copyright 2021, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 60, spring 2021
Media during the COVID-19 pandemic: big and high, small and low
As Caren Kaplan and Patricia R. Zimmermann have pointed out, drone footage during the COVID-19 pandemic of lockdowns emerged as a new subgenre of media. It produced a distanced spectacle.
Aerial shots moving over new “ruins” of empty buildings are an elegy for global capital’s megacities, evoking militarized aerial mapping of the aftermaths of twentieth-century war. The new proliferation of drone videos operates as a series of hauntings, marshalling affect and romanticism, as dynamic nodes of global connectivity are immobilized into ghost towns. Drone videos during the lockdowns were shot by both amateurs and professionals. Ones produced by major news organizations, such as BBC, Channel News Asia, and Washington Post, camouflage people on the ground. They efface the crises of insufficient medical services and inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), deaths beyond the capacity of morgues to house the bodies, and precarious multiple entwined networks of health, industry, media, public policy, and public health on the ground. [open endnotes in new window]
Broadcast on CTV and later published on the New York Times website, images of Wuhan, where SARS-CoV-2 which causes COVID-19 was first detected, are rendered by a remote-controlled drone to hide the frenetic activity inside the hospitals. It was not until almost a year after the initial infections that long-form documentaries began to reevaluate what had taken place in December 2019 and January 2020 when the virus became a pandemic. These documentaries engage a kind of forensic analysis. Rather than merely represent the surface of the pandemic’s effects, as the drone videos do, they move down low to the level of the emergency rooms and intensive care units. They bring us the intense human suffering of patients, families, and medical professionals. They reset our memories from the nostalgia of pre-COVID-19 times evoked in drone videos over cities in lockdown to confront us with the ground-level realities of moments of the pandemic that we knew mostly through impersonal statistics.
These documentaries insist on naming and representing the fatigue and exasperation of medical professionals that emerged on blogs and news media during January 2020 when hospitals were overwhelmed. They demonstrate how state responses to the pandemic are complicated, and how information sometimes lingers between misinformation and disinformation. They show us how the pandemic was mediated as global—with viewers around the world lamenting over drone videos of empty streets—but its effects occurred locally. Drones allow us to see from a safe distance, offering the fantasy of seeing in totality—the “fiction of knowledge,” as Michel de Certeau observed in relation to the view of a city from a skyscraper. To know the truth, it is often necessary to view the world down below at the level of the ground.
In retrospect, more than the aerial surveillance footage associated with twentieth-century bombardments, the drone videos are evocative of twenty-first-century drone warfare. Eyal Weizman describes how images can constitute a forensic examination of violence that happens at the “threshold of detectability.” Under the Obama administration, the United States moved away from the “shock and awe” of twentieth-century warfare, notably the invasion of Iraq under the Bush II regime that was visually spectacular and mediated live on CNN, to the less detectable strategy of precision missiles, dropped by stealth drones, with micro-second delays on explosion in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine (Gaza), Somalia, and Yemen. Rather than leveling buildings on impact, they pierced concrete and stone walls, and once inside, exploding to destroy human life while leaving the building intact. As Weizman explains,
“evidence was the distinct signature of drone strikes: small holes in the roof of otherwise intact building.”
Technologies from twentieth-century aerial photography partner with twenty-first-century forms of warfare to document the logic of “smart” technologies: human “hostiles” and the “collateral damage” of bystanders, family members, and victims of inaccurate or careless military intelligence are murdered out of sight, while the human-built environment is preserved for reuse by the U.S. empire. As Wiezman reminds us, we “need to study [drones] both as a material object and as a media representation” since aerial photography was often mobilized by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as evidence to deny that drone strikes had even happened since the buildings appeared undamaged. The absence of visual evidence was itself an illusion. The evidence was visible, but it exists down low, below the threshold of visibility of aerial photographs taken up high.
Aerial views flatten the quarantine, so that everyone feels that they should have the same emotions. They are like statistics in the sense that they sometimes distort perceptions. U.S. rates of infection and death were high for a country with a relatively small and dispersed population. With more than 11 million inhabitants, Wuhan’s population is larger than New York’s, which is eight million. To further put this into perspective, New York is the largest city in the United States. The second largest, Los Angeles, has fewer than half that number of people. China has 102 cities with over a million in population, compared only ten U.S. cities with this number. Wuhan’s population is larger than London’s nine million but smaller than Istanbul’s and Moscow’s, the largest European cities with 14.7 and 12.4 million inhabitants, respectively. The world’s largest cities include Tokyo with 37.4 million, Delhi with 28.5 million, São Paulo and Mexico City, both with about 21.6 million, Cairo and Dhaka, both with about 20 million, and Osaka, 19 million. Wuhan ranks ninth in terms of Chinese cities by population. Shanghai has 25.5 million inhabitants; Beijing, almost 20 million, Chongqing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, all roughly between 12 and 16 million. What seems numerically big in the United States can seem small in China, but local suffering on the ground is almost the same.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to study what lies below the thresholds of visibility to big media, as well as the material and immaterial effects of COVID on human and nonhuman bodies. We need to perform the forensics by reexamining media that emerged in the moment of curfews, lockdowns, and public-health recommendations that frequently changed day by day as new data became available. The pandemic’s effects are not limited to the invasion of every organ in the human body, they also manifest in public-health protocols, such as lockdowns and social distancing.
In this article, we examine media during the COVID-19 pandemic—big and high, small and low—to understand the ways in which different dimensions of the pandemic can be communicated to others. This media helps us think about what is urgent and what is useful. While big media like CNN offered urgent information through its townhalls and reporting, it also provided information that was less useful. From its elevated placement, CNN’s national and global statistics flattened the effects of the pandemic to infection and death rates. It did not publish recovery rates. Those can create a false sense of security that the virus is not always fatal but can also suggest what we cannot yet know, namely long-term health problems due to COVID-19. Recovery is also an ambiguous term. It may indicate out of immediate danger of dying, and it may also mean no longer symptomatic.
Data visualizations by each of the fifty U.S. states reflect how each was forced to devise its own protocols in the absence of national ones. Data visualizations for the entire country, however, distort by blurring a vast array of “hot spots” and “safe zones” into a unified graphic form. By looking at them each day, viewers might mistake the spread as determined by contiguity, often reasserted in commentary about particular regions, rather than by other connections.
The virus did not merely spread from Seattle and New York City to surrounding areas in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in neighboring Canada) and the Tri-State Area (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York). Instead, it moved with human traffic since transmission and spread occurs from individual to individual, not geographical area to geographical area. The delayed rates of infection in rural areas points less to their geographical location than to their social disconnection to the traffic of global business.
The virus’s spread helps us visualize material connections over time. The drone image over Wuhan’s airport tell us that stopping virus’s spread also involves recognizing these connections by stopping globalized transportation infrastructure that connects different parts of the world. The solitary cars and vans that sometimes appear on otherwise emptied roads and bridges interrupt romanticized ideas of collective experience with the very different reality of people, who must continue to go work even during lockdown, so that our the lives of others can continue.
We do not altogether dismiss big media like CNN, especially in the United States where conspiracy theories spread on Facebook and Parler faster than the virus spreads from human to human. However, we want to shift focus to “small and low” media to discover details obscured by “big and high” media. The stories told in community or collaborative media projects remind us that the pandemic is global in its spread but its effects are highly uneven, not only in intensities, but in temporalities.
State responses were mixed with Brazil, Britain, India, Sweden, and United States as examples of ill-conceived and poorly executed responses, whereas Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and Viet Nam were praised as model responses. Dubbed “the world’s unlikeliest pandemic success story,” Bhutan was recently noted as an exceptional example of effective public-health policy with minimal resources.
We have proposed a tentative model of “big and high” compared to “small and low,” though we reject the typical assumptions about “high” and “low.” We are not thinking of them in terms of culture or quality, but instead in terms of altitude and distance. We are not thinking about “big” and “small” in terms of importance or even reach, but in terms of perspective and relevance. Big and high concerns the broadcasts of media giants along with the spectacle of images from aerial drones, whereas small and low concerns narrowcast stories on community websites or chatgroups, along with videos shot imperfectly on mobile devices at ground level. These different forms and modes of “small and low” media help us understand how to make connections between the pandemic and other aspects of our lives. They reject the drone’s distance for the mobile’s proximity.
Local experts in Australia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia
CNN’s Coronavirus Town Halls mark a sharp contrast with short videos about the pandemic that are uploaded to EngageMedia’s portal by communities in Australia, Indonesia, India, Nepal, and the Philippines. CNN is locked inside national and international frameworks; EngageMedia is open to stories, no matter how local. CNN organizes its Town Halls as two-hour specials; EngageMedia, makes short videos available to viewers whenever they choose to watch. CNN is corporate; EngageMedia, community-based. CNN is broadcast on premium cable; EngageMedia narrowcasts on free-to-use YouTube. They address different audiences with different priorities.
CNN’s Coronavirus Town Halls are part of a larger international commercial media landscape that launched quick-response programming to a global state of emergency. They appeared belatedly, only after COVID-19 began to affect the United States. CNN’s Town Halls were the most successful corporatized responses in terms of audience shares. By 27 January 2021, 25 town halls had aired. Hosted by anchor Anderson Cooper and medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Town Halls consistently rank second in their primetime time slot. The format is simple: they are staged in the studio, robots film the hosts, and questions from viewers around the world flash continually on the bottom of the screen, anonymized under #cnntownhall.
The faces and voices of the people who ask questions are never shown or heard. Instead, viewers witness a cascade of simple and complex questions in flashing text that speak to anxieties and hysterias. According to Cooper, the sessions feature “experts, not politicians,” especially guests from global public-health policy, public-health and medical experts, and celebrities like Bill Gates, Alicia Keys, and Spike Lee. Unlike CNN in general, the Town Halls assiduously avoid contentious U.S. political debates about the virus. Cooper explains that they try “to stay away from the political side of this, because we do want to get many people to watch to get informed.” Town halls excise politics from public health only in the sense that face-masks and social distancing have been politicized in the United States and in other countries where rightwing populism terrorizes political life.
CNN Town Halls relegate viewers faceless, voiceless, and placeless position at the lower screen where questions flash almost too fast to be read. In contrast, a series of short community-produced videos uploaded to EngageMedia, invert “big and high” to “small and low.” This strategy insists that people’s faces, voices, and places have agency during the pandemic. Robots do not film big experts on sound stages. Instead, humans produce videos with low-end video gear and mobile phones. While they are modest in production, these videos are urgent and useful. They move down to the ground, featuring groups of local experts and others who retain their agency amidst the pandemic.
Rather than extracting it from a world largely defined by global capitalism, positioning it as an unprecedented, once in a century, unique, separate, isolated, and singular experience, these videos insist upon threading other issues and politics into the pandemic crisis. Rather than big media, these videos are small media of great urgency. They emphasize their use value and feature many voices and many groups in a polyphony of intertwined perspectives. EngageMedia aggregates these community-produced videos, connecting them to videos from other crises, such as the Avian Influenza outbreak in Indonesia in 2009 and to informational videos produced by UNICEF and other nongovernmental agencies. EngageMedia situates the COVID-19 pandemic in a history of pandemics, epidemics, and outbreaks that all trace their origins to human abuses of the planet.
The Maritime Union of Australia produced three four-to-eight-minute videos entitled “The Year That Was 2020,” each featuring a different union activist.
In “Paul McAleer, The Year That Was 2020” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QromB6ilZKE, uploaded on 25 December 2020) Sydney branch secretary of the maritime union Paul McAleer opens by addressing viewers as “comrades,” using direct address in a medium close-up. The video interconnections between the pandemic, the bush fires, changes to labor policy by the federal government, struggles for Aboriginal justice, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States.
McAleer calls attention to how “Australian seafarers have helped thousands of people get through this terrifying time,” by delivering seventeen imperial tons (15.4 metric tons) of water to those impacted by the bush fires and explains how members of the federal government “came out and exercised their ruling class power” to ram through work-place job changes, such as “insuring [that] jobs are casualized” (meaning workers are not hired full-time but are hired when needed.). The images accompanying his testimony are derived from Australian and U.S. commercial media programs on COVID-19, generating a dialectic between the union’s voice and work with commercial media’s representations of state power.
Descended from white settlers, McAleer connects Aboriginal rights in Australia to BLM in the U.S. settler colony. Invoking the Uluru Statement developed at the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in 2017, he aspires to “destroy discrimination, destroy oppression, destroy injustice.” He concludes by thanking the seafarers for all their work during the pandemic, then looking straight at the camera, he asserts that we must “build solidarity with other workers.”
“Rural Women Speak Out” (https://video.engagemedia.org/view?m=PNvrmqe03) is a video about COVID-19 presented by EngageMedia. It is four minutes in length and went live on 15 October 2020 as part of the 16 Days of Global Action on Agroecology: Fight for Food System Change, which was launched by PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP), an activist organization. The description of the video notes that “the pandemic disproportionally affects rural women” with increased work amid lack of government support, and that agroecology helps to “alleviate the burden they are carrying.” The video is organized in a problem-and-solution structure, with individual women from India, Nepal, the Philippines, and Viet Nam, recounting challenges that the pandemic has saddled upon them.
Looking directly at the camera and framed in medium shots, they mention children’s schooling, lost income from the inability to sell herbs at the market, and healthcare issues. The second half of the video explains the need for agroecology to convert to organic local farming. Angelita Manangan from the Philippines explains how she converted to organic farming to help cope with the pandemic. Sherada Paswan from Nepal explains that it is difficult to buy seeds during the pandemic and easier to use locally sourced bottle-gourd and okra seeds.Venda from India tells women farmers to use natural compost instead of pesticides to avoid health problems. Pham Thi Huyen from Viet Nam uses chili-garlic spray instead of chemical pesticides to help protect her health. Dr. Indira Devi P. from Kerala Agricultural University argues that the urgency of sustainable development goals is underlined during the pandemic. She contends that “your health depends on the food that you eat, the air that you breathe, and the water that you drink… you have to follow safe farming practices.”
Most of these women are shot outside, in their gardens or on their farms. The video features multiple voices of woman from different countries in South and Southeast Asia, united in advocacy for agroecology. The perspectives of these local experts are contextualized by on-location shooting with modest equipment, rather than placing journalists and big experts (and celebrities) in isolation with robots on a sound stage. These “small and low” videos make an argument that COVID-19 cannot be separated from food production outside the control of transnational corporations. Organic farming is not reduced to a label at a whole food shop; it becomes a politics of resistance against the very forces of global capitalism that generated the perfect conditions for the pandemic.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Reimaging musical performance with social distancing in Britain and United States
In times of mourning, crisis, trauma, and loss, music is a way to bring people together in a single place, providing a shared space for experiencing unresolved emotions beyond words. It sustains a space to move past the self into the realm of the collective, the transitory, ineffable, and sublime.
Music moves beyond the quotidian predictability of daily life into ritual’s slower, more layered temporality. The pandemic is a crisis with massive loss and death, and social distancing means that music cannot be experienced in shared spaces. Amusing innovations have developed, such as The Flaming Lips performing to a crowd of people, each of whom is safely contained inside a plastic bubble. Oxygen inside the bubbles lasts only about an hour. As a result of the pandemic, musicians have reconceived performance, moving it from the big spaces of concert halls to the small spaces of homes, for performer and audience alike, on small screens and over small speakers.
Italian operatic tenor Andrea Bocelli emerged as a de-facto pandemic superstar of classical European music. His “Music for Hope: Live from Il Duomo di Milano” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=huTUOek4LgU ) Easter Sunday concert on 12 April 2020, exemplifies how “big and high” melded together, not as spectacle, but into contemplation. Bocelli performed alone in the cathedral as drones moved through the empty space. He sang a series of religious songs such as “Ave Maria,” “Domine Deus,” and “Sancta Maria,” while drone videos over Beijing, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Florence, London, New York, Paris, São Paulo, Venice, Warsaw, and other cities under lockdown were intercut, suggesting the grandeur of one person speaking for the entire globe. Three million viewers logged on for the livestream, and another thirty-two million accessed it on YouTube within twenty-four hours. The performance instantiated individual longing, loss, disconnection, emptiness in large spaces, and supplication to a higher power.
For Christmas 2020, Bocelli continued this same aesthetic and political strategy with an online concert entitled “Believe in Christmas.” Staged by Franco Dragone from Cirque du Soleil, it was livestreamed and billed as a “one-off live event” available for U.S.$25 on Ticketmaster, a contrast to the viral group music videos that circulate on social media networks by less renowned musicians.
As a teaser for this concert, Bocelli staged a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” with his daughter in the Teatro Regio di Parma in Assisi. They performed on a large stage in an empty theater with a full orchestra in the pit below them. They sat on the stage illuminated by LED lights in lanterns. The dark emptiness of the theater contrasted with the lighting of the father and daughter as they sang a duet, partly in Italian, partly in English. Drone shots were intercut with a two shot of father and daughter, emphasizing familialism. The camera moved around them in a languorous tracking shot that contrasted with the drone shots of the theater space. Like the first concert, the affect is loss, emptiness, mourning, isolation, and of course, celebrity and paternalism.
In contrast, Scottish pop singer Annie Lennox, of the Eurythmics, produced a rendition of “Dido’s Lament,” the final aria from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689), to support Greenpeace in November 2020. The aria is also known as “When I Am Laid in Earth” and is a melancholy part of the operatic tragedy, evoking in this instance the entwined collective losses of global climate disruption and the pandemic.
The aria is almost always sung as a solo, with videos abounding of well-known sopranos such as Fiona Campbell, Joyce Di Donato, and Jessye Norman, singing the baroque aria, delivered by Dido, Queen of Carthage, who is dying of a broken heart on learning her fiancé Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan war, plans to abandon her. The lyrics elaborate death and finality:
“When I am laid, am laid in earth/May my wrongs create no trouble, no trouble in thy breast/Remember me, Remember me but ah forget my fate/Remember me, but ah, Forget my fate.”
Lennox inverts this norm, taking an aria for one person and transforming it into a choral piece, and then translating classical opera’s high art into a pop-music vocal style. She collaborated with the non-audition community London City Voices Choir. Wearing concert-black clothing against home-made white backgrounds, 276 members participated, singing “Dido’s Lament” from their homes with Lennox performing the minimalist piano accompaniment herself. Although generally accompanied by full orchestra, here, the aria emphasizes the amateur, accessible, and small.
The video places Lennox in the middle of the screen, surrounded by the square images of the choir in a large group shot and later in individual portraits. Rather than the deeply nuanced and highly trained voices of classical opera singers, Lennox and the choir combine pop-music and amateur styles. The aria takes the lament for a lost lover and translates it into a much larger and less romantic lament for those lost to COVID-19—and for the dying planet. The concert black that the performers wear is also the black of mourning; the singers’ white backgrounds suggest clouds, or perhaps apocalypse.
As choral director and music scholar Janet Galvan has noted, “Dido’s Lament” is considered one of the saddest melodies in the western opera repertoire, as it is a farewell to the world. The melody constitutes a form of sighing, with the notes descending on the scale. Baroque vocal music is noted for its cleanliness and purity of sound, without vocal excess or ornamentation and space between the musical notes, in contrast to opera like that of Verdi, with a wider range of vibrato and more vocal ornamentation.
Galvan identifies baroque vocal music as “clean, mean, lean,” attributes that Lennox translates in a more democratic way through her style and use of the choir. According to Galvan, baroque vocal music is not loud and bombastic; rather, it has a softer, cleaner, and clearer tone. Lennox resolutely does not imitate operatic style, but instead renders it into pop music, creating a sense of the aria as malleable to the different kinds of trained and untrained voices and adaptable to the technological and social/political context. Lennox has reimagined the solo as a chorale collective piece, which suggests solidarity and activism rather than the isolation of melancholy.
Lennox produced two videos for “Dido’s Lament,” one with the choir in Zoom squares (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3DFaIovZxc ), and one with archival footage of the larger climate crisis in a circle on the screen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yWda4RJ0OI ] The archival version moves from animals and landscapes to human-built environments and extraction of natural resources. It is a history of the destruction of living habitats. In this version, there is a circular shape in the middle of the black screen that suggests the earth and evokes early cinema’s masking of the rectangular frame. The images migrate from mountains, waterfalls, rivers, into cities, factories, streets, buildings, oil wells, coal mines, airplanes, appliances, streets, roads, highways, birds, tigers, and turtles. It ends with images of wild fires, plastic bags in the water, garbage on a beach, clouds, and then the earth. Single phrases from the lament are laced throughout as text, such as “May my wrongs create,” “when I am laid,” “Remember me,” “forget my fate,” always in superimposition on the archival images.
The images are presented in a continual fluctuation of different colors from pink to blue to green. This video chronicles a history of the Anthropocene’s destruction, emphasizing that “remember me” in the lament refers to the Earth, nonhuman animals, nature, and landscapes before capitalist destruction. Both videos enact the modalities of “small,” taking big issues like tragedy in operatic arias and the end of the earth and rendering them scalable. Both videos marshal tactics of “low” as well, bringing the high culture of opera to a more democratic, untrained, collective enterprise where the act of singing matters more than judgements about its execution. Finally, it brings the high tragedy derived from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid on which the opera is based, down to the earth and voices of the amateur choir.
Ithaca College’s “Amazing Grace” video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_weuC6FLyJ8 ) features over 300 students in the School of Music, singing and playing. It aligns with Lennox’s “Dido’s Lament” videos as a collaborative project that confronts the politics and emotions of isolation during the pandemic, especially poignant, since musicians depend on being in close proximity to each other when they play to hear and experience more deeply. The video has garnered nearly 20,000 views in less than a month, circulating in social media. Like “Dido’s Lament,” it operates as an inversion of “big and high” modalities into “small and low” ones. Taking the U.S. folk song “Amazing Grace,” the video stages a socially distanced performance that inserts more voices and instrumentation. It is in stark contrast with Andrea Bocelli’s Easter concert with its drones flying over head the tenor’s head as he sings in front of an empty cathedral.
In the Ithaca College video, hundreds of students sing and play together in Zoom. They take something that is small and make it big in small ways. Each person sings or plays at home. They are not uniformly dressed, as in the Lennox-Greenpeace video; instead, they wear a panoply of styles, from concert-black formal wear, to plaid shirts, and from Ithaca College sweatshirts to nice blouses as they sing and play their instruments, each in their own square. The style of the video with each student playing or singing inside an individual square on the screen offers multiple visualizations of the students, most of whom are framed in medium close-up. They are not identical—different, yet all grounded in their homes, literally and figuratively. They do not perform in one of the campus’s big concert halls with perfect acoustics, but in small bedrooms and dining rooms in their homes with low-tech recording equipment against all sort of ambient noise that their audience might or might not hear.
As Ithaca College decided to make the fall 2020 semester fully remote, Aaron Witek, an assistant professor of trumpet and a professional performer, felt it was important to generate positive news about the college and, even more urgently, to create performance experiences and a sense of community among students in the School of Music.
With a miniscule budget, he chose “Amazing Grace” because it is in the public domain. Witek used his limited funds to commission an alumnus to arrange the piece for a large ensemble. He wanted the music to be identifiable to anyone who heard it. He felt that the song reflected the pandemic and decided to dedicate the performance to COVID-19 victims and frontline workers in remembrance and support. Serving as artistic director and producer, Witek storyboarded the song and provided shooting directions to student performers, alerting them to pay attention to backgrounds and to shoot in landscape, rather than portrait format, whether from their phones or better digital cameras.
Sean Lindfors, assistant professor of music education at Ithaca College and a specialist in choral music education, was brought in as conductor. In another inversion for the virtual performance, the conductor is invisible to the audience. Lindfors pointed out that the project was designed “to just have a moment together” during the pandemic that evokes the strong feeling of togethernesswhen musicians perform in a shared space. Lindfors is fascinated with how the pandemic pushes artists to innovate—and audiences to reimagine their responses to art.
Connecting to pandemic experience, Lindfors points out that John Newton, the song’s lyricist, wrote about lost family members, of loneliness, separation, anxiety, and loss that are often not spoken or discussed. During production, Lindfors and Witek stressed the importance of doing something collaborative, together as a large group of students in a music school, with vocalists and instrumentalists. Students were not required to participate, but most did. Lindfors underscores how the pandemic requires reorienting music pedagogy, where listening becomes more important than being in embodied settings. Texture, dynamics, interpretation, and phrasing is also much more difficult remotely, requiring a move to very small breakdowns, not only of the phrases in the music, but also the process.
Witek saw that virtual concerts could reach wider audiences than traditional on-site ones and offer the affordances of collaboration. He wanted to foreground the positive aspects of the Zoom experience. He wanted students to feel “a mission or a purpose” beyond their own isolation in support of the victims and frontline workers. Like the “Dido’s Lament” project, Ithaca College’s “Amazing Grace” rejects big solos and instead focuses on small collaborations among many people. In a fascinating torqueing of “big and high” versus “small and low,” the project takes a folk song, arranging and performing it with properties adopted from classical music. It amplifies the quotidian performance history of folk songs in churches, demonstrations, and funerals with formally trained players who are just starting out in their careers.
Both videos counter a culture of melancholic individualism exemplified in Andrea Bocelli’s staged spectacles. They democratize the content and multiply the number of voices within a participatory model that focuses on repositioning and transforming something small into something big while simultaneously remaining small and short for file-sharing and social media platforms.
Rather than hovering high above vacant structures that are inaccessible to most of us, performing for high-end cameras strapped to remote-controlled drones, these videos move down low to the level of our laptops. By streaming images from inside individual homes, they create a multi-directional penetration of private spaces that converge in a created and mediated semipublic space.
Rather than dazzling us with the big budget needed to stage a professional performance, they reward us with insights into what can be achieved with relatively little. They ask us to ponder, not only what is useful during the pandemic, but what is achievable when we work together towards causes that are bigger than ourselves—and bigger than celebrity egos.
Recollecting the pandemic’s origins in documentaries on China
One of the most iconic images of the first-wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was aerial drone footage of Wuhan during the lockdown. Streets, highways, and bridges were relatively empty of pedestrian and car traffic. In the footage, cars move in relative isolation, suggesting the collapse of a world system of transportation. Connections to the world suddenly shifted from advantages for global business to disadvantages in vulnerability.
Wuhan was placed under lockdown at 10:00 on 23 January 2020, 24 days after the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported deaths eventually related to the novel coronavirus. Drone images of the airport seems like a camera panning over a still photograph since the airplanes remain static, tethered to tarmacs or connected to jetways. In some ways, the images conjure memories of the still images on the jetty at the Orly Airport in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (France, 1962), which included aerial photography of Paris devastated by bombardment.
Remarkably, there are no signs of movement in drone videos over Wuhan’s airport that serves more than 20 million passengers annually. China Southern Airlines connects Wuhan to major cities and transfer airports, including Bangkok, Dubai, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Moscow, New York, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo. The images from Wuhan of empty streets and an inert airport are all the more unnerving since the city was placed on lockdown just days before Chinese New Year, which fell on 25 January 2020. Typically, people would be returning home for the holiday with a travel rush that starts 15 days before the New Year and continues for 40 days. The roadways and airports would ordinarily have been full of people. Instead, the people were inside, not airport terminals, shopping malls, or office building, but homes and also hospitals. The “big and high” images partly obscure what is happening in the city, but the “small and low” images stay at ground level to move inside ambulances, ERs, and ICUs.
With the passing of time, documentary filmmakers have gathered footage and edited it into some of the first analyses of the pandemic’s origins in Wuhan. Shot in four hospitals in Wuhan, 76 Days (United States/China, 2020; dir. Weixi Chen and Hao Wu) opens with the chaos of hospitals trying to cope with unprecedented demands. Handheld cameras try to keep up. Hospital workers in full gowns sleep on benches in corridors. Hospital staff interpret phone calls for intubated ICU patients. Staff queue to have tape applied to seal their gowns in hopes of blocking the virus. Because of their PPE, hospital staff are all but unrecognizable, so they write names on the gowns, so that they can identify one another. There are boxes filled with bags that contain the ID cards and mobile phones of the deceased. One phone rings and flashes, indicating unread messages. Nurses perform affective labor to calm frightened patients. They spoon-feed patients too weak to eat by themselves. A Party member’s son tries to shame his demanding father to stop complaining so much to doctors and other staff. A baby is born. A son is afraid to collect his father from the hospital, fearing he is not cured. By 16 February 2020, there are 50 patients.
Outside, announcements enjoin citizens to obey recommendations and refrain from spreading rumors. On empty streets, banners recommend: “Staying Home Makes A Happy Family.” People disinfect the streets. Nurses disinfect the people. The film concludes with head nurse Yang Li, phoning families to return belongings of the deceased. On 04 April 2020, air-raid sirens mark a day of remembrance for everyone who died. Four days later, the lockdown was lifted after 76 days. The film focuses on the visceral experiences of the pandemic without making any connections to the causes of the virus or its symptoms beyond lung function. It presents the pandemic in Wuhan much differently than the drone footage.
Coronation (Germany/China, 2020; dir. Ai Weiwei) makes a less observational and more critical analysis of the events in December 2019, suggesting that China suppressed information by preventing people from leaving Wuhan. The film opens with a man returning to Wuhan in Hubei province by car during lockdown. A woman at a petrol station reports him for his car’s Hubei plates, but police allow him pass after his temperature is recorded. In a contrast to the opening, taken from down low, the film then offers a view from high up as drone footage shows the snow-covered city. From the human noises of conversation and breathing of the scene down low, the soundtrack shifts to an electronic beat. The footage then returns to down low, and shots of patients in the sanitary white spaces of ICUs reveal a diametrically different sense of white space. Rather than a detachment from the earth, the camera’s perspective seems tethered to the doctors and nurses who navigate tight overwhelmed spaces, and patients who seem trapped beneath the life-support systems.
The film continues this disorienting movement from “big and high” to “small and low” and back again with more techno music over images of the rapid construction of emergency hospitals. The emotional cues of the music are starkly different from the optimistic tones of a time-lapse video posted by China Global Television Network. Ai layers music over video images that are shared with him in exile in Germany by citizen journalists back in China, and his musical choices are unnerving. In an interview, a construction worker who came to Wuhan to help build the hospital, discloses that he is not allowed to leave. He lives inside a truck that is parked in a parking garage. He and other construction workers are forced to use toilets at petrol stations. State officials tell them not to give interviews or “something bad” will happen. Despite China’s impressive response in constructing emergency hospitals seemingly overnight, many involved in this spectacular labor and enormous task are trapped in a bigger bureaucratic machine. While the government produced time-lapse videos of the construction from drone-level, residents of Wuhan gathered images of construction workers and recorded their statements as they waited for permission to return home.
In addition to his exhibitions in art museums and biennales, Ai came to international attention beyond art aficionados for his blog and Student Name List of 5,212 child-victims of 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. Many were killed when cheaply constructed schools collapsed. The earthquake disaster, as Zhang Zhen argues,
“ignited the explosion of ‘citizen journalism’ in its aftermath and seems to have played a cataclysmic role in consolidating and rapidly expanding an emerging ‘citizen documentation’ movement in the digital era.”
Ai believes that information belongs to the public, but China does not always share this belief. After his Sina Weibo blog was shut down by the state, he switched to twitter. He has made over twenty documentaries, which he often distributes freely on DVD or online. He co-curated the Uncooperative Attitude (titled Fuck Off in English) art exhibition in 2000. He was detained in 2011 for 81 days, then fined CN¥15.5 million (U.S.$2.4 million) for taxes.
Ai produced and directed Coronation remotely from Berlin, working with residents of Wuhan. As one review notes, their cameras offer perspectives on the city strikingly different from those of the state’s ubiquitous surveillance camera work. Perched atop street lights and buildings, the government’s elevated points-of-view through the lenses of top-quality cameras differs significantly from the street-level shots on mobile phones by ordinary residents. Their devices gaze back at the state, not only for trying to divert their attention from the virus in the early days, but also to China’s Social Credit System, which rates citizens based on a variety of information, including video evidence of violations of the law such as jaywalking or playing music too loudly on public transportation. The interplay of the state’s invisible mechanisms of power are resisted by the hypervisibility of Wuhan residents, documenting with their mobiles in gestures that lacks the iconicity of the high-angle image. “Tank Man” is an iconic image of an unarmed and unprotected citizen who blocked an advancing column of army tanks on Tiananmen Square in June 1989. The video images in Ai’s film are no less powerful.
Coronation emphasizes what happens on the ground. As nurses arrive in the city, a woman asks them not to say anything about the virus. She informs them simply to wave and directs them to buses. Inside the hospital, another story emerges. Doctors and nurses follow a careful process of wearing two gowns, one over the other. They check for possible air leaks. Since everyone looks the same under the protective equipment, they write names on their apparel, so that people can be identified. CCTV monitors on 16 January 2020 show one doctor following protocols through a series of three changing rooms. He must dispose of one layer of PPE, then wash his gloved hands before preceding to next room. His blood oxygen level is measured afterwards.
The film also shows the effects of the lockdown on the city’s residents. Home deliveries of groceries are among the few signs of movement in otherwise empty streets. Deliverers and recipients seem unsure how to interact. Others do not have the financial means for home delivery. Supplies from Tibet, including mineral water and yak meat, are sent to help people in Wuhan live under such circumstances. Other scenes show people who must work during the lockdown, for instance, workers disinfecting streets. Ai’s editing of the film, however, gradually begins to erode viewers’ trust in official reports and images. An older woman and her son chat during lockdown. As a former union leader who received awards, she says that he speaks like Party member. They hear news reports on infection rates in New York and California, and her son tells the woman that China uses GPS on phones to track spread. People get codes on smartphones; otherwise quarantine and pay.
The film makes its critique more directly toward the end. Rather than shocking images inside ERs and ICUs, it shows images, even more shocking in a different way, of efforts to suppress the transmission of information about the virus. Workers must swear allegiance to the Party and its secrets. Women perform the gesture of proper handwashing techniques to songs that seems more political than medical in their intent. A woman explains how people were unable to get treatment and died and how some were listed as dying from other causes. Images of massive amounts of medical waste suggest the resources needed to contain the virus’s spread. Other resources are allocated to marking the lockdown’s end, including official portraits and dazzling light shows on buildings. Images of this spectacle are records of the official staging of state propaganda and promotion.
These public views from “big and high” are undercut by interviews taken on the ground. A man complains about inaccurate information from government, such as assuring people that there was no human-to-human spread. He shows video on his mobile of his father Zhang Lifa on a ventilator at the hospital. The man also complains about being closely monitored like others who have lost family to coronavirus. He wonders why the state spends money on watching them rather than allocating it to more urgent purposes. Ai’s collaborators’ cameras later follow the man as he navigates the bureaucracy in order to collect his father’s ashes. Ai follows with images of men compressing bags with the ashes of the deceased to cram into wooden boxes that are wrapped in red cloth and given to family.
The film ends with sorrowful acoustic music over people praying. It closes with this text:
"The first case of Covid-19 appeared in Wuhan on December 1st, 2019. For several weeks officials concealed information about the virus’ human-to-human transmission and its infection and mortality rates. On January 23rd, 2020, Wuhan was put under lockdown. By August 2020, Covid-19 has spread to over 200 countries with more than 17 million confirmed cases and 700,000 deaths worldwide.”
The film does not mention Dr. Li Wenliang, who died at age 34 from COVID-19 in February 2020 after attempting to warn the WTO. It mentions people whose stories were ignored by big media, but there are others that the film does not report—stories that were ignored by both Chinese state media and also by non-Chinese media, eager to make Li a celebrity as a political jab at China.
What is striking is that most English-language reviews of the film are illustrated with an aerial drone shot of the city under lockdown, as is Ai’s website. It might be that news editors and Ai’s web designer fail to notice how the film uses low-level shots as a counterpoint to traditional narrative cinema’s establishing shots. But it could also be that many of us are afraid to see what is actually happening. The preference for professional quality views from “big and high” to imperfect ones from “small and low” enters into the film’s reception by the international film festival and film distribution community. “According to organisers of the Venice festival, censorship had nothing to do with their decision [to reject Coronation], dictated instead by aesthetic and cinematographic considerations,” reports Cecilia Dardana. Venice was not alone is making the film harder for audiences to find. Regarding its future on the streaming services, she explains:
“Netflix, instead, has stated that it is working on its own documentary about the pandemic.”
It is difficult to determine which of these “big and high” decisions is more counterproductive. Netflix’s protection of its own financial investment in a competing documentary seems to contradict its supply-driven business model of subscription VOD to offer as much content as possible. Venice’s decision, allegedly based on production values and artistic preferences, demonstrates why the A-list western festivals started to become antiquated in an increasingly globalized world long before the pandemic made in-person festival experiences unsafe.
Aesthetic judgment is always a political statement, and politics are located in social practices. Hollywood’s Oscars are often the benchmark for conservative politics, but Coronation reveals that Venice, like Berlin, Cannes, and Sundance, reject what they cannot understand. They are other brands of “big and high.” Coronation, however, is more complicated than its nonwestern “aesthetics and cinematography” that challenge the gatekeepers of western film festivals with evidence that there is a limit to their knowledge. While Ai is a highly respected and well-known filmmaker, this film is compiled of footage by nonprofessionals whose concern for the urgency of documenting what is happening exceeds formal concerns, thus pointing to Venice’s failure to acknowledge the urgency of the moment.
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. 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.
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.
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.
1. Patricia R. Zimmermann and Caren Kaplan, “Coronavirus Deon Genres: Spectacles of Distance and Melancholia, Film Quarterly Quorum (30 April 2020), https://filmquarterly.org/
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2. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press 1984), 92.
3. Eyal Weizman, “Introduction: At the Threshold of Detectability,” Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (New York: Zone Books, 2017), 13–47.
4. Weizman, “Introduction,” 21.
5. Weizman, “Introduction,” 21.
6. U.S. population data from United States Census Bureau, “City and Town Population Totals: 2010–2019,” (last revised: 07 May 2020), https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/popest/2010s-total-cities-and-towns.html.
7. All non-U.S. population data from United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, The World’s Cities in 2018—Data Booklet (ST/ESA/ SER.A/417) (New York: United Nations, 2018), https://www.un.org/en/events/citiesday/
8. Madeline Drexler, “Bhutan Is the World’s Unlikeliest Pandemic Success Story,” The Atlantic (10 February 2021), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2021/02/coronavirus-pandemic-bhutan/617976/.
9. Brian Steinberg, “CNN’s Coronavirus Town Hall Has Become A Prime-time Staple,” Variety (28 May 2020), https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/cnn-coronavirus-town-hall-anderson-cooper-sanjay-gupta-1234618706/
10. Ian Urrutia, “Redefining the Protest Anthem in the Time of a Pandemic,” The Rest is Noise (09 July 2020), https://therestisnoiseph.com/alternatrip-ngayon-ang-panahon/
11. Benjamin Lee, “Locked Down Review—Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Pandemic Stinker,” The Guardian (13 January 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/jan/13/locked-down-review-anne-hathaway-and-chiwetel-ejiofor-pandemic-stinker.
12. Special thanks to Ivy Ikinyi for sharing this collection with us.
13. Hadassah Egbedi, “African Women in The Time of COVID-19 (Ladima Film Competition): Love, Zawadi by Wambui Gathee,” Ventures Africa (22 July 2020), http://venturesafrica.com/african-women-in-the-time-of-covid-19ladima-film-competition-love-zawadi-by-wambui-gathee/.
14. Tyler Aquilina, “Ana Lily Amirpour Made a Brilliant COVID-19 Short for Netflix,” Entertainment Weekly (29 June 2020), https://ew.com/movies/ana-lily-amirpour-homemade-covid-19-short-film-netflix/.
15. Peter Bradshaw, “Homemade Review – Kristen Stewart Leads Netflix’s Lockdown Short Films,” The Guardian (29 June 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jun/29/homemade-review-kristen-stewart-leads-netflix-lockdown-short-films.
16. Johnny Diaz, “The Flaming Lips Performed to People in Literal Bubbles. Is It Safer?,” New York Times (25 January 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/25/arts/music/flaming-lips-bubble-concert.html.
17. Dale Hudson and Patricia R. Zimmermann, “An Archive of Small Media During First Wave COVID-19: Productive Memories of the Global Trauma, in Filipe Martins, ed. Memory and Aesthetic Experience: Essays on Cinema, Media and Cognition (Porto, Portugal: Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto, 2020), 166.
18. Janet Galvan, interview with Patricia R. Zimmermann, 23 January 2021.
19. Aaron Witek, interview with Patricia R. Zimmermann, 27 January 2021.
20. Sean Lindfors, interview with Patricia R. Zimmermann, 12 January 2021.
21. World Health Organization, “Listings of WHO’s response to COVID-19,” (29 June 2020; last updated: 15 December 2020), https://www.who.int/news/item/29-06-2020-covidtimeline.
23. Zhang Zhen, “Towards. Digital Political Mimesis: Aesthetic of Affect and Activist Video.” in DV-Made China: Digital Subjects and Social Transformations after Independent Film, ed. Zhang Zhen and Angela Zito (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), 336.
24. Cecilia Dardana, “Coronation, Ai Weiwei’s Documentary Filmed by Wuhan Residents during Lockdown,” trans. Laura Brown, Lifegate (10 December 2020), https://www.lifegate.com/coronation-documentary-ai-weiwei-wuhan.
25. Despite western fantasies that the Social Credit System is exceptional to China, it exists by other names everywhere, including Uber, which requires users and providers to rate one another. The system is more precisely a network of systems controlled by individual provinces and private corporations. Nicole Kobie, “The Complicated Truth about China’s Social Credit System,” Wired UK (07 June 2019), https://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-social-credit-system-explained.
26. Cecilia Dardana, “Coronation, Ai Weiwei’s Documentary Filmed by Wuhan Residents during Lockdown,” trans. Laura Brown, Lifegate (10 December 2020), https://www.lifegate.com/coronation-documentary-ai-weiwei-wuhan.
27. Anthony D’Allessandro, “How the Pandemic Wiped Out the Studios Domestic Box Office Market Share in 2020,” Deadline Hollywood (31 December 2020), https://deadline.com/2020/12/2020-box-office-studio-domestic-market-share-covid-19-1234663350/.
28. Eric Kohn, “Netflix Quarantine Anthology is Pure Filmmaking Talent in Bit Size Pieces,” Indiewire (20 June 2020), https://www.indiewire.com/2020/06/homemade-review-netflix-quarantine-anthology-1234570596/.