Movies about viruses: Filming a pandemic after you’ve lived it | Culture


Matt Damon, in 'Contagion'
Matt Damon, in ‘Contagion’

World War Z It seemed until February 2020 the best guide to know how to behave in the face of a pandemic, in this case of zombies: Brad Pitt, helicopters and explosions. Previous epidemics, such as AIDS, bird flu or Ebola, rarely appeared on the screen, with races against the clock as in Outbreak (1995), by Wolfgang Petersen. But when the COVID-19 arrived, Steven Soderbergh went to the category of prophet: his Contagion (2011) turned out to be an accurate announcement of the coronavirus transmission chain, and became the most sought-after film on digital platforms, where it was not available for months (now it is accessible). His gaze, focused more on the fatal banality of the disease than on great heroics, is the best guideline for a film genre that is going to change: its audience has already experienced a pandemic. Today, filmmakers, festival directors and experts reflect on where world catastrophe cinema will go.

For Ángel Sala, responsible for the Sitges festival, the most important in the world focused on fantasy and horror films, “the most serious treatments will win; there was a danger that was seen as possible and not probable, and that is now everyday ”. Ingrid Guardiola, professor at the University of Girona, audiovisual researcher and filmmaker (Nobody’s House), Explain: “Contagion He spoke of zoonosis, of a disease that derives from contact between the human species and other animals. This story is going to multiply in the coming years ”. Desirée de Fez, film journalist specializing in horror and fantasy, and author of Scream queen (Blackie Books), believes that there will be a mixture of reactions: “Some will continue to pull on the tropes and clichés of contagion cinema, because we know they work, and the most ambitious creators will seek more ambitious reflections, focused on the sensations.”

There are several Spanish filmmakers who have filmed pandemics or world disasters: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo in 28 weeks later, Nacho Vigalondo in Alien o Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza in the saga [·REC]. The latter warns: “There has been such a big change in our lives, in our ways of communicating and behaving, that it is impossible that it will not mark the future cinema.” For Fresnadillo, “the cinema of pandemics, and in general the apocalyptic, will be filled with a very humanistic look”.

There has been such a big change in our lives, in our ways of communicating and behaving, that it is impossible that it will not mark the future cinema

Paco Plaza

The coronavirus, according to Sala, “has not had great visual reflections beyond the emptiness in the streets, because the sick have mostly died away from public view. That will push the arguments that are born from the covid to abandon the fantastic to travel to other genres ”. Plaza confirms it: “It has been a disease of great dramatic intensity, of course, and leaves us images of shocking hospitals, but, as Balagueró says, in cinematic rhythm it is a boring pandemic, hardly dynamic.

Cartel de 'The End of Us'.
Cartel de ‘The End of Us’.

The Sitges programming team has been watching, online, films from the Sundance and SXSW (in Austin) competitions, and has observed that turn on the screen. “Other clues are used, such as romantic comedy or family conflict. In fact we have seen two, The End of Us and Recovery, who play with these elements: the first tells how the pandemic affects a couple and the second describes the journey of two sisters through the United States to rescue their grandmother from a nursing home, ”recalls Sala. “I think we are avoiding the pandemic,” says De Fez, and “maybe films that do not focus on confinement will talk more about it, even though its gestation is born there, such as Malcolm & Marie”.

What they all agree on is that there is little cinematographic value in the cinema made during the confinement, with honorable exceptions such as Madrid, interior, scored by Juan Cavestany. Plaza affects how the public will see it: “Making movies about a pandemic will be a bigger challenge, because we all have first-hand experience.” Sala underlines: “Very serious treatments or the best delusions far from the real thing with waves of zombies will triumph. And those who used to stay halfway, like Outbreak, which mixed science with some fun, will disappear. Another genre on the rise will be the one that bases its scripts on denialism or fanaticism. At Sundance it premiered In the Earth, from a prestigious director like Ben Weatley, who also shot it during confinement, an example of a film about groups of people who degenerate due to isolation ”. Fresnadillo explains along these lines: “I myself suffered the coronavirus, and the worst was not the physical, but the mental, the confinement in solitude.”

There are examples of past world events reflected on the big screen that can illuminate what future pandemic cinema will look like. Already in 1918, due to the so-called Spanish flu, part of the world population used masks, and it can be seen in shorts of the time such as Dr. Wise on Influenza, that the British Film Institute has made available to any Internet user on its website: there they talk about quarantines at home, social distance, hand washing and masks. Decades later Panic in the streets (1950), by Elia Kazan, illustrated the New Orleans police struggle against a wave of pneumonia. “Another example”, Sala emphasizes, “we see it in the cinema about 9/11. First, Hollywood delayed the premieres of films about disasters for fear of rejection, and then it tried to capture the attacks on screen and did not know how to do it, with exceptions such as United 93. I suspect the same will happen now: it will take a while for the majors talk about covid-19 ″. He has already tried with the newly released Immune, produced by Michael Bay, and the result only elicits embarrassed laughter. Guardiola sees clear “relationships between the Cold War and the cinema of biological catastrophes in the sixties and seventies, between AIDS and titles such as The fly O Alien 3; and in this XXI century the audiovisual has been fed by global terrorist threats that turn to extraterrestrial attacks ″. And draws attention to the prophetic of the The incident (2008), by M. Night Shyamalan, “because it is not known what caused the crisis and because evil is transmitted through aerosols”.

Yes, there were after 9/11 horror films that used allegory to talk about the feelings caused by the attacks. “The anxiety, fear, uncertainty are sensations that will return to the screen, for sure, especially in terror, without being focused on the coronavirus,” says Sala. Two examples: the version of War of the Worlds de Steven Spielberg, o Take Shelter, by Jeff Nichols, they talked about the fears created by 9/11. De Fez underlines: “It is that horror films have an incredible ability to capture the pulse of the times. Loss, pain or care are issues that will reappear ”. For Fresnadillo, “there will be the good works on how to confront death alone and how to accept death as part of life.” Guardiola points to other issues: “I hope that we abandon the survival of the fight against zombies born of an illusion of what the end of the world will be like and that we assimilate more that we are in a systemic crisis and that we have to do something.”


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