When I studied films in my cinema studies program for graduate school at NYU, the themes and theories were varied and everything was open to debate. The only constant, running through us like an invisible thread, was the assumption that cinema would always be a social exercise — that we’d always have the luxury of getting together in a dark room and watching moving images being projected on a screen, that we’d always have the comfort of watching films, making films and talking about them together. This year has obviously changed all of those assumptions. Though it’s been three years since I graduated, I was curious to know how film schools, especially the one housed in Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, were pivoting to accommodate new definitions of cinema and community these times have forced upon us.
NYU moved to remote classes in March 2020, making the production of planned film projects almost impossible for the students of the graduate filmmaking program. That’s how “The Private Month” project emerged; students were instructed to utilize this unprecedented period of uncertainty, anxiety, and isolation to make films using equipment (mostly cellphones) they already had at hand.
In Six Feet, filmmaker Hanna Gray Organschi fixes her gaze upon a mother-daughter pair struggling to draw and maintain boundaries under social distancing norms. It speaks of a heartbreaking reality where we can’t touch our loved ones and live in constant fear of losing them to a strange, invisible disease. As news cycles crowd our headspace, Organschi’s protagonists reach out and stand in a loving and vehement opposition to the sadness and grief that has defined the last few months for us. “Paradoxically, though it mandates closures and limitations, the pandemic feels like an expansion of the human experience, albeit a sad one,” the filmmaker writes to me. In other times, Six Feet could’ve been an usual coming-of-age mother-daughter film — but within the context of a pandemic-induced communal grief, it becomes an extremely emotional story of relationships that are suddenly made to face their finiteness. Grappling with this truth is both difficult and endearing.
The loss of creativity and the feeling of being at a perpetual loss — which a lot of us have felt through our respective shelters in isolation — are embodied in Joshua Reed’s This Movie Is a Homework Assignment. An autobiographical telling of Reed’s own struggles with making the film, This Movie Is a Homework Assignment is a humorous look at the helpless situation that is draining creative juices out of the best of us. “In this moment, now more than ever, we must do more than simply call out and satirize the current era we’re living in,” Reed writes to me, “Movies like Parasite are a hit with audiences because they critique the current problems with our culture. They are tapping into a certain mood and feeling among audiences today.”
While the protagonists of both Organschi and Reed’s films find themselves being held by their families through the uncertainty of these times, a third film: Solitude: Brooklyn, April 2020 by Andy Brame delves into the deep, unrelenting sense of darkness that enveloped the city of New York last April. In it, the only company the unnamed and silent protagonist finds is in clouds of smoke and fleeting images of a woman he knows on a digital screen. With cinematographic manipulation, the film symbolizes the way time seemed to have been tampered with during those days. With the gaps between yesterday, today and tomorrow being filled with lazy, viscous smoke, Solitude: Brooklyn, April 2020 finds respite in the ephemeral companionship of screens.
“The Private Month” is a testimony to the fact that cinema, as we know it, has perhaps changed forever, as have the ways we relate and react to it. Of course, this is not a cause to despair. With the limitations of the pandemic, as NYU directing and editing professors Andrew MacLean and Jennifer Ruff found out, the student-filmmakers began to open up and seek alternate means and streams to tell their stories creatively. As Organschi writes, “For me, the absence of physical collaborators has been painful. I‘ve never relied on my phone for human connection, but we‘re finding work-arounds.” The filmmakers have continued to make films without a crew and have taken advantage of the ability to reshoot and recreate scenes multiple times; something that may not have been possible with traditional productions.
Creating in isolation, however, is not easy. “During this time, I have been on a lot of phone calls with my friends talking about scriptwriting and any sort of creative process they have been engaged in,” says Reed. While collaborations have traditionally required physical proximity, the next generation of filmmakers are working hard to devise newer, distant ways of collaborating that aim to bring people closer and tell the stories that need to be told. “Cinema has the power to interpret, understand, document and reflect back this new way of living with ourselves and each other,” Organschi states. They and Reed are both hopeful about a future, whatever that may look like, for films and the people who watch them.
For the next generation of filmmakers, documenting these strange times has just begun, and, thankfully, it’s going to be a physically distant but socially collaborative enterprise.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.