The art of documentaries: BBC Panorama: Ebola Frontline

When we hear words like ebola, foot and mouth, bird flu, malaria… it can be hard to actually visualise what that actually means for sufferers and, in the case of ebola right now, the scale. You can turn on your tv and have documentaries, news bulletins and charity adverts forcing opinions at you and telling you how you must react in a particular way. Just look at BandAid30.

It’s not often that we see a documentary that isn’t overly edited or staged, that isn’t going for the most extreme reaction they can inflict. However in BBC Panorama: Ebola Frontline the reality of ebola, it’s spread and impact, seems very truthfully and organically told.

The programme shows Dr Javid Abdelmoneim‘s four week voluntary service in Sierra Leone caring for victims of ebola in a treatment centre. With a specially adapted camera fitted to the doctor’s goggles we are taken into the contamination areas and shown just how ebola affects patients, and the immediacy of death in such places. Both sides of this are seen, from a child suffering the worst symptoms and being given drugs to ease the pain before his death, to a father seemingly recovering dying without any warning at all. It is particularly striking to see patients dead in such normal positions, such as bending over to put on shoes or resting on a bed, and it is most unexpected.

Equally you see the joy of those clear of ebola, recovered and able to return to their families… or at least what’s left of them. It seems to very truthfully show the scale of the epidemic and the poor infrastructure that doctors are having to deal with, whilst at the same time showing an individual’s reaction to what is going on around him.

The programme is still on BBC Iplayer and is compulsive viewing. I understand far more of the illness, the anonymity of victims’ deaths, their status as biohazards buried under a number, and the unpredictable nature of ebola through this documentary than through any of the adverts or news articles I’d seen to date.