What’s up doc: the art of rewriting your film during a pandemic

When the pandemic hit, plenty of documentary projects bit the dust simply because their locations were no longer accessible...or their stakeholders were no longer available. But others were able to stay alive and thrive by doing what comes naturally...adapting and changing to fit their environment.

Everything was falling into place. Great locations and participants were found in Nepal, Haiti, and Palestine. Shooting dates were firmed up (from April 2020 to mid-2021) and they were just about to book plane tickets when pandemic pandemonium brought everything to a screeching halt.

“At first, we were shell shocked,” said documentary filmmaker Mélanie Carrier, co-writer on the Deep Inside Humanity project. Carrier and her filmmaking and life partner Olivier Higgins were hoping to capture the reactions of four children from different countries at the pivotal moment when they begin school and start discovering the outside world. “By now we were in year four of the project. But before we could tack into the new COVID wind, we had to offload the international portion,” she said.

In the end, the two decided to focus the narrative on their son, Émile, since he was already one of the four characters in the film, and to get in on the action themselves by filming segments of the script in their own home. “We really had to shake things up to find workable solutions that would allow the film to survive the pandemic,” said Carrier. Through MÖ Films, she and Higgins produced the award-winning Asiemut (2008) and Québékoisie (2013) films as well.

Deep Inside Humanity MÖ FILMS 2021
Filming "Deep Inside Humanity" with Emile (R) and his little sister Béatrice. Photo credit: MÖ FILMS

The health crisis also disrupted the storyline in Gabriel Allard-Gagnon’s (La bombe, T’es où, Youssef?) Aiguille sous roche documentary, but in an entirely different way. “At first, I really thought the project would become a non-starter when the pandemic came along since everyone would obviously want to get vaccinated and that would be the end of the anti-vax movement. Boy, was I wrong!” said the film’s narrator Louis T, when Aiguille sous roche was released earlier this year.

In the case of Vancouver-based sound recordist and short documentary writer Devon Cooke, (Tofu Meets Greens, 2009), the pandemic didn’t so much change his initial project as provide a solid basis for its development. “For the past three years, I was planning to make a documentary about farmers, and how hard it is for them to make a living,” he said in a YouTube video released in April 2020.

When the health measures were announced, Cooke was let go from his job on a film set. “So instead of just twiddling my thumbs for six months, I came up with a plan to put my free time to good use. My idea was to go on the road helping farmers by offering to work for just room and board. In the process I would make a documentary on the impact COVID-19 was having on them or on the agricultural sector,” he said in the video.

Cooke’s plan bore fruit. In The Hands that Feed Us documentary he shares his experience of staying with and working on five family farms in British Columbia and Alberta in the summer of 2020.

Themes that transcend the pandemic

Putting himself in the eye of the COVID storm gave filmmaker Devon Cooke an ideal perspective to witness what was happening firsthand, unlike his initial approach that got him nowhere. “I quickly realized that the pandemic wasn’t having a big impact in rural areas. People on farms have always been pretty isolated. So, I did cover the impact of the pandemic, but it wasn’t the most interesting part of the documentary,” he said.

Cooke offered to work for free so he could be integrated into the farm family’s bubble by following pandemic health directives. Going in alone without a technical crew had its advantages and disadvantages in terms of filmmaking. “I had more than my share of bad framing and camera problems,” he said. “But living on the farm with the documentary’s characters allowed me to earn their trust and to better understand their real situation.” In the end, Cooke was able to validate the relevance of his initial project for documenting how hard it is for small family farms to be profitable.

Darrin Qualman Devon Behind The Scenes
Devon Cooke filming his documentary "The Hands that Feed Us". Photo credit: Darrin Qualman

By choosing to film their son’s first day at school, Mélanie Carrier and Olivier Higgins came face to face with the pandemic where the rubber meets the road. “It’s totally pervasive. Kids and teachers are all masked up,” said Carrier. “It’s under their feet with arrows on the floor telling them where to go and how. But the documentary’s focus remains the same: how do we pass on the knowledge of today to the generation of tomorrow?”

Their decision to place their child at the centre of the film led to an ethical discussion that’s still going now. “We really try to integrate Émile as much as possible into the creative process. We take his ideas seriously and always respect his point of view,” they said. “We also gave him a small camera so he could film scenes at school himself.”

Jumping in feet first

Of the three projects, Aiguille sous roche is the one that focused most on the pandemic. In just a few months the anti-vaxers went from a fringe group to a full-blown political movement steeped in conspiracy.

The script had to be rewritten from scratch according to Louis T. The narrative line follows the rise of a Quebec-wide anti-mask/anti-vaccine movement and one of its most vocal leaders, Daniel Pilon.

Aiguille Sous Roche
Aiguille sous roche's film poster, with narrator Louis T.

Everyone on the production team did some serious soul-searching before deciding to give Pilon another platform. The objective of the documentary was clear: to look into the social impact of the vaccine and this was one. “We were able to do this in a non-biased, impartial, and authentic way,” said Louis T. “We were committed to showing the documentary’s characters as they are – without demonizing or idealizing them – leaving viewers free to make up their own minds.”

Director and screenwriter Gabriel Allard-Gagnon was also committed to extending the scope of the exercise by dealing with a bioethicist’s right to know how much the government actually paid for the vaccines. “Through their lack of transparency, I believe government agencies have also played a role in the ongoing crisis of confidence and it’s important to make that point,” he said.

Philippe Jean Poirier
Philippe Jean Poirier is a freelance journalist covering digital news. He explores the day-to-day impact of digital technologies through texts published on Isarta Infos, La Presse, Les Affaires and CMF Trends.
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