Doing that was wrong, we are going to fire you for that.’ OK, fire me then! What I have done, if you don’t know, God knows. And not just me, what we have all been doing here. If you don’t know, God knows. And the payment I will receive from God will be more than they can ever do.”
Religion is a recurring theme throughout the documentary, and whether it was Islam or Christianity, the people of Sierra Leone took comfort in appealing to a higher power during this chaotic, confusing time. Many of the leaders of the health brigades were also religious leaders in the community, and of course Pratt himself was also a pastor. One nurse mentions that when the doctors and nurses have done all they can do, that is when God steps in to do his work, referring to him as the “impossibility specialist.” As the Ebola epidemic ravaged the country, killing nearly half of those that became infected, the people’s faith gave them hope for their families, and strength to continue fighting against the disease.

Even those not directly infected by the disease somehow found themselves entangled in its web. For Pratt, the disease took on personal significance as it came during his wife’s pregnancy. With local hospitals and clinics burdened by the toll of screening and treatment of Ebola, Pratt’s wife found it difficult to obtain regular prenatal care and treatments, making her pregnancy all the more taxing. Even after the delivery, Pratt’s newborn son had to undergo additional testing to confirm that he was disease-free. Another scene shot outside a school shows a government official educating young children about disease precautions, telling them to stay home if they felt ill. The camera alternates between the innocent horseplay of schoolchildren and healthcare workers taking temperatures as the children walk into the classroom. It is as though the epidemic had infiltrated every aspect of daily living in Sierra Leone.  

As the epidemic starts to die down, the tents are taken down and the workers are relieved of their contracts, excited to rest for the first time in over a year. The documentary shows scenes of patients leaving the hospital, brandishing a “Certificate of Discharge”, an official document which certified a clean bill of health. As a teenager is seen posing with his friends for a picture with his certificate, we sense the weight that this document carries with it, the months of suffering, uncertainty, loneliness, and eventually, absolution. It symbolizes the ultimate goal of the people who sacrificed their time, well-being, and their lives to protect their fellow citizens.

Primary Source

Survivors, Directed by Arthur Pratt





Running Time (in minutes)