Entering Yemen with a camera and a small crew
Another important element of our modalities of “big and high” and “small and low” is investigative journalism that goes to small places where foreign interests in war can trump public health. Western media notices from time to time on the Syrian civil war, particularly when families fleeing violence are categorized as a “refugee crisis” for the European Union.
Since fewer Yemeni refugees cross the Mediterranean into Europe, Yemen’s civil war is largely ignored, particularly by U.S. media given the U.S. role in supporting the war. Yemen: Coronavirus in a War Zone (United Kingdom, 2020) opens with “big and high” images of old Sanaa, then moves quickly into scenes of director/producer Nawal Al-Maghafi of BBC interviewing people in a crowded market where no one wears a mask. It is April 2020, and people either think the virus will not come to them, has already left, or they simply cannot afford not to work. Al-Maghafi returns three months later in July. In northern Houthi-controlled Yemen, where a quarter of its population at risk of malnutrition, only four deaths for COVID-19 have been reported. The “big and high" of official statistics do not seem credible, so she goes to investigate for herself.
Yemeni ministers criticize Saudi Arabia for blocking humanitarian aid, and the government’s propaganda videos boast of authorities’ efforts to combat the virus through sanitation and disinfection programs, yet videos posted by citizens on social media report 400 to 500 deaths. Doctors report young patients dying within a week because they arrived too late to be properly treated. Houthi teams pick up the sick to transport them to hospitals and collect bodies of the deceased left on the streets. Condolences to victims appear on social media.
|Patients fill the corridors in a hospital beyond capacity.||Cemetery where burials never seem to stop despite official death statistics.|
But conditions in Yemen go far beyond the virus. Dr. Ehab, a Yemeni pediatrician, says that more children die of malnutrition than coronavirus. Unlike Houthis, who have minimized mortality rates, the medical association in Yemen is open about more than 100 deaths. Conditions in Yemen complicate the assessment of COVID-19’s effects. Doctors at one government hospital have not been paid since 2016, and the World Health Organization has also stopped paying doctors because of cuts in funding as the pandemic hit and monopolized resources.
Dr. Tariq, another Yemeni physician, must contend with little protective equipment for staff, limited oxygen, and too many patients. He receives no salary to support his family. Houthi disinformation increases the spread of the virus. In Aden, where the Yemeni government is in exile, the infection peaked in May, but there is little testing, so accurate figures are not available. Panic forced the government to shut all hospitals except Al Amal. Among doctors, Dr. Zoha remained with one nurse, seven ventilators, and a few oxygen cylinders after everyone else left.
For an entire month, the hospital was not able to save a single patient. Since the leadership was in exile in Saudi Arabia, so health care administration in Yemen was virtually nonexistent. For instance, by the time doctors were paid, many had already left. Later, Médecins sans frontière (MSF or Doctors without Borders) was given permission to take over from local managers, which brought desperately needed supplies to the area. Doctors returned, but rumors of MSF giving lethal injections and stealing equipment spread. Because of this and other security issues, MSF left Al Amal and then another hospital.
In Aslam in the north, Saudi raids with U.S. bombs displaced 3.5 million people from their homes. Two million children are starving. At her clinic, Nurse Makiah al-Aslami treats children who have suffered extreme malnutrition. For her, coping with the virus is not a priority. She wants people to find a vaccine for the war.
|Family home in Aslam destroyed by Saudi bomb supplied by the United States.||Steadfastly, Nurse Makiah al-Aslami cares for victims of the war.|
|Displaced by Saudi raids with US bombs, children suffered extreme malnutrition in Aslam.||Laughing, Nurse Makiah al-Aslami wants a vaccine for war.|
Like Ai’s Coronation, Al-Maghafi’s documentary fails to satisfy the “aesthetics” that politically conservative film festivals like Venice demand. Both films reject the single-character, narrative arc structuring device. Unlike Ai’s film, Al-Maghafi’s documentary has found distribution through Journeyman Films, perhaps because her work as a journalist distills and clarifies information to audiences. As a journalist for BCC, she also works within big media’s frameworks for making events legible. Her documentary reminds us of what we already know: the spectacles of war and even the pandemic can distract us from deadly but less novel and visible ills. By demanding to see the “big and high” images we forget to notice the “small and low,” often disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s direct and indirect effects.
Provisional reflections across oceans and continents
This essay represents a very provisional mapping of some of our emerging observations and theorizations on the form, function, and meaning of media produced during the COVID-19 pandemic. These projects counter the usual modality of “big and high” that depends on propagating hysteria, invoking politicians and experts, and fashioning spectacles.
The pandemic has actually disrupted corporatized systems of media production, distribution, and exhibition. No one knows or understands its scope despite what either devotees or skeptics of streaming might say. A Deadline Hollywood article on the effects of the pandemic on Hollywood’s domestic market points out that revenues are down 80%, with 4,000 cinemas closed down. AMC, the largest theater chain in the United States, sought to stave off bankruptcy. Tentpole films have been delayed release until 2021 in hopes that vaccinations will bring spectators back to theaters.
In the new ecology of streaming, all studios are confronting the emerging and constantly-in-flux business models of shortened theatrical windows. “Through the past year, studios scrambled to put their movies in the home, debated whether to delay tentpoles for the big screen and experimented with their new-found streaming services,” the Deadline Hollywood article contended. [open endnotes in new window]
Hollywood’s idea of scalable strategies has emerged even in the typically slow-to-respond commercial corporate media industries. For instance, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s Homemade is designed to offer an array of different perspectives. But as we have argued elsewhere, the episodes default to rather outdated and sometimes problematic festival-circuit model of auteurism that promulgate a vision of privileged artistry and introspection often shorn from any political or social context or urgency. We have analyzed other kinds of media produced during the pandemic that is placed-based, more modest in its production values, designed to circulate. It is a resilient and urgent media high in use value.
Specifically, we argued for a modality of “small and low” in media as a counterpart that is more easily located but sometimes less accessible to audiences used to movie theaters, broadcast and cable television, and streaming services. We look to short-form videos being produced in Australia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia that are uploaded to EngageMedia. We probe short films by aspiring and emerging woman filmmakers from Africa that focus on the secondary effects of lockdowns on the bodies and psyches of women. We unpack collaborations between professional and amateur musicians and singers that reimagine live performance over video-conferencing software in western countries. We dive into feature-length documentaries about the pandemic’s earliest days in China, edited together from the video footage of citizen journalists. We analyze investigative journalism that goes “small and low” to examine the situation in Yemen, where civilians are already suffering the effects of war and are all the more vulnerable to the worst consequences of COVID-19.
These “small and low” media share some commonalities that might point the way forward in this constantly changing and adaptive media ecology. They complicate the easy take-aways from the distant perspective of “big and high” media to focus instead on granular and sometimes irritating details of interconnection, local expertise, and context. They refuse the perspectives of state officials and nationalist power on the world stage and instead insist on community, equity, and caring. They refuse the national and global, situating instead in specific places. They reject the idea of big personalities and instead refocus on ways that many can collaborate and participate.
As health professionals mention again and again, whether conventional “dead” virus or mRNA, vaccines are only as effective when they can be administered. The scale of the pandemic makes global vaccination impossible for several years, so we are asked to do our part.
The pandemic’s spread will increase exponentially with the appearance of more variants of the virus. Variants have emerged in places where the virus’s transmission has not been contained. As a virus, SARS-CoV-2 naturally mutates as a mode of survival, so increased infection rates become increased opportunities for mutation, which might even mean decreased efficacy of vaccines.
We need a second wave of COVID-19 media to focus our attention on these issues and also to decondition us from our complacent acceptance of the rates of infection and death. And, finally, we need these new forms of COVID-19 media to remind us that the climate crisis, domestic violence, and malnutrition are among the many conditions entwined with the pandemic. Just as we cannot treat physical symptoms without also addressing their psychological consequences, we cannot continue to look at the pandemic only from the perspective of what is “big and high.”
If first-wave COVID-19 media educated us about public-health protocols and the effects of quarantines, curfews, masking, and lockdowns, then the second wave needs to educate us about the ongoing dangers not only of SARS-CoV-2 might but also of 501Y.V1 (United Kingdom variant), 501Y.V2 (South Africa variant), P1 (Brazil variant), B1.426 (California variant), and the estimated 4,000 variants plus others to come.