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While the COVID-19 pandemic may have seen many filmmakers forced to drop their tools and wait for production to start up again, for a number of documentarians it was an opportunity to chronicle the events going on outside. Among those was Orlando von Einsiedel, the British director behind 2017’s Oscar-winning short The White Helmets and 2015’s Oscar-nominated feature Virunga. Now, 18 months on from when he first began filming Convergence: Courage in a Crisis, his feature is ready and being released on Netflix on Tuesday.
A hugely collaborative effort, the film saw the London-based von Einsiedel team up with nine co-directors around the world, from Brazil to Iran and the U.S. to India – filmmakers and activists who could tell their own stories about life and survival through lockdowns and chaos.
But as von Einsiedel explains to The Hollywood Reporter, what started out as a film about compassion and individuals reacting to the pandemic soon became one about the societal flaws it exposed, about inequality, and about the growing anger towards the responses of populist governments.
At what point in the pandemic did you start making this documentary and what was the initial spark?
It sort of began a few weeks into lockdown. There were a lot of terrible things going on. There was chaos, a pandemic and tens of thousands of people getting sick. But there were also crackdowns on freedom and opportunism. There was all sorts of very negative stuff happening, but when I looked out on my street, in my neighborhood and on social media, there was, I guess, a sort of outpouring of community love. I saw altruism and neighbors helping each other, really amazing things. And I think that that’s where it all stemmed from. I felt like there was an opportunity to try and tell a story about some positive things happening and kind of, I guess, make a sort of love letter to humans.
How did you find your fellow directors?
We did a big global call-out to everyone from journalists networks to local film festivals. And some people applied when they’d seen it online. There were friends, like Hassan Akkad who I knew from The White Helmets. And then also we saw some other film from filmmakers who had been making shorts about what they’d been doing in the pandemic. So it grew into this amazing collaboration.
What was the process of working together when it came to choosing which stories to follow and what needed to be shot?
It really was this very collaborative process. We started from a point where we wanted to try and include kind of a real sense of the globe, so were looking for stories in the Far East, in southern Asia, in Africa and India, in Europe, and in the Americas. But we ended up gravitating towards countries where COVID was playing out particularly badly. And the similarity seemed to be that these were countries often with populist leaders who’d politicise the virus, and therefore made it very difficult to handle. So a lot of the stories are sort of punctuated by those themes.
With this, you weren’t just making a documentary in a real-time, but were making a documentary where what you were covering was constantly changing direction, almost each day. How did that impact your filmmaking?
It’s funny, because historically one of the things I love about documentaries is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. That is normally really exciting. But I caveat that by saying that’s normally when it’s quite a small story with a few protagonists. This thing was such a monster in the sense that it was almost 10 feature documentaries, with no knowledge not just of the individual stories and what would happen in each of those, but what was going on globally. It was very hard. I suppose it was like putting together this sort of Avengers version of a documentary. And we all struggled with that and trying to pull it together into something coherent.
Given that we’re still dealing with the pandemic, at what point did you decide that you’d reached a conclusion?
This began originally as individuals responding to the pandemic. That’s what almost all of the storylines began with. What it became is individuals fighting against the flaws in society that the pandemic has just exposed. And I think most of those storylines came to a moment of, I guess, anger, of climax, of fight back. And it felt like after that happened, that was a moment to sort of wrap it up. And we obviously had no idea that any of the storylines might take those directions, but they kind of came together.
You’ve spoken before about making documentaries where you find hope in the darkest of places. Was this another opportunity to follow that creative path?
I think we could all do with being reminded of hope in all of us and also our abilities to fight for change and to make change happen. I think a lot of the stories show how change is possible. And I suppose that’s one of the takeaways that I hope people will come away with. You can see the mechanics of what you can do to drive change potentially.
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Behind The Screen