A goat herder leads his flock through empty streets. A voiceover tells us that they are deserted because of Covid. We don’t learn that this is Iran till later, but – and this is kind of the point of the film – it could be just about anywhere. It all came from an idea in March 2020 from director Michel Fenn to film “quite normal people” from around the world and how they react to the pandemic.
The film poster lists 11 different countries, though it felt like many more than this. So welcome to the 12 main protagonists (there’s 2 from Brazil):
There are the villagers of Alto Xingu in Brazil, who try to cut off from the outside world. They cut down local trees to build an isolation station. It doesn’t save them from the disease.
There’s Li Chenyun (aka Meister Li), a martial arts teacher in Berlin, separated from his family in China.
There’s Carmen and Julio, a lovely couple from Bolivia, who film themselves sitting on their porch steps as their 2 children come and go. Carmen explains patiently how the pandemic has convinced her that they need to break up, while Julio looks on with a pained expression.
There’s Dasi an Israeli in Haifa, who feels isolated from her Orthodox family. Against her better judgement, she’s considering returning to them.
There’s Yihwen Chen in Malaysia who is blind and works as in a hospital. He talks about the different way in which he perceives the empty streets and trains, and how he can finally hear birdsong now that there’s no traffic.
There’s Agostina, an Argentinian woman married to a Scot in London, who regularly talks to her parents over skype (or is it Zoom?, you forget who is using which technology). They enjoy the contact, but are trying and failing to book a flight so that they can visit their new grandson Dante.
There’s Feel, the Russian DJ. Feel is now doing concerts online, and his friends don’t seem particularly put out by the new conditions (“there’s more time for making love”).
There’s Felister, a shoe shiner in Nairobi. Money is tight, especially as she has to care for her 14-year old daughter Shaleen.
There’s Jorge, from the Dominican Republic but lives in New York. Jorge is currently homeless and works delivering pizzas. He often refuses to wear a mask, because “if the president doesn’t why should I?”
There is Saullo in Rio de Janiero who works in a hospital and goes through the favelas giving out masks. He regrets that Covid has separated him from his boyfriend, who is afraid of infection.
And there’s Ida, who is 94 and dies during the film. She is survived by her Polish carer, Sofia.
If that sounds a lot, it is. The stories are intermingled, some disappearing and not returning. It’s very hard to keep up with who is doing what, and can be quite exhausting.
This doesn’t mean that the film is boring – far from it. There are lot of interesting stories being told here – and there are hidden tales behind them. It’s interesting how many of the people, particularly in the Global North, are halfway voluntary migrants. It’s difficult to know to what extent they have been deliberately selected by the director, but its a sign of fading borders (when those borders aren’t patrolled by gunboats).
Ultimately, the format felt slightly wrong. Two hours is a bit too long for a documentary, and we seemed to be juggling so many stories that we didn’t really get to find out enough about the characters. Maybe that’s the point. A snapshot of different places at a particularly strange point of history.
Maybe the best thing to do with this film would be to seal it, put it into one of those Blue Peter vaults, then wait a decade, or a century, or whenever this is all over. Then people can watch and ask, did we really live like this? Maybe the experience is too recent at the moment to get the full perspective. I think we’re probably too close to the story now, but give it time and it will develop into an extraordinary chronicle of outrageous times.