9 filmmakers on what it was like to make a documentary during lockdown
‘As the director, I needed to make sure our crew did not become unwitting transmitters of this virus.’
In April 2020, back near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, CBC launched the CBC Creative Relief Fund to support Canadian creators. Part of the initiative was a call directed at documentary filmmakers, inviting projects that showcased unique perspectives on what was happening in the world in the time of COVID-19.
From thousands of submissions, 15 projects were put into production. CBC provided funding and support for their creators to deliver standalone documentaries under 40 minutes in length, adhering to local and national safety guidelines.
Alone Together: Personal Stories from The Pandemic includes a variety of voices from across the country, telling a broad range of stories — from the tales of rookie doctors on the frontline in Patient People and an enchanting experiment in homeschooling with Pandemic Elementary to a high-stakes race to preserve the family and cultural stories of Indigenous elders in Inendi.
Now that the films are available to watch on CBC Gem, CBC Short Docs asked the creators to reflect on their experience. Making a documentary during lockdown was anything but ordinary. Was it challenging? Scary? Inspiring? What exactly was it like to shoot a film during COVID-19?
Now Streaming on CBC Gem: Alone Together: Personal Stories from The Pandemic
ME, MOM & COVID
By Nik Sexton, Director and Mary Sexton
Imagine making a documentary about a pandemic during a pandemic. Now, imagine making that documentary on the island of Newfoundland, which has the oldest population in Canada.
With the province still reeling from the outbreak at Caul's Funeral Home, when it was safe, we went inside this important location for our story. At one point, it was the source of the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in Canada.
People were just beginning to grasp the reality of containing a disease that no one really understood. They were apprehensive about being interviewed. They were afraid of contracting COVID-19, but also of how they would be presented and how they might be judged. Approval to enter a bubble became a monumental task, especially for a film crew, which is perceived as a high-risk group.
Approval to enter a bubble became a monumental task, especially for a film crew, which is perceived as a high-risk group.- Nik and Mary Sexton
Permission to interview those who were deeply impacted by the funeral home incident — owners, staff and patrons — was a difficult request, but one that was crucial to the story. Success came entirely with an authentic and gentle approach and the promise of integrity in representation.
From the filmmaker's perspective, the normal creative process was disrupted. The synergy of creation that comes from in-person conversations and body language and a two-week quarantine allowing limited contact with the production team proved to be obstacles.
But with such challenges came the opportunity to navigate a new shift in filmmaking and to seize the opportunity to tell a timely story about loss, resilience and the power of love.
By Sarain Fox, Director
As an Indigenous filmmaker, it was a real challenge to shoot during the COVID-19 pandemic. For so many of my people, this is not their first "pandemic'."
I live with the stories of colonization that brought smallpox and tuberculosis, child apprehension, cultural genocide, forced sterilization and the destruction of our spiritual sovereignty. My generation carries the weight of these realities from the generations who came before us.
As the director, I needed to make sure our crew did not become unwitting transmitters of this virus. I was terrified of the harmful effect we could have on my community. That fear informed our entire documentary. We set out to tell the story of my auntie, Mary Bell, an elder in isolation on our reserve in Batchewana First Nation, Ont. The premise was to gather her stories before any harm could reach her. We took the risks to ourselves and our subjects very seriously: we isolated in advance of our trip, got tested, maintained social distance and wore masks when necessary.
It was a tense time to be filming such sensitive subject matter, especially with elders. I had to be careful that the urgency I felt on the ground didn't interrupt my process of listening. Moments like these make you realize how important the preservation of knowledge and culture truly is.
By Van Royko, Director
Making a film during COVID-19 presented itself as a paradox of sorts. The unprecedented moment of disruption to our lives provided a strong impetus to make a film. However, the restrictions necessary to operate in such a context were onerous. When we went to interview my elderly aunt, the precautions around COVID-19 greatly limited the time we could spend with her and how close we could be. Our usual methods of filmmaking were compromised. My ability to interact with her was also limited. We feel this in the film when she expresses her wish to just have a hug.
All said, the pandemic provided real challenges to filmmaking, but also helped us gain new insights into our human condition that we might not have arrived at otherwise.
COVID AND WHO I AM NOW
By Diana Dai, Director
I believe I was one of the first filmmakers to make a documentary during the COVID-19 pandemic. I had planned to film this doc when Toronto was in Stage 1, but obviously, I couldn't film here. However, I had to finish the film within three months, and no one knew when Ontario would be in a complete lockdown again or how long Toronto would stay at Stage 1, so I had to ask the subject to drive to a Stage 2 area, where I could legally film. I remember the first day we filmed, all my crew members and my subject were so thrilled to be working outdoors again after staying at home for a long time during the lockdown.
For my docs, I always like to follow the characters interacting with others in a gathering, but unfortunately, all events were cancelled and the schools were closed.
Now, there is one new rule on my call sheet — it is COVID-19 safety.
ROCKIN' THE COFFIN
By Cailleah Scott-Grimes, Director
In many ways, Rockin' the Coffin was the perfect COVID-19 project. I had just finished shooting my master's thesis film in Japan, which was a huge undertaking, so this was a welcome return to my DIY filmmaking roots. My dad and I are the only two subjects in the film, so we decided to bubble together and shoot each other's interviews without any other crew members. We shot at home with the resources that were available.
At times, it was tricky wearing so many hats, but this also allowed us to create a more intimate environment, where we were free to experiment. Being in lockdown actually helped me think more creatively about how to invent a visual language around death, memory, imagination and play, rather than portraying these things literally.
Being in lockdown actually helped me think more creatively about how to invent a visual language around death, memory, imagination and play, rather than portraying these things literally.- Cailleah Scott-Grimes
I had never produced an animated film before, but I was a visual artist before becoming a filmmaker, so illustration felt like a natural medium. Through remote collaboration with a fantastic sound design duo (Michelle Hwu and Tim Atkins), a whole new world was brought to life. I could not have asked for a better way to spend my days in isolation!
By Corey Stanton, Director
Making a documentary during COVID-19 and quarantine has been an unprecedented filmmaking experience. There are universal challenges, such as wearing an abundance of hats, restricting yourself to a one-person crew and having to go through the back and forth of post-production sound and animation notes all over email.
There have also been challenges specific to this project, spurred by the fact that the six central characters reside in different cities across the country. Given that I live in Ontario, I was permitted to travel to Ottawa to film three interviews and then to Hamilton for a fourth, but for my characters in Winnipeg and Calgary, I had to give them a crash course on cinematography and camera placement for remote filming sessions.
Despite these challenges, one of the positives of making this documentary during COVID-19 was that it called for creative workarounds. Animation in place of B-roll creates a visually-stimulating experience and leaning heavily on my archive footage lends a great deal of weight to the theme of "past versus present versus future." For better or worse, this project will be forever tied to COVID-19, in both content and creation.
By Ian Mark Kimanje, Director and Emily Kimanje
On making a doc in quarantine (with a two-year-old and a newborn):
Ian could no longer attend appointments, so Emily had to take a camera and film herself. For one interview, we looked at a stuffed animal to establish an eyeline while our interviewer read us his questions over the phone. We have never met some team members in person. Those who have joined our team in this production have overcome crazy obstacles with us, and some have become like family. It was hard and tiring, but worth it in every way.
LAST NIGHT AT THE STRIP CLUB
By Nicole Bazuin, Director
Since she had lost her job at the strip club, painting a picture of Andrea Werhun's last days working as a dancer required some ingenuity. Early in the doc, Andrea recalls a patron asking her for "tongue kissing" as the pandemic loomed. Recreating that uncomfortable request, while in the midst of said pandemic, was a task both simple and uniquely complex. In lieu of a scene partner, Andrea would portray both herself and the creepy dude — nicknamed "Marco" — in a Parent Trap-esque way. After watching a beard-painting tutorial online (a sea sponge, she learned, is perfect for faux beard-texturizing), Andrea borrowed her boyfriend's clothes and "Marco" was born. Securing an actual strip club location was nearly impossible tenuous at the time. Instead, we turned to Oasis Aqualounge; their beautiful backlit bar and gold stripper pole hit the right notes. Add in a sequined curtain, DOP cinematographer Nina Djacic's lighting magic and the enigmatic Andrea "doing her thing" on the pole and it really did feel like being transported back to the club, just for a moment.
By Sura Mallouh, Director
For me, as a documentary filmmaker, a lot of the work I do is in close quarters with my subjects. There's a lot of trust built in being face-to-face. And that wasn't something we could do anymore. And so there was a lot of pivoting, a lot of trying to adapt, a lot of recognizing that maybe things need to be on hold for a while.
But I think that over time, I've come to terms with it and found really creative ways to tell stories without necessarily being there.