Courage in a crisis: how everyday citizens coped with Covid across the world
The film-makers behind Convergence: Courage in a Crisis set out to make a documentary on the pandemic, not politics. But separating the pandemic from politics can be as difficult as convincing your anti-vaxxer aunt to log off Facebook.
Director Orlando von Einsiedel, alongside an ensemble of co-directors spread across the globe, from the US to India, began collaborating on the kaleidoscopic film in early April last year. They were capturing the uncertainty and the chaos, the apocalyptic emptiness of lockdowns, and the people who stepped up to help their communities; not just medical staff in underfunded and overwhelmed healthcare systems in places like Lima and London, but also those who stepped up to alleviate their burden.
In Wuhan, vlogger Wenhua Lin hops in his car with PPE and plenty of disinfectant to transport medical staff, as the government hadn’t yet figured out public transport during full lockdown. In São Paulo, events organizer Renata Alves rides shotgun in the local ambulance, guiding the driver through her community in the Paraisópolis favela like a human GPS. These were the kinds of stories Von Einsiedel meant to home in on, but patterns and politics emerged.
“We started to focus on stories in places where the pandemic was most severe,” says Von Einsiedel, speaking to the Guardian over Zoom alongside one of his co-directors, Hassan Akkad. “We tend to find that they were also countries with leaders who were more populist. And those populist leaders had politicized the virus, which made tackling it really challenging.”
The world leaders Von Einsiedel refers to include Donald Trump, former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, the UK’s Boris Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and India’s Narendra Modi, all of whom were light on lockdowns and heavy on nationalist sentiments, allowing culture wars to spread over masks and vaccines. And the resulting devastation is in full view in Convergence: from the drained faces of a couple absorbing tremendous loss in Tehran to the horrifying cries as bodies are cremated on the streets in India.
Eventually, conversations in the film shift to how state decisions trickle down and hit the marginalized the hardest, whether it’s the socioeconomic factors that determine the makeup of frontline staff across the world, the water shortages in Paraisópolis preventing proper hygiene among the least fortunate during the pandemic or the ways anti-Black racism reveals itself through the economy, healthcare system and on the streets before George Floyd’s murder made it a galvanizing issue. “You realize that actually the pandemic isn’t the main issue,” says Akkad. “The pandemic only exposed the failures of our governments, how underfunded our health systems are and the level of inequality that exists in our societies.”
Akkad is an activist and film-maker who fled Syria in 2015, after being imprisoned and tortured by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. He recorded his escape to the UK, which was featured in the BBC series Exodus: Our Journey to Europe. As the pandemic took hold last year, Akkad began documenting yet another life-changing crisis. “I just picked up my phone and I was just documenting the neighbourhoods, the signs on the shops, the front pages of the newspapers, the empty shelves,” Akkad says, adding that he felt the urge soon after to do more.
He took on a job as an NHS cleaner, disinfecting the Covid-19 wards in London’s Whipps Cross hospital. He recorded his time there, working alongside fellow immigrant staffers who put their lives on the line for minimum wage. During this period, Boris Johnson announced a bereavement scheme for foreign national NHS staff who die from Covid-19, granting their relatives indefinite leave to remain in the UK. But that policy didn’t apply to the low-paid cleaners, porters and social care workers until Akkad recorded his disappointment in an emotional video that went viral on Twitter.
Convergence connects Akkad’s experience to those captured by fellow co-directors in lockdown. “From the very beginning of this, it felt like this film needed to be a global collaboration,” says Von Einsiedel, who initially intended on finding a uniform aesthetic across continents but soon enough embraced the diversity of content shot on pro cameras and camera phones. On top of the aforementioned stories, the film follows a couple navigating a Covid-era pregnancy in India and a doctor in Lima bringing the camera up close to the tragedy and fight for survival in her ICU.
Convergence also zeroes in on Dr Armen Henderson, an internist at the University of Miami health system. In April last year, Henderson was handcuffed outside his own home by a police officer who assumed he was dumping garbage out of a cargo van. Henderson says he was actually loading the van with supplies like tents and PPE for the homeless community. When he isn’t fighting the virus in the hospital, Henderson volunteers performing Covid tests and providing support at encampments. His detainment by police occurred just one month before George Floyd’s murder.
There is plenty of hardship on display, between the pandemic and the social inequities it exposed, but the film-makers also search for the little joys and humour that keep people going. The film introduces ICU doctor Rosa Lua López in Lima calling her Covid safety gear a Teletubby outfit, right before going into battle. Alves in São Paulo treats a Covid test like a pregnancy test, telling a doctor to be relieved that she’s not knocked up yet. And at Whipps Cross, Akkad takes the camera with him to capture the intimacy and camaraderie among his colleagues during lunch breaks. “People were describing frontline workers as heroes,” Akkad says. “I wanted to humanize my colleagues; show that despite the horror and the level of uncertainty and all that chaos, these people have lunch and crack jokes. They are scared at points but there are also points when they’re giggling and laughing.”
The film also searches for hopeful notes in multiple musical numbers, pairing song covers people uploaded to social media from their bedrooms during lockdown with montages of shared experiences, echoing each other from across the world. One of the numbers in Convergence is a full out pandemic-era singalong, which the director admits rides a fine line between feelgood and whatever it was that Gal Gadot and her wealthy celebrity friends were doing when they shared a collaborative video performing John Lennon’s Imagine. “There were ones that weren’t quite as cringeworthy,” says Von Einsiedel, when I remind him how people felt about celebrities who live in spacious and well-appointed homes sharing some feeble sense of unity with the rest of the world during the early stages of lockdown. “Some of them were really beautiful because they are people sharing, singing and coming together. We felt that was an important element of the pandemic to include.”
Akkad agrees: “It reminds you of what 99% of the population was doing. Everyone’s online, singing covers or making sourdough. While watching the film, it allowed me to breathe.”
Convergence: Courage in a Crisis is released in cinemas on 8 October and Netflix on 12 October