Berlin: How COVID-19 Has Changed Onscreen Storytelling

'Homeroom'
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

'Homeroom'

The new crop of films that screened at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals are evidence that the global pandemic is having an impact on the stories filmmakers want to tell: "The pandemic has just exposed and revealed so many issues that were in our society."

The coronavirus pandemic has obviously changed how movies are being made, with the extra costs involved in testing and implementing strict hygienic regimes, and the constant threat hanging over every shoot that a local outbreak or lockdown could shut things down. 

But what impact has the once-in-a-lifetime, global experience of the Corona crisis had on what stories filmmakers want to tell? 

The Sundance and Berlin film festivals provided a glimpse at the first crop of films either shot or edited — or both — during the pandemic. While some — such as Nanfu Wang's Sundance doc In the Same Breath and Ben Wheatley's viral isolation thriller In the Earth — directly reference the outbreak, all in some ways bear the mark of COVID-19. 

"We didn't select any documentaries about the pandemic or any fictional treatments of it, though some were submitted, because we found there wasn't enough distance between the storytelling and what we are all living through," says Berlin's artistic director Carlo Chatrain. "But the films we did select, I think, deal with the pandemic in a more interesting way: with a sense of uncertainty."

The themes of isolation and the struggle for personal connection run through much of the 2021 Berlin competition lineup: Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman, about an eight-year-old girl trying to repair her relationship with her depressed mother; Maria Schrader's sci-fi screwball comedy I'm Your Man, in which Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens plays a love robot programmed to be the perfect partner for a relationship-averse German scientist (Maren Egger); or Denis Côté's "pandemic-approved" period comedy Social Hygiene, with its fixed-camera tableau and enforced socially-distanced characters on screen.

"I've noticed that in many of these films, made during or around the pandemic, the directors are very careful not to leave their characters alone — either alone by themselves or alone in a crowd," notes Chatrain. "Many of them are about trying to connect to each other, an issue that seems to matter more in these current times."

A handful of high-profile films made during the pandemic use COVID-19 as their backdrop —including the Michael Bay-produced horror movie Songbird, and the heist comedy Locked Down, the latter going out, appropriately enough in these times, for home viewing on HBO Max.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Radu Jude's social satire, which won the Golden Bear for best film in Berlin, was shot during the COVID lockdown and features a cast and crew all wearing anti-viral masks, though the movie is more focused on political hypocrisy and sexual hysteria than infection rates and contact tracing. 

Sundance featured more subtle takes on the crisis, with How It Ends from filmmakers Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein imagining the coming apocalypse as serene as the last lazy day of quarantine, and Wang's In the Same Breath, which takes the COVID outbreak as a jumping-off point to dig deep into government propaganda, and online conspiracy theories, in both China and America. 

"From my conversations with filmmakers who have done work during this pandemic, I've noticed that we're all driven by the necessity to react to what's happening around us," says Wang. "Making films is the only creative channel in which we can express, in which we can articulate, the strong emotions that we're feeling every day, whether it's sadness, helplessness, anger, a sense of loss, or longing for a connection."

Documentarian Peter Nicks had been filming the students of Oakland High School for months when the pandemic hit. The moment COVID arrived is captured in Homeroom, which premiered in Sundance.

"It’s in the Bay," says a student of the virus as he and others gather around his phone, hoping school will be canceled. When the principal announces that the pandemic will mean both prom and graduation ceremonies are off, the viewer wonders what will become of Nicks' movie.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Nicks noted he had originally set out to make a John Hughes-style teenagers-hanging-out film, but set in Oakland's multicultural community. "Like The Breakfast Club with kids of color," he says.

That story didn't change when COVID hit, but the focus shifted. The kids in the film, whose homeroom is now their own bedrooms, move their social engagement online. With the killing of George Floyd, many join the Black Lives Matter movement and take to the streets. 

"After George Floyd, when this sort of national awakening happened, I immediately recognized this was the significance of the story we were telling," Nicks says. "I mean these are issues that kids in Oakland have been fighting for for years, going back to the Black Panthers which were founded in Oakland around issues of policing."

While Nicks says he expects a number of "knee-jerk" documentaries and feature films to sprout up in response to COVID-19, "it's going to take some time for artists to understand and reflect on how this trauma has impacted all of us. ... I think that's going to be part of the next generation of films, which will try and reflect these remarkable times. Because the pandemic has just exposed and revealed so many issues that were in our society, that were a virus in our body politic before the pandemic."

It's an open question whether audiences, bombarded with an increasingly apocalyptic news cycle, will embrace corona-themed movies, or ones that delve into the trauma that was 2020, or if they would prefer, for now, to look away.

"I notice myself that I'm becoming a bit escapist," says Daniel Brühl, the German film star whose directorial debut, Next Door, shot last summer in-between COVID-19 lockdowns and premiered in competition in Berlin this week. "The films I'm leaning towards are more fantasy, or historic movies, where I don't have to think about the current situation. ... For my next film [as a director] I don't want to deal with corona. I'd rather dive into a different world."