First you hear the screams, anguished keening of a mother who lost her child to Ebola. Then comes the body, wrapped in a white sheet, carried by men dressed head to toe in lemon yellow coveralls. That corpse is a pathogen bomb, and those workers are the disposal unit.
From its first scene, Body Team 12 is difficult to watch, and it never gets easier. The documentary short follows a group of health care workers tasked with carrying out the dead during Liberia’s massive Ebola outbreak in 2014. In just 13 minutes director David Darg manages to capture the fear, confusion, and despair that spread through the capital city of Monrovia like the virus that killed more than 11,000 West Africans. And that’s just what you see on film. “The collection of victims became routine, but the anxiety never lessened,” Darg says. “The body teams were brave but constantly in fear of being next.”
The project—which won best documentary short at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2015 and will debut in the U.S. on HBO in March—is the latest from Vulcan Productions. Yes, that Vulcan. Because an NFL and NBA franchise, an artificial intelligence research initiative, serious real estate holdings, and a #$%&ing space-exploration startup weren’t enough, Paul Allen has a movie studio too.
Now, unless you’ve been paying close attention, you might not have noticed that the billionaire philanthropist has been funding indie films and documentaries since the turn of the millennium. The projects were modest, and in many cases Vulcan came on as a producer after filming was under way. But that changed in September 2013, when Allen hired Carole Tomko to be his creative director and general manager. “In the past two years we’ve quadrupled the work that we’d been doing previously,” she says.
That work includes Racing Extinction, a doc-cum-exposé on man’s role in the death of countless species over the last century. Directed by Louie Psihoyos, the 2015 film takes a multipronged approach to examining the environmental crisis, from filming undercover in plants that process and sell illegally hunted animals to tracking an Indonesian village’s transition from hunting manta rays by the hundreds to introducing tourists to their majestic beauty. “Nobody understands the value of social impact more than Vulcan Productions,” says Psihoyos, who won a best documentary Oscar for 2009’s The Cove. “If not for them, we would be another ship lost in a sea of good intentions.”
That focus on social impact was one of the biggest adjustments for Tomko, who for 28 years worked in traditional production houses, where ratings and box office reigned. Now she’s learning to be more patient while waiting for a return on investment. Which requires a discerning eye. “Every project that we pick goes through a highly rigorous and curatorial process,” she says. “Can it drive change? Can it make a difference?”
Quantifying a documentary’s ability to drive change is tricky. For starters, calls to action can backfire. Rachel Isabel McDonald, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Kansas, studies the mechanisms that drive activism and has found that confronting a population with evidence of its contribution to a problem can reduce people’s willingness to act. Which isn’t to say it’s not worth trying, but a light touch may be required.
In the case of Racing Extinction the goal was clear: Encourage viewers to re-evaluate their day-to-day lives and determine what changes they could make, however insignificant they may seem. Body Team 12 presents a bigger challenge for Vulcan. Darg didn’t travel to Monrovia to make a documentary. He just happened to be on the ground there with an NGO, making and distributing chlorine crucial to stopping Ebola’s spread. But when he discovered those health care workers who were risking their own lives to save others, he realized he had a chance to not only inspire, but also tell a story. “We want the world to know that this crisis didn’t just fix itself,” says Darg, whose RYOT media company documents social and environmental issues around the globe. “It took brave individuals putting themselves in harm’s way to save us all from what could have been a much bigger crisis.”