Mapping calamity in real time: the first wave of pandemic documentaries

Adam Benzine, director of The Curve, a documentary about America’s mishandling of Covid-19, reflects on the experience of making a film in the midst of a still-raging crisis.

3 March 2021

By Adam Benzine

The Curve (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ The Curve is available on Vimeo on Demand

▶︎ CoroNation is available on Vimeo on Demand.

▶︎ Totally Under Control is available on BBC iPlayer.

▶︎ 76 Days is available on Dogwoof On Demand and on Now TV.

There’s no handbook for making a feature documentary in just seven months during a global pandemic. No reference guide. No field manual. Just the typical headaches of movie-making, with a whole bunch of new headaches added for good measure. Throw in the fact that the subject of the film would be the pandemic itself, and take away any institutional funding or support, and things veer into migraine territory pretty damn quickly.

Adam Benzine
Photo by Alison Boulier

In the spring of 2020, I began work on The Curve, driven by a feeling that America’s handling of the coronavirus crisis needed to be documented in real time. It was apparent, even back then, that we were witnessing a landmark catastrophe which would likely produce hundreds of films for decades to come.

But those works, made with the benefit of hindsight, would serve a different purpose from a film that captured history in the making. There was another motive, of course: I wanted to document the Trump administration’s response to the crisis and put that response on screen ahead of the November presidential election, when America’s fate would be determined.

I sensed things would be bad, though I could never have imagined the scale of the tragedy or the degree to which the government would implode.

So, how do you make a film when you can’t leave the house or even get toilet paper? The pandemic provided plenty of problems, sure, but there were solutions to be found as well, at least on paper. Going out and filming with a crew was off the table. But my small team and I – working remotely in Toronto and Los Angeles – theorised that by using a combination of stock footage, archival material, news clips, VFX and remotely captured Skype interviews with experts and academics, we could Frankenstein together a documentary thriller of sorts, and get it out into the world in record time.

I call The Curve a ‘reclamationist’ documentary; it’s a work significantly made using reclaimed materials – comprising nearly 500 clips from more than 140 sources – but which also reclaims and cultivates the chaos of the moment into a singular, coherent narrative. (Similar works are now starting to emerge: check out 2020: A Covid Space Odyssey and Life in a Day 2020.)

By limiting the time frame to the first 90 days of the US outbreak, I sought to bring order to the chaos. At an hour in length, the movie powers along at a brisk pace, throwing audiences in at the deep end and immersing them in a near-constant sensation of tension and dread. It plays out like a disaster movie, except the disaster is our lives.

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This interview also appears in the April 2021 issue of Sight & Sound, available in print and digitally, featuring Adam Curtis on Can’t Get You out of My Mind, Lee Isaac Chung on Minari, a history of the ‘cursed film’, the future of Studio Ghibli, 32 pages of film and TV reviews and much more.

Find out more and get a copy

The Curve wasn’t the only major nonfiction film released in 2020 that attempted to document the world’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Three other documentaries took on the task: Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger’s Totally Under Control; Hao Wu and Weixi Chen’s 76 Days; and Ai Weiwei’s CoroNation.

The last two cover the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, China, while Totally Under Control – like The Curve – tackles the American government’s handling of the crisis.

Each filmmaking team found creative solutions to the challenges of working under lockdown. The Totally Under Control crew created a compact DSLR camera and microphone rig that was shipped to interviewees and controlled remotely, allowing the team to set up and record interviews in their subjects’ homes without being there in person.

Ai, meanwhile, worked remotely from Berlin, giving instructions to a team of filmmakers on the ground in China, who sent him footage to edit. Similarly, Wu worked from New York, coordinating with two filmmakers capturing footage in Wuhan hospitals, to craft a narrative centred on death and rebirth.

All four Covid documentaries are, in a sense, pioneering works of cinema that capture the dawn of a new moment in world history. But, if we’re being honest, all four have significant shortcomings.

It’s not easy to admit that. I’m incredibly proud of The Curve. It attempts something new with the nonfiction form. Part no-wave/DIY/ punk poem, part horror movie, part remix film… but I’d be lying if I said it was a total success.

The Curve (2020)

My biggest mistake, I believe, was in failing to foresee the tremendous strain of taking on a massive creative project during such a psychologically taxing moment for our collective mental health. Filmmakers should think long and hard before embarking on such work while under lockdown. Don’t underestimate the distress caused by prolonged periods of confinement. The risk of burnout or breakdown is high.

The first wave of Covid-19 docs have met with a mixed response from audiences and critics. Totally Under Control is “frustratingly incomplete” and 76 Days offered “little that the Chinese government might object to being seen”, according to reviewers at the Guardian, while Ai’s CoroNation and my own documentary – despite strong reviews – have struggled to reach audiences and are yet to secure distribution.

The ever-vocal Ai has been outspoken in his criticism of festivals and networks – in particular Netflix – for turning their backs on his film, accusing them of self-censorship for fear of upsetting the Chinese government. Perhaps.

But in my own talks with broadcasters and streaming services, I’ve found a somewhat simpler explanation. As one respected sales agent rather bluntly told me: “Your film is remarkable, but no one wants to watch a movie about Covid just yet, Adam. No one. We’re all still living it.”

I wish she were wrong.

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