‘To be reflexive, in terms of a work of anthropology, is to insist that anthropologists systematically and rigorously reveal their methodology and themselves as the instrument of data generation’ (Ruby 1980: p153).
A couple in corona is not the film I initially set out to make. At the start of the term, and for some time before, I had envisioned making a film about chronic fatigue syndrome. I wanted to make a film that helped people to feel what it was to have chronic fatigue, as a result of feeling misunderstood and alienated following my diagnosis two years ago. I also wanted to make a film that was visually exciting. I was interested in using pop art, bright colours, uplifting ukulele music, and psychedelic imagery to discuss my and others’ experience of the illness. I made a piece of concept art to illustrate my vision, using brightly coloured paints and abstract imagery. I was also inspired by Transfiction and Leviathan, due to the blending of reality and surreal imagery and sound. It was this presentation of reality in an almost extra-terrestrial, extraordinary way that I was attracted to, because I did not want to make a film that was boring or grey, which is how I think people with CFS are perceived a lot of the time. I think what I wanted to do most of all was regain some sense of control about how people perceived my illness: if I could make people understand what it felt like and reduce the stigma surrounding it, then I could be okay with it.
In an ironic turn, I was forced to relinquish all control over my life (and the film I was making) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I wasn’t able to film with the people I wanted to interview, and I couldn’t go to the destinations I wanted to shoot at. I expressed this by making a second piece of concept art, this time with my symbolic camera on fire, and a second symbolic camera dead. Coronavirus particles float above the cameras. This was to represent the chaotic and potentially deadly situation unfolding, as well as the metaphorical state of my envisioned project. After making this I felt able to embrace the situation and create a new film.
Many of the scenes in the film are the opposite of what I envisioned making at the start of the year. Despite this I have become attached to them as they are tied to and make up my experience of corona. The imagery is bleak, the skies are grey, the wind is howling, and people are suffering in unglamorous ways. In this way the film bears a slight resemblance to Christian Frei’s War Photographer. However, A Couple in Corona differs in that it is accompanied by almost constant commentary by the two characters as they offer their experiences, feelings and judgements of the landscape that unfolds. This is in stark contrast to Nachtwey and Frei’s technique of presenting footage often without comment.
Methodology and themes
We shot the film over three days. The first was 23 March, the day lockdown was announced in the UK, the second was one week later and the third was five weeks into lockdown. The footage takes the form of a walking discussion about life during the pandemic and is all shot in Canterbury. The film is called A Couple in Corona because Corona is both the time and place of the film. The pandemic transforms Canterbury into a different place entirely, demarcating a coronavirus time-space that is the subject of the film. The walking video diary style of the film gives viewers a tour of Corona as experienced by myself and George. It is not only the visual aspects of the film which illustrate this space, but the mental pictures painted by the small anecdotes shared by the central characters. Unsurprisingly, all of this this resulted in change and landscapes (and changing landscapes) being the two most central themes of the film.
Another theme is response to change and the insights that spontaneity can produce. None of the film is staged or rehearsed, and this is demonstrated by some seemingly random moments like the fly in George’s eye (which speaks to the way the pandemic impacts even the smallest of actions) and George’s singing in the final scene, which was an inside joke not intended to be shared, but which we felt captured the spirit of the film and did it justice more so than a bleak ending that would weigh heavy on the audience.
In addition to this, the film is made in a simple documentary style. It is understated and doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it doesn’t have any particular message or moral lesson that the viewer must understand. It is our attempt to document our lives during the coronavirus pandemic through the medium of conversations had whilst walking in Canterbury. Retrospectively, this aspect of the film is probably influenced by our joint history of watching Louis Theroux documentaries, especially his way of following characters around in their environments and underreacting to sometimes bizarre situations, as well as using humor in the face of grim realities. For example, our increasing use of humour and more frequent laughter towards the latter end of the film illustrates the worsening of the situation.
Overall, the film I was able to produce is vastly different from what I had envisioned. Despite this, I feel that the film is a valuable time capsule of the corona space-time, something that can be used to understand the era without listing milestones or events. At the same time, it is an anthropological text which allows insight into the human response to loss of control and uncertainty.
RUBY, J., 1980. Exposing yourself: Reflexivity, anthropology, and film. Semiotica, 30(1-2).
War Photographer (2002) Christian Frei.