Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Covid-centric films at Cucalorus reflect on early days of isolation, and togetherness

Rodrigo Dorfman’s documentary “Quaranteened” will premiere at the 2021 Cucalorus Film Festival Sunday at 2 p.m. at Jengo’s Playhouse. (Courtesy Dorfman)

WILMINGTON — It was a year and eight months ago when the world seemingly shut down. The spread of Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. Internationally, people were secluded inside their homes, shuttered from work or seeing loved ones, with little to do but wonder what was next.

Filmmakers with a hunch, though, didn’t twiddle their thumbs. Instead, they pushed their fingers on the record button, with few safe alternatives to pursuing their craft outside of turning the lens “inward.”

That’s how award-making filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman describes “Quaranteened.” The documentary about his own household will have its world premiere Sunday at 2 p.m. in Jengo’s Playhouse, as part of the 2021 Cucalorus Film Festival.

READ MORE: What’s different about Cucalorus 27? A lot, but mainly a return to in-person events

ALSO: ‘Where the future of the festival lies’: Shorts blocks at Cucalorus provide a unique film-going experience

Dorfman always has filmed his children but began rolling the cameras on his four teenage daughters seriously at the onset of the pandemic. His film opens with a voice message from one of their schools, announcing students will temporarily learn from home. It concludes with a less-promising message from the district: another nine weeks of remote instruction.

In the beginning, Dorfman thought up the idea to film as a way to keep himself busy and his kids entertained, but all along his intuition told him the lockdowns were a long-term deal. As an immigrant, he’d lived with uncertainty before and didn’t want his children to ever have to endure similar trauma.

“I knew what was coming and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to try and mitigate it and soften the blow as much as possible,’” he said.

After about a month of collaborating with his daughters on the project, he could see a full story developing. He conducted interviews with the four girls, continuing the question-and-answer sessions until he felt they’d said all they needed to.

The end product tells the story of a middle-class, blended family, as they cope with the anxiety of the pandemic and the loss of their ordinary lives, all while finding ways to cure their boredom. In one scene, which became the poster for the film, two of the girls are floating in an inflatable in a blow-up pool in the backyard.

“I think that’s where the film is in a way. It’s that moment of just floating,” Dorfman said. “Not even in the ocean. Floating in a small little pool in your backyard and making the best of it.”

The film follows the family as they grow closer. Dorfman, his two stepdaughters and two biological daughters were going on their fourth year of living together at the time.

“It feels like maybe what it did to this generation, to all of us, is that it really allowed us to be more intimate with our loved ones, and find more time to be together and to deal with each other,” Dorfman said.

One of Dorfman’s favorite scenes is near the end, when he captured the girls joking around in the bathroom. One is putting on makeup; another is trying to cut her hair, following along to an online video. The oldest is simultaneously engaging in a playful argument with the other two over how tall they each are. They measure one another against the bathroom doorway with a mechanical pencil, disputing over an inch here and there, and laughing about it all.

“The camera’s so close to them. At this point, they’re completely oblivious to it,” Dorfman said.

The laughter dies down and one daughter suggests they erase the markers off the wall. Then the oldest daughter asks in passing, “You don’t want these beautiful memories?”

“They’re just all at their most unguarded and full of life and funny and relaxed and arguing at the same time, and the camera’s really on them,” Dorfman said. “For a filmmaker, it’s so rare to have such access.”

He said the experience was “once in a lifetime.”

Soon after, the oldest daughter was packing for college. The film reaches a stopping place, but the pandemic, as we all know, carried on.

Based in Durham, Dorfman has now screened his films at Cucalorus for a decade. He usually completes one feature every year, or at least a short, to submit. “Cucalorus is my home,” he said.

“One (Nine),” a nine-chapter anthology by women filmmakers, is showing at Cucalorus on Sunday at 4:20 p.m. at Thalian Black. (Courtesy Ingrid Veninger)

After catching the 55-minute “Quaranteened,” viewers can make it to the 4:30 p.m. screening to capture another Covid-19 perspective –– or in the case of this film, nine perspectives.

“One (Nine),” an 83-minute anthology, is making its U.S. premiere at Thalian Hall’s black box theater. The film is a collection of nine different female filmmakers’ experiences isolated in different parts of the world: Carmen Sangion of South Africa; Dorothee Wenner of Germany; Lydia Zimmermann of Spain, Shengze Zhu of China and the U.S.; and Veninger, Mina Shum, Isa Benn, Slater Jewell-Kemker and Jennifer Podemski of Canada. The creators range in age from their 20s to 60s.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, executive producer Ingrid Veninger could tell what was unraveling internationally was worthy of a film. She pitched more than 40 women filmmakers worldwide to recruit a small group in the crunched time span of 10 days, from March 20 to March 30, 2020. The invitation disclosed the collaboration would be a zero-budget project.

“There was kind of an urgency to making this film and getting an insight into different experiences that women were having around the world and different perspectives,” Veninger said. “For everyone to say yes within this really concentrated time was pretty miraculous, actually.”

Despite most of the women living on opposite ends of the globe and being strangers, the final group of nine bonded through similar feelings of isolation, alienation, confusion and uncertainty all experienced during the pandemic, Veninger explained.

“That was the connecting link,” she added.

The women made a pact to trust each other in the process. Each filmmaker was given total freedom to craft their individual, roughly 10-minute chapter. A start and stop was not predetermined, nor were any linking transitions. Instead, the women each shared a word that represented how they were feeling in the present moment: encounter, soar, rage, touch, together. Veninger’s word was birth.

“We were making our films in the spring, and even though there was so much death happening, … nature was just — it was keeping on,” Veninger said. “There was so much grief in our humanity, and yet nature was being born.”

It was around Veninger’s granddaughter’s first birthday. Her 28-year-old daughter isolated alongside her in Ontario. Besides having each other, they were detached from other children, families and the entire community.

Her portion of the film subtly incorporates the energy of the other filmmakers’ words, Veninger suggests, when the baby “encounters” buds on trees or the mother and daughter are shown “together.”

“There’s like a thematic way that these words circulate and weave through all the chapters, which wasn’t heavy-handed, which wasn’t contrived, but in a kind of energy-way,” she said.

After all participants committed to the project by the last day of March, they shot through April and May. By the summer, they shared rough cuts with each other, and a supervising team remotely tweaked the sound, color grading and other slight aspects.

The final mix took place through the fall. The filmmakers made the most important decisions concerning the project unanimously, such as how it transitioned from one chapter to another, the flow of the final credits, the opening sequence, and the exhibition and distribution.

The screening at Cucalorus will mark the film’s U.S. premiere. It was previously shown at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto.

Veninger is flying in from Canada for the festival, bursting her Covid-19 bubble for the first time since the start of the pandemic. She’s been teaching remotely and isolating with her family since March 2020.

Other films dealing with Covid-19 also are playing at the festival in 2021, including “Wuhan Wuhan,” a 95-minute observational documentary. It takes viewers into Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus originated, during the months of February and March 2020.

“This film goes beyond the statistics and salacious headlines and puts a human experience into the early days of the mysterious virus as Chinese citizens and frontline healthcare workers grappled with an invisible, deadly killer,” the description states.

 “Wuhan Wuhan” will screen Thursday at 10:30 a.m. at Thalian Hall’s black box theater.

There are also quite a few shorts diving into life the virus led the world into:

“Death is Our Business” directed by Jacqueline Olive
Saturday • 1 p.m. • Thalian Main
This 30-minute piece takes viewers into the funeral homes of New Orleans at a time when the per capita Covid-19 death rate was the highest in the nation. Located ordinarily a jazzy city full of life, the film follows funeral directors and staff wrestling with the times: restrictions, laying the deceased to rest and comforting those they left behind.

“Little Sparks” directed by Denali Schmidt
Friday • 10:15 a.m. • Thalian Main
In 16 minutes, viewers will follow three young students who are learning from their homes in The Bronx during the pandemic and see the challenges they had to navigate.

“Now Let Us Sing” directed by Dilsey Davis
Friday • 4:15 p.m. • Thalian Black
This 14-minute documentary follows an interfaith choir in Durham that is forced to make changes, singing from miles apart, in the wake of Covid. It’s not just about the music, though. The interracial choir is grappling with police killings of African Americans.

“Proscenium” directed by Allyson Packer and Jesse Fisher
Friday • 1:15 p.m. • Thalian Main
How did real and virtual space collapse during the pandemic? This nine-minute short unfolds “across the architectural landscape of Dallas, Texas and the filmmaker’s personal computer.”

“Udaan (Soar)” directed by Amman Abassi
Friday • 4:15 p.m. • Thalian Black
A Pakistani woman immigrates from Karachi, Pakistan to a small Arkansas college town. But when Covid hits, and her mother is denied entry to the country, she is faced with spending the first year in her new life alone.

“We Stay in the House” directed by Kiyoko McCrae
Friday • 4:15 p.m. • Thalian Black
At about 14 minutes, this is coined as an intimate portrait of four New Orleans mothers. The women must cater to their families and themselves through Covid. It’s a story of personal loss on the backdrop of a health crisis.

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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