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The Bravest Woman On TV Tonight Is The Star Of Oscar-Nommed Ebola Film

This post was updated on March 14.

She walked through the valley of death and never lost her faith. Garmai Sumo, a 29-year-old nurse in Liberia, was a member of Body Team 12, one of the teams that collected the bodies of Ebola victims for cremation.

"They burn every day," she said in the film. "The smoke rises up to the heavens along with the souls of the dead. Heaven do exist. If heaven doesn't exist, then who are we?"

A slender woman with kind eyes and a ready smile, she adds, "I have that same faith that Ebola cannot destroy my country, Liberia."

Sumo is the main character of the Oscar-nominated documentary named after her team. The 13-minute film has its TV premiere tonight on HBO at 9:45 p.m., airing along withtwo other short films about Ebola, Ebola: The Doctors' Story (9 p.m.) and Orphans of Ebola (10 p.m.)

Body Team 12, made by David Darg and Bryn Mooser, follows the team members as they collect the still-contagious bodies of Ebola victims at the height of the outbreak, carrying the shrouded victims through narrow alleyways while family members wail in sorrow. The team members covered themselves from head-to-toe in protective gear so they wouldn't catch the deadly virus, and they were frequently the target of verbal attacks from distraught family members. "It's not an easy task," Sumo says. "Some people don't want you to take the body because they want to bury their loved ones."

We spoke with Darg and Mooser about the documentary and the riveting Sumo. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Did you get to pick which team you filmed?

Darg: I was randomly assigned to Team 12. The Liberian Red Cross was coordinating the body teams. They just said, "Go out with those guys."

So it was a stroke of luck that you came to meet Sumo?

Darg: I didn't know what to expect. I was blown away by all of their bravery but particularly by Garmai Sumo, the only female member.

Were there women on other teams as well?

Darg: It was the policy of the Red Cross to have a female member on all teams. They found that the female members made the best negotiators when it came to negotiating the release of [deceased] family members.

That's something Sumo discusses in the film: "The [family members] don't know where you're taking the body, they don't know what you're going to do with the body, they just don't know. We don't blame them. The only thing we do is to counsel them, talk to them." Her courage makes me wonder: How would I respond in a similar situation?

Mooser: Friends back home would say, 'I don't know what I'd do" [in a crisis]. But when you see the worst conditions, you see the best parts of humanity. Time and time again, as a journalist in [places of disaster] I see people stepping up, being resilient, coming together as a community to help each other.

And she herself was shunned. In the film she says, "Friends all abandoned me, they didn't want to come around me anymore." That makes her patriotism all the more impressive.

Darg: Having gone through a brutal civil war not that long ago, Liberia is really a shell of a nation. To see the level of deep love by the team members for their nation and their countrymen, willing to risk themselves to stand on the front lines, was moving and beautiful — and surprising.

I can only imagine how much footage must have been cut to get the film down to 13 minutes.

Mooser: There was a scene we had of a coffin maker in Monrovia, on the side of the road making coffins. We thought business was probably booming. But he was so mad — he wasn't getting any business because people were getting cremated. But in the end he took away from Garmai's story.

Was everyone on the team okay — did anyone catch the Ebola?

Darg: Miraculously, none of them contracted Ebola.

And what is Sumo doing now?

Darg: She's running a program for children who lost both parents to the disease. She was there with many of these children in her capacity as a body team worker, carrying their parents away. For her to be able to go back and be with those children, to provide joy and hope, is not only great for the kids but also a catharsis for her [as she] deals with the emotional aftermath of what she went through.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.
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