David Darg is a hard man to track down, but he’s never at a loss for a good excuse.
“I’m in Greece working on projects to help refugees once they arrive,” said Darg, who judging by the video he made of his philanthropic work in 2014, rarely stops to do anything else. “We’re working on fairly basic projects – feeding and solar lights – and shooting content for a possible documentary.”
For Darg, filmmaking and philanthropy have long been intertwined, ever since he picked up his camera skills from his father, a journalist whose job took his family from Virginia to the Middle East and subsequently England all before his son was 10. Chronicling the work of various relief organizations on behalf of Reuters, the BBC and CNN before starting an outlet —RYOT — that would enable him to get involved in the relief efforts while filming, Darg has helped out in the aftermath of some of the biggest natural disasters and war zones in recent years. He met his partner in RYOT, Bryn Mooser, while in Haiti to tend to survivors of the 2010 earthquake and come to collaborate on their first film together, “Baseball in the Time of Cholera,” documenting how they brought hope to the Tabarre neighborhood of Port-au-Prince with the sport.
Beyond his altruism, Darg offers another gift in his great skill at immersing those who don’t have his wherewithal to travel in whatever precarious situation he finds himself in to create an empathy and understanding. (It’s not surprising to learn that Darg has already invested in creating virtual reality content from crisis zones, launching a mobile app this past fall.) Such is the case with “Body Team 12,” which may necessitate a rare break for Darg back to the States should it advance from its current place on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary short.
Already an award winner at the Tribeca Film Festival where it premiered last spring, “Body Team 12” thrusts audiences right in the middle of the Ebola outbreak that erupted in West Africa in 2014, accompanying the men and women who think nothing of walking into contaminated areas to collect the bodies of the dead to stop the spread of the disease. Nearly invisible despite their bright yellow hazmat suits, Darg gets to know the titular team as he follows them into the frenzy that surrounds the extraction of each body, with friends, relatives and neighbors gathering around for what becomes a swirl of emotions as some can’t help but attempt to reach out to their loved ones despite their own health to consider.
With the film set to debut on HBO in March, Darg somehow found the time (and a working computer in his current neck of the woods) to explain by e-mail how he became interested in making the film, bringing audiences closer to the situation in his choice of camera equipment, how he honed in on one member of the team — Garmai, the de facto leader of the group, and what it was like filming in such a potentially harmful environment.
When Ebola first started, I got involved with the relief effort. My first trip to Liberia was working with a non-profit organization, helping with logistics. Through that work, I started documenting the crisis as it unfolded so that I could help some of the nonprofits I was working with try to raise money and spread awareness because this was in the early days in the outbreak when it still hadn’t hit the press in the U.S. Through this work, I became aware of this incredibly brave work that these body teams were doing, going into these neighborhoods where people were dying and extracting the bodies. I was so fascinated by their work that I contacted the Red Cross and asked if I could embed with one of the teams. And on that first day, I was randomly assigned Body Team 12 and went out with them that day and that is when I met Garmai.
Considering how much philanthropic work you do, how did documentary become an outlet for your activism?
My whole career as an aid worker has been intertwined with filming and journalism because there is a symbiotic relationship, we couldn’t do the work we do without telling the story to donors. Documentary is a powerful tool for encouraging others to support the important cases we are involved in.
As soon as I embedded with them the first day and met Garmai, it was clear. She is so dynamic and powerful and such a strong woman. The first day I embedded I spoke to all of the members of the team, and her perspective was just so strong and powerful. She is a mother, so having a young child while going out day-in, day-out was so incredible. She has been ostracized by her community, her neighbors, her friends because there is such a stigma associated with the virus.
There’s a real kinetic quality to the way you shoot the film. Did you plan some of it out — that opening tracking shot that follows the team carrying out a body would seem like it needed to be mapped out — or did you just go with your gut for the style?
It was almost impossible to plan anything because the subject was so chaotic. But after my first trip, I realized the potential to capture the body teams in motion and purchased the parts to create a small electronically stabilized Gimbal. For the opening and closing scenes, I was able to capture a really smooth cinematic look during some of the most intense moments I’ve ever captured. Much of the film was shot on a 50mm 1.2 fully open with variable ND. The cinematic look is a juxtaposition against the darkness of the subject matter and allows [the audience] to really focus on the character.
Did you have to dress up to protect yourself from contamination?
On the first outing, I was advised by the Red Cross to keep my distance, wear long sleeves and not touch anything, but at the end of the day that wasn’t enough. I was freaking out. I got to experience the anxiety that everyone in the nation was living with for months. I got back to my place at the end of the day and you’ve got a headache naturally, but that headache really plays with you because you start to wonder: “Could this be it?” After the first day of filming, I learned I had to take better precautions, which included protective gear that included a suit, gloves, goggles and a mask. That made me feel safer and also allowed me to get closer. I was right there with the team when they were extracting bodies.
Was it difficult either practically or ethically to get in the middle of these emotional fraught situations as the bodies were being carried out in front of relatives and neighbors?
Having lived and worked in these difficult environments for so long I have leaned to nuances of how to remain sensitive in these cases. It was definitely difficult emotionally to be in the middle of so much grief and suffering. The families were generally very accepting of my presence and happy to tell their story.
This film seems to be just one piece of a larger puzzle as far as how you engage an audience. Do you actually start out thinking holistically or does it all begin with the film and grow from there?
Our projects used to start as a singular piece of media, but now we go in expecting to create cross-platform content. In Greece, for example, I’m shooting traditional documentary content on a Canon 5D MK3 but also shooting VR content along the way in anticipation of VR film. It all ties back into the reason we were there in the first place — we’re there to help — and “Body Team 12” was made as a tribute to the heroes who helped save us from Ebola and to activate people to continue supporting relief efforts such as supporting the Ebola orphans.
“Body Team 12” will premiere on HBO in March.