The ways we imagine disease, on the page and on our screens, have both influenced and been influenced by the evolution of scientific knowledge. These imaginaries of disease also influence how we act when we encounter illness, outbreaks, treatments, doctors, and sick people in real life. This affects how we define both the "public" and "health" in public health, who merits life-saving measures, and what qualifies as an essential health intervention. DIS-EASE breaks down three dominant paradigms in medicine: the white savior dynamic established by colonial medicine and re-inscribed by the neocolonial patterns of global public health; the idea that individuals are morally responsible to maintain their own health, which derives from earlier notions of disease as sinful or demonic; and the “war on disease” popularized by germ theory, which metaphorically equates human bodies and national body politics and paints them both as threatened by invading alien forces. We dive deep into cultural histories of contagion to discover where these imaginaries originated, trace their spread and mutations, and diagnose how they operate in the present. Using both fictional and non-fictional examples, we look at the power of outbreak narratives to shape both scientific thinking and popular understanding, and the ways in which outbreak narratives from different periods reflect the cultural anxieties of those historical moments. Finally, we offer prescriptions for a healthier world - calls to approach health care from a more holistic, more long-term, less violent, and less anthropocentric perspective. We see this film as part of the emerging field of narrative medicine, a discipline that brings humanities, the arts, clinical practice, and social justice together to improve health care by understanding and reshaping the stories that shape the perspectives of both patients and providers. DIS-EASE is a feature-length archival documentary that draws from a wide range of sources and experts, and takes a creative approach to the use of archival.
Mariam Ghani is a writer, director, producer, and visual artist. Her short films and multi-channel installations have been presented and collected by museums, festivals, and biennials worldwide, notably the Guggenheim, MoMA, the Met, and the Smithsonian; Documenta 13 and the Liverpool, Lahore, and Sharjah Biennials; DOC NYC, Sheffield Doc/Fest, CPH:DOX, SFFILM, Rotterdam, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival, where she presented a juror’s retrospective screening in 2022. Ghani’s first feature, the critically acclaimed documentary WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED, is the mostly-true story of five unfinished Afghan Communist films, the ghosts of unsettled histories, and the lengths to which artists will go to keep making art in times of war and political repression. It premiered at the 2019 Berlinale, was released theatrically in the US by Dekanalog in 2021, and has streamed on the Criterion Channel (2022) and Ovid (2023). It is distributed internationally by Arsenal and educationally by Good Docs/Docuseek. Her latest short film, THE FIRE THIS TIME, was commissioned by Field of Vision and has screened at BAMcinemaFest, BlackStar, and Ji.hlava. Ghani also recently completed a permanent public art commission, THE WORLDS WE SPEAK, for LaGuardia Airport’s new Terminal C, based on a data visualization of linguistic diversity in New York City.
Ghani researched DIS-EASE as an artist-in-residence at the New York Public Library, New York Academy of Medicine, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and Wellcome Collection. She teaches film at Bennington College. Her work has been supported by grants and fellowships from Creative Capital, Art Matters, NYSCA, NYFA, Doha Film Institute, Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism, and the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law, among others. She received the inaugural Changemaker Storyteller Award from the Center for Constitutional Rights in 2017. Ghani teaches at Bennington College. mariamghani.com