The COVideos Series: Compelling Snapshots Of Life Amid A Global Pandemic

As the deadly coronavirus epidemic redevelops in the United States, both unemployed and under-employed filmmakers have been forced to choose between paying the bills and practicing their art. While the federal government’s CARES Act funding has offered some financial buffering to all professionals in need of monetary stability, the filmmaking community has also helped actors, authors and auteurs of present-day cinema to continue their creative efforts.

One such example of that assistance comes from the COVideos Project, created by veteran documentarians Morgan Schmidt-Feng and Suzanna Aguayo of Filmsight Productions. The ten films (so far) in this ongoing series of short documentaries spotlight the personal and societal impacts of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, as chronicled by a diverse gathering of filmmakers from the U.S. and overseas. Schmidt-Feng and Aguayo say that, at present, 4 more shorts are set to be part of the COVIDeos project. One film is already in production, with another three in the pre-production stage.

Those who’ve shared their stories in the COVideos project thus far are Schmidt-Feng (“Humanity Scale of Love”), longtime journalist Linda Freund and her artist husband Peter (“Outside In”), Puerto Rican artist/musician Carolina Martinez Araya (“The Main Confinement: My Body”), TV reporter-turned filmmaker Andy Jordan (“Beauty From The Void”), printmaker/sculpturist Angelica Trimble-Yanu (“Makȟá”), independent artist Autumn Payne (“Sunflowers”), teen actor/filmmaker/musician Milena Elias-Reyes (“Milena”), filmmaker Nicholas Carter (“Transformation”), and filmmaker Pam Uzzell (“Shelter In Displacement”).

More details on the films and their filmmakers can be accessed in a press kit folder (hosted through Google Drive) on Filmsight’s COVideos page. All of the COVideos are available to watch on that aforementioned page, as well as on YouTube. (Links to both pages are located at the end of this article.)

By launching the COVideos series, Schmidt-Feng and Aguayo have done more than offer an opportunity for their project’s participants to put their cinematic talents to good use. They’ve given them something even more valuable than professional profit: peace of mind.

In the following interview, Schmidt-Feng and Aguayo — themselves among countless artists who’ve dealt with economic hardships resulting from the film industry’s pause during the coronavirus shutdown — describe how the COVideos project helps their creative peers tell compelling and personal stories of one of the most extraordinary crises in world history.

CH: The ten documentaries in the COVideos series tell the stories of different artists from all over the world who’ve seen their creative and personal lives dramatically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. How will their participation in the COVideos project help them to remain creatively active, what kind of financial/career/personal support are you providing to them, and how will that support ultimately help them to carry on their lives (and livelihoods) during the pandemic?

Suzanna Aguayo (co-creator, The COVideos Series): The COVIDeos project is meant to give each participant a chance to focus on this moment in time. Those who needed financial assistance were given a stipend, and everyone who needed help with either the story or technical support were given assistance, and written critiques were also provided.

The Filmsight team has been in the filmmaking/storytelling business for many years and we approached this work as if each storyteller was a client who had something unique to say, and our job was to make sure their pieces were strong visually and strong in terms of their content. Some of the COVIDeos storytellers had never made a film before, some were seasoned journalists, and filmmakers, writers, and artists, and they have a wide range of experience.

The potential for how these storytellers advance is not completely known but we think these pieces will continue to draw interest and we hope that the filmmakers will continue telling stories about this time period in whatever medium suits them. We keep collaborators in mind, and if any opportunities come our way we would love to work with any one of the COVIDeos participants again.

CH: As filmmakers and citizens, how have you been able to deal with the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic we now live with, and how has that ultimately inspired you to start the COVideos project?

Aguayo: We’re fortunate to have a community of like-minded creative colleagues and friends who support one another and felt strongly that we needed to try to stand together and help each other through this time. When the impact of the pandemic began to be felt, it was incredibly stressful. We felt a tremendous urgency to figure out how to help people.

People we know were really hurting, and we certainly didn’t expect the current leadership to handle this in a competent way. It was clear this was going to be a tough time for a lot of people, and unfortunately that’s how it’s been playing out. We didn’t see any easy answers or enough resources to go around and it just gnawed at us.

At that point Morgan resurrected an idea that he had explored initially during the Great Recession after the economy crashed (in 2008). Both then and now he looked to that rare point in American history (following the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression in the 1930’s) when our government responded with sweeping change to put people back to work, (and gave) them a chance to recover with a number of programs via the WPA (Works Progress Administration) which were designed to get people on their feet.

That’s what COVIDeos was meant to be in a tangible way; an example of how we could do something that valued artists and gave them a chance to express something honest and meaningful about a really tough time. Without the participation of the artists, filmmakers, journalists, writers and donors from our community it would not have been possible to turn out these 10 shorts as quickly as we did. We’re immensely grateful to all of the individuals who made this possible. We hope COVIDeos has been something positive for everyone involved as well as for our viewers.

CH: These films all document the realities of life amid the coronavirus pandemic, but also the personal and professional challenges that those in the creative field have endured during this time. How were you able to find the people you interviewed for these short documentaries, and in what ways will their stories help spotlight the impact of the coronavirus on communities both large and marginalized?

Aguayo: Since we wanted to release this project quickly we didn’t have the capacity, time or money to do an open call for submissions. So we reached out to the creative people we knew and asked others to do the same and came up with the individuals we worked with. In the process of choosing participants we wanted to include people, (and to) help people who are underrepresented, marginalized, or having a tough time financially, to offer them a hand because it’s something we’re inclined to do. When times are tough, we want to help.

Since we had to shelter in place and some of the participants were overseas they had to either film their own stories or get help from their friends and family. Storytellers crafted their own content and conducted their own interviews.

Right now it seems we all thirst for human connection and stories. Movies, in particular, have always been a source of inspiration for us and it’s what we know best. So a creative project like COVIDeos was a natural direction to take.

We hope these pieces help bring some understanding, awareness and compassion to these individuals, and hope that the viewers who relate to these stories will feel inspired to find ways to share their truth (and to) tell their stories in whatever way that suits them.

CH: In what ways did the conceptual development and production processes work for these films, given that you and those interviewed in each film were geographically separated from each other?

Morgan Schmidt-Feng (co-creator, The COVideos series): We created an RFP (request for proposals) to set the expectations of what we felt would work within a tight deadline and each filmmaker/storyteller was asked to submit a one paragraph description of their 3–7 minute short documentary. Once we reviewed their project descriptions we spoke with each filmmaker/storyteller to discuss their project, give feedback and answer any questions they might have. Our goal was really to try and support the filmmaker in telling their story.

CH: From an artistic perspective, how has working on and producing the COVideos series helped you to cope with the different way of life we’ve all had to adapt to as a result of the COVID-19 virus?

Schmidt-Feng: I felt really inspired to try and capture the moment of history that we are living through. (We were) seeking inspiration, rather than dwelling on all of the obvious negative aspects of our new COVID reality. Doing something creative (and) collaborative with the community was the perfect way to cope with the surreal world we find ourselves in.

CH: Describe the impact that your work on the COVideos project has had not just on the people featured in its short films, but on you as filmmakers and as everyday people in this time.

Schmidt-Feng: The positive impact for us continues daily. We have been so touched by everyone who collaborated on the project. Their creativity, heart, and talent inspired us and lifted our spirits daily. The satisfaction of highlighting stories that are often unseen is what we always strive to do but it meant so much to us to be able to work on something that met the moment when so many people had lost their jobs, their livelihoods, and felt distraught.

It gave us all something positive to focus on and it was great to help these unique stories come to life. A few weeks back my partner and co-producer, Suzanna, and I returned to the neighborhood where I recently shot a short interview with a talented artist named Ronnie Goodman, who is featured in our COVIDeos project “Humanity Scale of Love”. Ronnie has lived and worked on the streets in The Mission in San Francisco for many years.

Because homelessness is such a huge issue in every major city — and even more critical now since many people like Ronnie don’t have a place to safely shelter-in-place — I felt it was important to give Ronnie an opportunity to speak about his work and talk about what he was experiencing.

I hope that whoever sees this piece can be reminded that just as he says, “The coronavirus is everybody’s mammoth problem,” and it’s my opinion that homelessness is also everybody’s problem and it’s shameful that in a society that is as wealthy as ours there are so many people who don’t have a safe place to live.

CH: Even if those who watch the COVideos series aren’t in the creative field, what do you want people to get out of experiencing the stories told in this collection?

Schmidt-Feng: We would love for anyone who watches the COVIDeos shorts to feel connected to what these folks are going through. Even though they may not be in a creative field we hope that the honesty of the subjects in the shorts help the viewer feel inspired to tell their own stories in some way. Write about (your story). Talk to your friends and family. Stay connected. Don’t despair. We need each other now more than ever. The human spirit is resilient and we can get through this.

Watch all videos (thus far) in the COVideos series at:

http://www.filmsight.com/covideos

And on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXlAwV6KzuW0AhvnxYPzzIg/

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