EngageMedia’s COVID-19-related videos expand into genres and modes beyond advocacy and organizing videos.
“Now is the Time (Ngayon Ang Panahon)” (https://video.engagemedia.org/
view?m=OKrAusoOX ) is a collaboratively produced song in Tagalog protesting against the Philippines Anti-Terrorism Law. That law demonizes dissent and infringes on privacy, paving the way for the government to attack its critics, enacted by President Rodrigo Duterte in early July 2020 when citizens contended with the pandemic. Uploaded on 06 August 2020, the video features 33 guitarists, synths, string players, drummers, percussionists, bass players, and singers, who perform the song from their homes. They come from indie alt-rock bands, such as Beast Jesus, Eggboy, The General Strike, Identikat, Oh Flamingo, We Are Imaginary, among others. The video shows four to six performers at a time, rejecting the idea of a singular star. The description of the video on the EngageMedia portal, written by the producers, contends it is “an anthem against the rise of tyranny and the intensifying fascism in the Philippines amidst the COVID-19 pandemic” and the Anti-Terrorism Law.
Produced by Ean Aguila, Jam Lorenzo, and RJ Mabilin, the video opens with a quote from independent filmmaker Lino Brocka from his “Artist as Citizen.” He says:
“The artist is a committed person, who will always take the side of any human being who is violated, abused, oppressed, dehumanized, whatever his instrument.”
In the video, different vocalists sing the words both alone and together, with no one performer highlighted. The verses proclaim:
“You’ve been looking for a reason, a reason to rise, you time is now… Hold back your tears. Are you here? Hold your head up high. We still have time to spare. Your time is now. The time to fight.”
The chorus repeats throughout the song “What are we waiting for, Bodies slowly piling up the floor.”
Throughout the video, performers hold up hand drawn signs on cardboard, paper, spiral notebooks, mobile phones, iPads, scraps of paper with sayings such as “Activism Is Not Terrorism,” “Artists Fight Back,” “Defend Press Freedom,” “Dissent Is Democracy,” “Junk Terror Law,” “Mass Testing Now,” “Out Duterte Now,” “Resist,” and various hashtags such as #activismisnotterrorism, #defendpressfreedom, #freecabuyad11, and #Junkterrorlaw. In his review of “Now is the Time,” Ian Urrutia advances that
“with the entire nation on the brink of societal collapse, there’s a need to foster more critical voices and take a stand against the state’s exploitation of the public health crisis to advance its interests.”
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These three community-produced videos uploaded to EngageMedia counter the spectacle of CNN Town Halls’ excision of people’s faces, voices, and places, as well as their inscription of big media’s high production values, institutional setting, and celebrities. Instead, these videos exemplify the power and purpose of the “small and low.”
They are produced on the ground and situated in specific local contexts with larger webs of conflictual politics and global interconnections. They also instantiate how “small and low” pandemic media can operate in a myriad of forms and modes, from a union call to action for intersectional politics and solidarities against a government that is changing laws whilst its citizens struggles with effects of climate crisis and the pandemic, to an ecologically driven political movement advocating for problem-solving that connects COVID-19 to sustainable agriculture, to indie alt-rock musicians joining together to fight against state abuses of power that leverage the pandemic to enact repressive laws. All of these videos move away from programs where journalists field questions to big experts on branded sound stages equipped for celebrity performances, to focus instead on local experts, who are firmly situated in places, politics, and struggles.
Women’s perspectives throughout Africa
Isolated by quarantines and lockdowns, many people turned to film and television as a make-do substitute for social interaction. Hollywood attempted to respond to how the pandemic reconfigured our lives, but it often missed what was most important to people outside the entertainment industry. Locked Down (United States, 2021; dir. Doug Liman), for example, offers what critic Benjamin Lee calls “many, many misfiring attempts at comedy (isnʼt Zoom annoying lol etc.]”
Other Hollywood media was more modest. Netflix’s Homemade invited stars of international cinema to make short films with whatever cameras were available under the protocols for film shoots in their location. With a few notable exceptions, the results were little more than media elites fumbling within the bubbles of their own privilege. Rachel Morrison’s The Lucky Ones (United States, 2020), as an example, is a self-indulgent lament about being denied the privilege of giving her children what she defines as a “normal” childhood. Her film retreats from reality into comforting nostalgia, as her family enjoys the safety of a private beach house. Her film evokes the melancholia of the Wuhan drone videos. Other episodes of Homemade actually employ professional drones, suggesting that acculturation to access to the “big and high” might be difficult to shake.
In contrast, Ladima Foundation’s African Women in the Time of COVID (2020) is a collection of ten short films, made by women across the Continent on their experiences during the pandemic. It resulted from a competition in partnership with DW Akademie, which received nearly 200 submissions in June 2020. Ladima creates platforms for women to convey perspectives that VOD corporations like Netflix might overlook. In fact, the Pan-African not-for-profit supports, trains, and mentors women in creative industries.
The short films reflect upon the cumulative effects of tiny, incremental, everyday changes to women’s lives that can erupt in dangers other than infection. They delve deeply into issues entangled with the virus but often missed by “big and high” media. For their short two-minute duration, the films focus on the resilience of African women under pressures unimaginable to Larraín’s buddies. “African women face significant social, economic and political vulnerabilities,” an opening intertitle explains:
“These issues became critical during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, and female creatives across Africa documented these dangers African women face with maternal childcare, domestic violence, rape and the loss of livelihoods. These selected films provide us with a window into the soul of Africa, a call to all that Africa can only succeed when women thrive.”
Neha Manoj Shah’s Face Mask for Sale (Kenya, 2020) opens with chatter inside the head of a young mother. “They say,” she recounts of well-intended social pressures that are now ingrained into her sense of self, “to use this time to learn a new skill. Learn a new language maybe. Try reading that book.” In close-up, a young woman looks out a window. Later shots pan across her bookshelf, as the voiceover continues to list what everyone is being invited to do now that they no longer have to commute to work or school: “Improve yourself. You’re stuck at home, right? So, use this time to get your life right.” An image of a brilliant orange and yellow flower, coated in morning dew, holds on screen, a reminder of what we might no longer have time or opportunity to notice.
“They say that this is the new normal,” continues the voiceover. “To work from home. To exercise at home.” The young woman’s hand sketches an eye, then she places a pair of glasses atop a sketchbook. “You’re stuck at home right, use this time wisely,” the voiceover interrupts; “They say that it is possible for one to live their entire life within these four walls without their mental health crumbling and falling.” A medium longshot shows the woman removing a shirt to reveal her pregnant belly. “Through in retrospect,” she says in voiceover, “I really don’t think they were talking to women.”
Face Mask for Sale frames well-indented perspectives that privilege men. The voiceover returns with a new urgency:
“My children and I are stuck at home. They don’t understand, and now I must be everything on my own. I cook, I clean, I teach, I play. It was all fun and games at first, but now I wonder who will earn when I am stuck at home being a full-time mom.”
After a pause, she says: “I’m scared.” She explains that her children are bored and confused and that she too has her own “emotions to sort out.” She rubs the drawing to revise the sketch of how she sees herself. She is consumed by self-doubts:
“Am I good enough? And when I step outside do I look like a perfect mother? I’m so tired of pretending like I am not going under when all I am doing is following government directives. Just like every woman, I have a mask on.”
The final shot closes in on a charcoal sketch of a woman with eyes closed and a medical mask over her mouth and nose. The film evokes more than the facemasks, which are not the only masks that young women have been asked by governments to wear. They are also asked to assume a doubt-free presentation of self, a figurative mask that conceals their concerns as if they honestly believe everything will be okay. Face Mask for Sale raises questions about what staying at home means for single mothers—relentless stress over how to provide for their children. The film invites empathy with those who are more vulnerable, rather than Morrison’s nostalgia for the storybook childhood available only to the privileged.
Like Face Mask for Sale, the next film, Wambui Gathee’s Love, Zawadi (Kenya, 2020), opens in voiceover: “If you are reading this, it is already too late.” A young woman is in bed reading with her stuffed animals around her, while one hand holds a noose. Both her arms are bandaged and bloodied, and we see razor blades and pills nearby. The walls and curtain behind her are illuminated in blue and red light. A man interrupts her reading in bed. “It is not your fault,” she says; “It is I who couldn’t stop him.” During the lockdown, everyone is fighting “monsters of their own.” She tried “turning it off, my monster,” and then decided to “turn it up.” Her experience of lockdown is defined by objects like razor blades, pills, bandages, and rope. His experience is defined by a glass of whisky, a joint, and a hookah pipe emblazoned with the Playboy logo—all bathed in rose-colored light. He assaults her. “Pain, more pain… again and again,” she explains.
|“If you are reading this, it is already too late.”|
|Playboy experience of lockdown is not the same as hers.||Untold stories, terrifying statistics.|
Images of being assaulted layer atop one another, as she is raped again and again. She explains how each violation feels like having one’s hope, dignity, and soul leave one’s body. The film ends with the haunting statement: “This is my choice. Love, Zawadi.” She has wrapped a noose around her neck and left a suicide note. The final image shows a page from a newspaper called The Untold, dated 20 June 2020. It features a story titled “COVID Outside, Petrified Inside: The Rock and the Hard Place that Women and Young Girls Are Left to Choose from.” The story reveals that since the lockdown in Kenya, there has been a 38% increase in assault and gender-based violence with estimates that these figures represent only half of the actual cases. The final image shows the young woman, staring blankly with the noose in the foreground.
Hellen Samina Ochieng’s Moyo (Kenya, 2020) offers a harrowing tale of a young girl being taken to hospital, not for COVID-19, but because she has been raped. The opening image shows her perspective, the camera adopting the point of view of her eyes behind bandages. The nurse expresses shock over her condition. The film then tells her story in flashback. Her mother returned home at 5:29 PM, lifting a “rent due” notice on her door. She sanitized her hands and removed her mask before hugging her daughter. Later, her mother receives an emergency call in the middle of the night, and because she must leave, she asks a male neighbor to watch her daughter. He rapes her instead. By 6:15 AM, a little more than twelve hours after the story began, she is taken to the hospital. The film ends with an intertitle revealing “a dramatic increase in cases of rape, defilement, domestic violence, and intimate partner violence” in Kenya since the lockdown, with a girl raped “every 30 minutes.”
|Following the safety protocols.||His response to watching her.|
|Her response to being watched by him.||Her perspective on entering hospital during pandemic, but not with COVID-19.|
In comparison, Faith Ilevbare’s Loop: Every End Has a Beginning (Nigeria, 2020) tells the story of a young boy, who witnessed his mother being abused by his father—and the frightening statistic that when young boys observe such violence, it typically manifests in violent behavior against their own partners later in life. The film’s structure is simple and effective at conveying domestic violence’s multigenerational consequences. The scene is shown first from inside the bedroom, then it is rewound and shown from the young boy’s perspective outside. Another film that addresses domestic violence is Aurelie Stratton’s I’ll Call You Later (South Africa, 2020) unfolds as a simple conversation with a middle-class woman who tries to convince her friend that she merely “took a fall” after her friend notices bruises on her torso. As the woman struggles to convince her friend of this lie, she hears her husband return, so she tries to end the video chat. Her friend continues talking, so the chat remains connected. Her friend hears the woman’s screams as her husband beats her, but there is nothing that she can do in that moment to help.
Chioma Divine Favour Mathias’s My Sunshine (Nigeria, 2020) focuses on a young mother, navigating her responsibility to raise her blind daughter, which worsened when the father reappeared in her life. The mother struggles with money, for instance, she must choose between sanitary pads and food, but she is confident that she will find a way. Yehoda Hammond’s Worlds Apart (Ghana, 2020) offers two views into life during the pandemic. A middle-class girl transitions to remote learning online, whereas a working-class girl must forego her education and work with her parents at an open-air market. Both miss school, but different financial circumstances mean that one continues her education, whereas the other does not.
|Financially secure and insecure experiences of remote learning during pandemic. Worlds Apart, Yehoda Hammond [Ghana, 2020].|
The sequencing of films in the collection has the cumulative effect of showing how the welfare of women and children are not always addressed by top-down state policies on mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing. The films alert us to what is happening every day in cities around Africa and elsewhere—events that do not appear in the drone footage, infection graphics, and death statistics of big media, nor do they occur to many media élites. Instead, these films mobilize filmmaking to make these entwined issues legible, visceral, and recognized as urgent.
Other films in African Women in the Time of COVID are more light-hearted. Fezeka Shandu’s Blunder (South Africa, 2020) questions whether “the ancestors” can intervene in lobalo (bride price) negotiations between two families via video-conferencing during the pandemic, suggesting that even tradition can be a path to rethinking patriarchy. Malek El Araby’s Being (Egypt, 2020) reevaluates friendship and everyday pleasures taken for granted. Finally, Skinnor Davillah Agfello’s The Tempest (Kenya, 2020) returns to the premise of the first film. A young mother attempts to “stay positive” in spite of mounting responsibilities to self, family, and the world. Less time at work and on social media can be okay, she reasons, since “being a hero has never been easier.” It is also different in acknowledging that we need to change our collective behavior, especially those with financial privilege.
Taken together, the films show a range of experience in the modality of “small and low.” They are urgent and useful, so they use any technologies available. Gathee recorded the voiceover for Love, Zawadi on a mobile phone, since access to a sound studio was impossible. The Ladima Foundation demonstrates how sometimes “big and high” media can leave no room to breathe when people are literally suffocating due to a virus that prevents the human body from absorbing oxygen.
Many of the episodes of the Netflix’s Homemade are not so “big and high.” Shot almost entirely from GoPro camera attached to a drone, Ana Lily Amirpour’s Ride It Out (United States, 2020) follows Amirpour riding a bicycle through an empty downtown Los Angeles, captured by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski in collaboration with drone operator Armen Aghaeian. The narration by Cate Blanchett mused about being outside during lockdown, and the footage was edited by Taylor Levy into a story. Blanchett’s pseudo-philosophical voiceover has been compared (without irony) to Werner Herzog’s dramatic self-importance on his own films as Amirpour gets lost in the “big and high” as she peddles through some of the most expensive real estate in southern California.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described Homemade as a “diverting but indulgent collection.” Its privilege notwithstanding, Homemade does offer moments when voices outside Hollywood can be heard. Ladj Ly also uses a drone over an empty Paris suburb in Clichy-Montfermeil [France, 2020), though he explores more urgent questions about the future of “art” in Hollywood. Flying over one of the most affected parts of Paris, the drone shows families atop buildings, then looks inside a building to reveal a scene of domestic abuse. Lys pulls into focus how income and resources affect the experiences of lockdown. He hijacks the distanced view of “big and high” then moves back to “small and low” where the virus is entwined with other injustices.