These Sundance films bring the COVID-19 pandemic to the screen

From propaganda to Zoom dating, two documentaries and a sitcom capture the pandemic’s impact.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just affected the way we watch the Sundance Film Festival — online from home, rather than trudging around Park City — but what we watch, as the coronavirus has become a topic of some of the festival’s films.

“What binds us is more than what keep us apart,” said Kevin Macdonald, who directed the documentary “Life in a Day 2020,” which distills 15,000 hours of footage submitted by YouTube users worldwide, all shot on a single day. “We all love our kids, we’re all scared of dying, we all want to fall in love with somebody. … I think COVID just accentuates that.”

Adam Brooks, who wrote and directed the TV pilot “These Days,” about people trying to connect despite a pandemic-enforced lockdown, says the idea was “to find a way to get to something beyond the obvious about the moment we were going through that seemed real — real in a way that it wasn’t just jokes about toilet paper.”

And in the documentary “In the Same Breath,” director Nanfu Wang looks at the place where the pandemic began — Wuhan, China, about 200 miles from her hometown — and how the Chinese government turned truth into propaganda.

“It was a surreal feeling, how my day was all consumed by COVID stories on the opposite side of the world,” Wang said from her home in New Jersey.

COVID-19 is a plot device in Ben Wheatley’s thriller “In the Earth.” The title phenomenon in the Brazilian drama “The Pink Cloud” becomes a metaphor for quarantine. And Carlson Young, a star of MTV’s “Scream: The TV Series,” filmed her directing debut, “The Blazing World,” in a pandemic “bubble,” with cast and crew isolating together during the shoot.

The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed Wang, Macdonald and Brooks about finding inspiration from the pandemic.

Spotting patterns of propaganda

Nanfu Wang wasn’t planning to make a documentary about Wuhan. She was just worried about her son.

Wang — who co-directed the 2019 documentary “One Child Nation,” a Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance — had taken her toddler son back to China in January 2020 to celebrate the lunar new year with her mother. Wang flew back to the U.S. for work, and left her son with her mother for a short visit.

“I came back the day of Wuhan’s lockdown,” Wang said. “I was trying to figure out how dangerous it was to go back to China and pick up our son. There was a lot of certainty and a lot of unknown.”

Eventually, Wang’s husband, a U.S. citizen, went to China to retrieve their son. Meanwhile, Wang dug into whatever news she could find from China, both from friends and through government-run media.

“The more I read, the more I realized how much the government censored what was happening,” Wang said, “and how big the discrepancy was between what was announced in public by the officials — whether it was on the TV or in the newspapers — and what the people were telling me.”

Wang scoured social media sites for posts about the virus’s surging spread in Wuhan. She took lots of screen grabs, because “I would share a link with my friends, and they would share them with me — and they were deleted within 20 minutes.”

On Feb. 6, she saw posts on a Weibo site — China’s version of Twitter — where people with COVID-19 were posting images of their lung scans, to show they were sick enough to secure a bed in Wuhan’s increasingly crowded hospitals. Wang tried to get an American newspaper to write about Wuhan, but she couldn’t get one to follow up on her tip.

Wang started contacting videographers she knew in the Wuhan area, planning on making a short film. Within days, she received footage and stories about the pandemic there. “I knew that this was not even a short. It was a very big story, and I needed to do a feature film,” she said.

From her work on “One Child Nation,” which explored the consequences of China’s now-defunct one-child-per-family policy, she said, “I knew how propaganda worked in China, and how pervasive it could be.”

With “In the Same Breath,” though, “I felt I was witnessing the whole process happening, and witnessing it from day one, when the outbreak started, and how the narrative was being manipulated and written,” Wang said.

Working in New York and living in New Jersey, Wang saw the cycle of disease and disinformation repeat itself in the Trump administration. (One example is the early advice that people didn’t need to wear face masks, a policy based not on science but a need to save limited supplies. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, is on camera delivering this misinformation.)

When Wang’s son returned from China, she said, “we all felt relieved. We thought, ‘At least we won’t experience the stories we heard in China. None of those stories would happen here.’ Of course, that wasn’t true, and the whole country realized this by late March.”

Wang said she’s not sure how the Chinese will react to “In the Same Breath,” which will air on HBO later this year.

“Every film is a gamble,” Wang said.

‘I don’t need any more death in this film’

(Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute) A boy complains about how the COVID-19 pandemic "ruined everything" — from a sleepover at a friend's house to a trip to Six Flags — in a scene from "Life in a Day 2020" by Kevin Macdonald, an official selection of the Special Screenings section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

When Kevin Macdonald directed “Life in a Day” in 2010, he said, the criticism he heard was “that it didn’t have enough death and sex.”

The YouTube-produced documentary — which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival — was compiled from footage shot in a single day and sent from thousands of people around the world. “I would have loved to put some death and sex in, but I didn’t have any,” Macdonald said.

That wasn’t the problem with the follow-up, “Life in a Day 2020,” which is playing as a special screening at Sundance.

“This time, I was actually having to say, ‘I’ve had enough death. I don’t need any more death in this film,’” Macdonald said from his home in London. “I was inundated with stories of loss. Trying to find a way to balance those to make the film something that seemed like it encompassed all the experiences of humanity, that was the challenge.”

For the second film, some 392,000 people sent footage to YouTube, a combined 15,000 hours to show what was happening on July 25, 2020.

Back then, Macdonald said, “people were happy to share their lives in a way, and YouTube was a platform for a kind of communal outpourings.”

Macdonald said he told producers back in April that “if we do it in July, that’ll be great. Because COVID will be over, but we’ll still have the hangover of it. … That, it turned out, wasn’t the case.”

In compiling the footage with three editors, Macdonald said his team found that “there was a lot of loss in the film, a lot of death, a lot of grief, that wasn’t there the last time. There was probably less larking around.”

To keep the film from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 stories, Macdonald said he “was drawn to these pastoral scenes more than I would have been otherwise.” These include a Russian girl tending to her goats, and an Ohio man who spent his July 25 trying to spot trains.

“Maybe that was a kind of wish fulfillment for me, this is where I and maybe a lot of people who live in cities would want to be,” Macdonald said. “We want to be in the middle of nowhere on our own, or living on a farm in Siberia.”

Capturing ‘something between the lines’

(Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute) Mae (Marianne Rendón) tries to navigate life in quarantine in the series "These Days," by Adam Brooks. It's an official selection of the Indie Series Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Adam Brooks had a specific challenge: Directing actors who were on opposite ends of the United States — when he was in Canada.

“They were all living in their locations,” Brooks said of the work on “These Days,” a sitcom pilot he wrote and directed, which will appear in Sundance’s Indie Series program. “So we’d shoot five or six hours, and stop. And the next day, I’d shoot for an hour with one of them or both of them. It was a very kind of wonderful way of reinventing shooting, forced by the limitations.”

Brooks — who has been to Sundance with “Another You” (SFF ’85) and “The Invisible Circus” (SFF ’01) — was approached by a producer friend, Peter Saraf. “He just called me up and said, ‘I really feel a need to tell a story now. And I think we should do it together,’” Brooks said from his home in Ontario, Canada.

Brooks said he was wary at first, but started considering the possibilities. “You know what happens with stories is: You start thinking about it, then you have an idea, then it really doesn’t matter what anybody thinks,” he said. “You have to do it.”

One of the attractions of “These Days,” Brooks said, was working with Marianne Rendón, who worked with him on the Bravo series “Imposters.”

The relationship between director and actor was trickier than usual, Brooks said, “because they would have to be their own camera operators and sound people. There would have to be a kind of trust and playfulness in the back-and-forth, and I knew I could have that with her.”

Rendón plays Mae, a New York dancer stuck in her apartment who ventures into the world of dating via Zoom calls. On one such call, Mae strikes up a conversation with Will (William Jackson Harper, formerly of “The Good Place”), who lives in Los Angeles. There is chemistry, and a desire for more Zoom dates, but both parties are holding back vital information.

Brooks has filmed only the pilot of “These Days,” but he’s written the script for a second episode, and an outline for a six-episode series — if some network wants to buy it.

The show, Brooks said, is meant to capture “something between the lines about what we are all going through, feeling a sense of loss or grieving our lives or dealing with the isolation.”

COVID-19 at the movies

These are the screening times for movies about COVID-19 playing at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival:

“In the Same Breath” • Premieres • Premiere screening: Thursday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m.; second screening: Saturday, Jan. 30, available starting 8 a.m.

“Life In a Day 2020 • Special Screening • Premiere screening: Monday, Feb. 1, 4 p.m.; second screening: Wednesday, Feb. 3, available starting 8 a.m.

“These Days” • Indie Series • Streaming from Thursday, Jan. 28, through Wednesday, Feb. 3; available to festival pass holders.

For information about the screening times and availability, go to festival.sundance.org.