The imagery of the pandemic
Our experience of the coronavirus pandemic has been filtered through screens of various sizes – TV screens, computer screens, mobile phone screens. Working alongside each other, broadcast media, social media, citizen science and individually-produced footage rapidly established a distinctive "visual economy" for screen representations of COVID-19 – a set of representational norms that has blurred the boundaries between documentary, news, amateur filmmaking, and surveillance and automated images.
These norms will be instrumental in how the pandemic is archived and remembered in the future. It includes a vocabulary of iconic images on our screens, the circulation of which has imbued them with highly charged affective and symbolic values.
Among these images we find the hazmat suit and deserted city streets; the infographic of the virus and the ventilator machines; crowds cheering exhausted medical workers at the end of the day, and stuffed toys placed on the windowsills for young children to play their “I spot the teddy bear” game while in lockdown. These images speak variously to the themes of contagion, invasion, science, illness, community, sacrifice, control and resilience.
Arguably, however, the most iconic of such images is that of the face covered by a surgical mask, which, at the peak of the pandemic, has become one of the most frequently screened images.
The masked face could belong to a health worker or to a patient, to people trying to protect their health from the virus, or to the infected ones trying to stop the virus spreading.
A masked face says a lot about our fears of contamination, and our responsibility for both our own health and the health of those who live alongside us, and hence about our ability to gain control over the situation.
In a more tangential way, the image of the masked face speaks of access to protective equipment, and disparities among nations and social strata in medical resources, support, wealth etc.
But a masked face also speaks to broader themes concerning human connectedness and alienation, presence, and absence.
For some 20th-century philosophers, such as Emmanuel Levinas and Giorgio Agamben, it's the face, above all, that reveals our humanity. For film theorists, since the early days of cinema and the emergence of film theory, the face on screen has functioned as a privileged site providing access to human subjectivity, to our inner world of thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions.
It's widely accepted in screen studies that a close-up of the human face accounts for cinema’s ability to move audiences, to inspire, horrify and transfix its viewers. A lot is thus at stake in this singular image of the masked face.
At first sight, it's intended to signify care and concern, but it simultaneously establishes a visual barrier, symbolising inaccessibility and withdrawal. The masked face on the screen thus captures not only changing norms of biomedical security and protection, but also dramatises one of the central paradoxes of this pandemic – the fact that we're obliged to show our compassion by distancing ourselves from others, demonstrate care by avoiding contact, practise being a good citizen by withdrawing from the public sphere of embodied action into a private sphere of image-mediated virtual reality.
If this image of the masked face is to become the image of how the COVID-19 pandemic is remembered, it will also be a reminder of how we've had to grapple with these paradoxes of connection and alienation and, hopefully, be better-equipped to deal with them in the post-COVID-19 world.
Pandemic viewing: Tuning in as we drop out
On 1 April, 2020, Larry David – creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm – appeared in a public service announcement from the Office of the Governor of California, Gavin Newsom. In the short video, David urged Californians to practise physical distancing, stressing that those who did not were "passing up … a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to stay in the house, sit on the couch and watch TV".
David’s message chimes with much commentary on how the pandemic lockdowns have been an introvert’s dream. But his message also highlights the practical centrality that film and television viewing has played in this period for those who are privileged enough to be able to stay home.
The use of streaming services has surged worldwide as people turn to in-home means of entertainment, highlighting the role and function of the arts in everyday life, especially during times of crisis. As Benjamin Law has written, “in our most dire hours, art keeps us sane, lights the dark, and ensures we stay human”.
Film and television viewing has been central to our emotional management of the pandemic, and several key trends in this phenomenon have become evident. These all demonstrate the power and pervasiveness of what screen scholars understand as "curatorial culture" – where viewers, previously the passive consumers of scheduled content, become users of technologies that enable the customisation or curation of viewing.
Nostalgia is one theme that has been central to curated pandemic viewing, with the familiarity and relative innocence of sitcoms such as Friends, Seinfeld and The Office more popular than ever.
Recommendations for curating one’s quarantine viewing have been issued from countless sites, from The New York Times to Monash Media, Film and Journalism’s own screen experts to the Museum of Modern Art. In some cases, these lists tap into the much-debated topic of quarantine productivity by framing their suggestions as edifying cultural content that there's not usually enough time to consume.
Elsewhere, the drive for reassurance and comfort is more evident. Nostalgia is one theme that has been central to curated pandemic viewing, with the familiarity and relative innocence of sitcoms such as Friends, Seinfeld and The Office more popular than ever.
The desire for distraction has also increased the appeal of both reality TV and pornography, and, in a different vein, disaster stories. Pandemic-specific content such as Netflix’s Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011) has risen dramatically in popularity – offering, in one critic’s interpretation, a form of comfort by modelling control.
Platforms such as SBS have taken up the strategy, inviting viewers to "lean in" to the pandemic by curating its own list of apocalyptic-themed material.
Curation is itself, of course, also a strategy for control. The sheer volume of viewing recommendations show how expert we've become in this form of control, and how reliant upon it we are for managing our affective response to real-world events.
Capturing the love and loss of the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic led to dramatic changes in media production, exhibition, and screen content. The biggest impacts have seen media production halt, the closure of cinemas, and cancellation of film festivals around the world.
While some cinemas partially reopened in June, and the production industry released draft protocols that may see productions resume by August, distribution through film festival exhibition remains impacted.
Film festivals are responding by increasingly moving online. However, the breadth of these programs appears curtailed by hastily negotiated online exhibition agreements.
For makers of short-form documentary, festivals are a particularly important exhibition platform for innovation, recognition, and unlocking funding (Melbourne director Kitty Green’s transition from Sundance to Netflix springs to mind). Festivals are also a significant platform for audiences to access creative short-form documentaries curated from the thousands that are made each year.
In this changing context, online platforms such as Field of Vision, DA Films or Atlasshorts offer new, quality exhibition options. Perhaps counterintuitively, the so-called prestige press is also becoming an important exhibition platform for non-fiction film.
Unencumbered by the long-run curatorial cycles of film festivals, or bound by established broadcast formats, these news outlets not only exhibit formally innovative material, but have also proved responsive to the current moment, sourcing diverse and engaging short documentaries about the experience of COVID-19. While driven by international publications, this trend could provide an inspiring model for Australian-based print-media outlets to explore.
Three very different examples of such short documentaries demonstrate the appeal and urgent need for such an intervention. Each film tells the story of a shared humanity; of fear and frustration; of nostalgia and joy; of heartache and loss engendered by the pandemic.
The New York Times’ Op Doc series commissions non-fiction works by independent filmmakers from around the world.
In the instalment titled How to Be Alone, Sindha Agha uses a frenetic essayist form to delve into her own mind during isolation in New York City. With self-reflexive wit she contemplates procrastination, nostalgia, and the history of polar-explorer psychology. How to Be Alone was published with an accompanying article on 21 May, 2020.
The Guardian’s ongoing series of short non-fiction films also commissions international filmmakers.
Our Iranian Lockdown is a beautifully-shot observational documentary about a couple living through the unfolding catastrophe of COVID-19 in Tehran. It wistfully captures domestic life at a time when contact with the outside world is life-threatening. It was published on 12 May, 2020.
The Atlantic Selects series curates existing documentaries by independent filmmakers.
Olmo Parenti uses animation and voiceover to animate diary posts on WeChat by Wuhan resident Niuniu. Patenti’s exquisite, heart-wrenching film captures the random cruelty of a virus that has afflicted so many throughout the world. My Boyfriend Died of COVID-19 was published on 20 April, 2020.
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