Short Docs

'Everything that could go wrong did go wrong:' on making a film about COVID-19 while recovering from COVID-19

Sura Mallouh produced, directed and appeared in the short documentary ‘Recovery.’ She explains what it took to get to the finish line.

Sura Mallouh produced, directed and appeared in the short documentary ‘Recovery’

Sura Mallouh is the producer and director - and also the subject - of the short documentary ‘Recovery.’ (CBC)

Two young adults relive the experience of surviving COVID-19. As they struggle to cope with the long, unknown recovery ahead, their conversations become a form of therapy. Watch Recovery on CBC Gem.

Making this film was difficult. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. 

Between personal life changes in the midst of a pandemic, actively being in recovery from a suspected case of COVID-19, shooting delays and corrupt hard drives, it felt like I was constantly holding my breath waiting for the next thing to fall apart. 

Documentary filmmaking in normal scenarios produces a huge spectrum of emotions. It can be stressful, exhilarating and — most often — highly sensitive. 

On a good day on production, you need to have endurance. The days are usually very long and emotionally exhausting. Fulfilling, but exhausting. You're asking people to be vulnerable and trust you to tell their story. That carries weight. 

I had prepared for the technical changes of keeping everyone safe. Shorter days, PPE and shooting a film in two different locations with two different crews while trying to keep the vision cohesive through Zoom calls. 

In retrospect, what I didn't consider was the most obvious factor: I was in the film and I was also in recovery. 

The endurance I assumed I'd have (because I've had it for every other project) was now non-existent. The fatigue was constant in a way that deeply frustrated me.  

I was also still searching for answers about my illness during production. I had tested negative  for COVID-19, but all the symptoms were there. My doctor told me to assume I'd had the virus because of the length of time I was sick and my symptoms, but I still felt like I didn't know what had just happened. It was hard to talk about my experience because I didn't feel like I could put a name to what was happening. I second guessed everything. 

And then there was the aspect of being in the film. 

I am exceptionally private. My social media presence is virtually non-existent. I do not like the spotlight. In fact, I break out in hives at the thought of being the subject of conversation. There is absolutely nothing about being in front of the camera that is exciting to me. 

So why make this film? I felt this story needed to be told, even if it put me in a vulnerable position. I saw so many young adults not taking the virus seriously. Being on screen wasn't just about myself or COVID-19, it was about what happens next — and how little we know about that. 

With all of that to contend with, I could not have made this film without my crew. They are exceptionally talented, they know me well and we've worked together in the past. They knew that this was going to be a different kind of film. It was a very collaborative experience. It had to be. 

We prepped the shoot like it was a narrative film, with a lot of thought put into the look and feel of it. The actual shoots turned out beautifully. It's a testament to the talent of the crew that we were able to  meet our own high standards — especially since I was both directing and appearing in the film as a main character. It was all very surreal. 

Once we finished shooting, the rollercoaster of the edit started. I had decided I wanted to edit this documentary myself because it was so personal to me. Big mistake! The first pass opened up wounds I didn't even know I had. I hadn't realized how traumatizing the experience of being sick had been, and re-experiencing it in an edit was incredibly hard. Just when I was starting to find my groove, our hard drives got corrupted. The whole edit was lost. It was brutal. 

We had kept a back-up hard drive of the footage with my producing partner. She shipped it from Calgary to me in Toronto. Trying to edit this film again from scratch almost broke my heart. There were times when I really wasn't sure there would be a film to release by the end of the experience. 

Months later, the film is now online. It is a small snapshot of a very long stretch of time. It was a powerful journey, with many highs and lows. I made lifelong memories that I will cherish. In the end, the making of the film was just as important to me as the film itself. 

If it were not for the support of the CBC team, I do not think this film would have been pushed to the finish line and for that, I am infinitely grateful.