In the upcoming months and years, creatives will be faced with the immense task of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic through film, writing, and visual arts. The challenge of conveying even fragments of our international isolation and fear seems impossible, but it is what filmmakers Usama Alshaibi and Adam Sekuler have attempted through their program Cinema-19, a filmmaking initiative launched in partnership with Anthology Film Archives (New York), the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center (New Orleans), and Northwest Film Forum (Seattle), that invited artists to create 190-second short films that describe their time during the pandemic. In Cinema-19’s press materials, Alshaibi and Sekuler clearly state that the aim of this project is not to curate a selection of films that sums up the complexities and wide range of experience during the pandemic, though inevitably one finds oneself asking: how can we even begin to process our grief and emotions in such an unprecedented era? By design, Cinema-19 does not even begin to scratch the surface of this endless topic, but the selected filmmakers all offer insightful, absurd, terrifying, and touching perspectives on the minutiae of our pandemic-addled day-to-day, and, perhaps, an entry point to understanding our present and futures.
In the 14 shorts Alshaibi and Sekuler commissioned for Cinema-19, few address the pandemic directly: it is referenced through the distant howl of sirens, discarded masks on the ground, and the changing weather, among other markers. Courtney Stephens’s Iris Season—the first video of the program and perhaps the one that best represents Alshaibi and Sekuler’s initial goals—is told through an anonymous narrator who is quarantining with her mother in a California suburb. Her quarantine coincides with March’s annual iris bloom, and these flowers symbolize the death and transformation she experienced in the first months of the pandemic. It’s a melancholy portrait of passing time and loss signified through small changes in nature that Iris Season’s narrator comes to understand as reflecting our current cycle of death and eventual rebirth.
In their focus on the individual experience and its ephemera, Cinema-19’s shorts eschew the typical body horror of sickness in favor of rendering the emotional toll of isolation and its revelations. Together, Cinema-19’s shorts offer little snapshots into the mundane and terrifying in our everyday lives. Lori Felker’s dada commentary BROKEN NEW: Pandemic digs into the absurdity and repetition of our new Zoom-dominated environment through a mock newscast, and Open for Business from Eman Akram Nader and Alex Megaro is a subtle but affecting portrait of capitalism’s pull on a suburban New Jersey town through various billboard advertisements as seen during the pandemic.
Cinema-19’s most successful shorts stick to this original mission of intimacy in storytelling, shifting away from the pandemic’s enormous toll to focus on personal stories or issues exacerbated by COVID-19. Sarah Ema Friedland’s Her Own Time, a meditation on domestic violence in the context of the lockdown, is precise and considered in the way it examines popular, one-dimensional narratives on violence through stock images and mainstream media. Through animation, Friedland creates Martha Rosler-esque collages of drawings and photographs that compare the artist’s experience with violence in comparison to the melodramatic images that accompany news articles about the uptick in reported domestic violence cases since the beginning of lockdown. The result is a brilliant look into the private pains of home life brought into focus by our collective isolation, ending with a call to action through a memorial to Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old woman whose tragic murder in June brought a renewed focus to this summer’s international Black Lives Matter protests. Friedland’s short is an intersectional view of the lockdown, clearly outlining the ways in which gender and race exacerbate already punishing effects of this moment. Other filmmakers touch on the role of identity in the pandemic such as Amir George’s thought-provoking Upheaval of Cleve, a narrative about a man who is caught between the low-paying job he needs and the Black Lives Matter protests, seeing little hope in either situation. George’s short is a parable of this summer’s hopelessness, summed up through the protagonist’s monologue to the camera: “we know things are bad, worse than bad—they’re crazy… and there’s no end to it.” It’s one of many moments in Cinema-19 that captures the cyclical doom of the moment better than any news article or graph ever could.
Whereas Friedland’s short is more grounded in our socially distant and systematically prejudiced reality, Scott Cummings’ Tarantula takes personal experience into a nightmarish space by using horror film conventions to illustrate the interconnected dreams of a father and son. The short begins with a caveat: that those close to the epicenter of a traumatic event are more likely to have nightmares or other kinds of overactive, vivid dreams. Through voiceover, the young son recounts a dream in which he is attacked by a spider-like monster while his helpless father watches. The father then recounts the same dream, punctuated by the child’s screams. It’s a truly horrifying moment, but it is one that encapsulates the constant fear and morbidity of this pandemic. That Cummings is able to capture COVID-induced paranoia so vividly over the course of mere minutes is no small feat.
While the majority of these videos are effective exercises in communicating grief, change, and loss, a few of these shorts address the pandemic so indirectly that their inclusion in this program seems somewhat puzzling, trading out any sort of narrative or relevance for pseudo-Lynchian mood portraits that seem lackluster in comparison to the quaint but emotionally potent filmmaking elsewhere. Shorts such as Christin Tuner’s A Dream in Red and Alshaibi’s In the Dirt attempt to capture the anxiety of the moment but fall victim to striking but ultimately hollow visuals. Regardless of these stumbles, Cinema-19 is an important snapshot of this impossible era. These filmmakers capture the pandemic at its most personal, prioritizing the phenomena that alters our day-to-day in the most meaningful, frightening, and beautiful ways. For artists in the future, it will be difficult to portray this plague year, but Cinema-19 could be a roadmap forward, with its focus on the small moments that affect us more than we’ll ever know.