Are we ready to see COVID in our culture?

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Words: Rosa Davidson (she/her)

During the pandemic, the public’s relationship with film and TV changed profoundly. When we were ordered to stay at home, deprived of any human interaction, the world turned to online streaming to escape the unprecedented reality of the pandemic. Streaming platforms experienced an onslaught of subscriptions. Netflix Party became the new Friday night out, with documentaries such as Tiger King and Don’t F*** With Cats booming in popularity as they provided a much-needed escape back into the pre-pandemic world. Yet now, as the memory of living under various degrees of lockdown fades, film and TV are turning back to reminisce on the pandemic… and it’s jarring.

As filming was near-impossible during the throws of lockdown, there was a collective understanding that a creative licence was needed to comply with Covid restrictions. Sam Levison’s Malcolm & Marie featuring Zendaya and John David Washington, was a product of lockdown living. Levison stated in an interview with Esquire: ‘it’s two people, one location, no place to go, not a tonne of costume changes. I think it is unique to the restrictions of the world we were living in at that time.’                                                                                       Whilst the film doesn’t address the pandemic exactly, it certainly reflects the reality of being confined to one household, a shared experience during lockdown.

Now that restrictions have all but disappeared, the entertainment industry is back to producing film and TV of all varieties. Whilst popular period dramas and sci-fi plots can easily avoid any mention of the virus, modern-day dramas must consider whether or not to address the pandemic. If it’s done wrong, watching on-screen characters live out the mundane activities of lockdown, such as mask-wearing, Zoom calls or socially distancing, takes the ‘story’ out of storytelling. 

Yet, the recent sequel Glass Onion: a Knives Out Story is set in the midst of the pandemic, and its reference to Covid is used to parody the elite who believed they were above the rules. The entire film was a satirical approach to social commentary, so featuring the pandemic was essential in reflecting the public sentiment towards celebrities in particular. The plot explores a group of celebrities who are invited to a private island to party, despite Covid restrictions. It is coincidentally similar to Kim Kardashian’s 40th birthday party, which took place at the height of the pandemic in 2020. Another eluded dig at a celebrity flaunting their disregard for the rules was the feature of the character Birdie, a controversial celebrity, wearing a mesh mask, which closely resembled one worn by Lana Del Rey in October of 2020. Whilst to some, this reflection of the pandemic was unnecessary to the plot; it shouldn’t be forgotten that the core of the film is a satirical comedy. Whilst the pandemic might be hard to watch on-screen, a bit of light-hearted satire allows these difficult topics to be brought to light. 

Though the comedic approach might be an easier pill to swallow, Channel 4’s 2021 film Help portrayed a raw, heart-wrenching and previously unheard story about the struggles of front-line workers during the pandemic. The plot follows a young caregiver (Jodie Comer) who is working in a Liverpool care home and the struggles the care home has with confronting the COVID-19 pandemic. The film is an uncomfortably accurate depiction of the events within many care homes, making it painful to watch at times. But that is the goal behind the story, to commemorate and historicise a truly painful moment in time. Jodie Comer describes the film in an interview with The Guardian as ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’. Some people feel it may be too soon after the pandemic, but these kinds of stories need to be told while they’re still fresh before people stop caring and start to forget. 

The sheer monotony that many people experienced during lockdown is fading from memory as though it were a fever dream. To some, it seemed like the pandemic was a mere inconvenience, a bump in the road before carrying on just about the same as before, perhaps with a new hobby or pet. For others – often the most vulnerable – it was catastrophic. The very old, who are often lonely and isolated at the best of times, were cut off from their families, and those who were on insecure wages or who relied on zero-hour contracts to keep themselves afloat found themselves falling through the cracks. The presence of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly ages a film with frivolous depictions of the pandemic being uncomfortable. However, the voices of those who rarely get to speak can offer a fresh insight into the true experience of the pandemic, and when presented well, with kindness, respect, and sometimes righteous anger, it can make for passionate and moving entertainment.


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