By Eddie Wong. Posted July 27, 2021.
Like facets on a diamond, the six short documentaries that comprise Hindsight, a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) special, shine brilliantly with insights into life for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in the American South and Puerto Rico during Covid-19. You can see these works beginning on Thursday, July 29, 2021 via Reel South’s Facebook page and the PBS Video App, and on the World Channel’s You Tube channel.
Each film springs from the unique vision of the directors who approach their works with a variety of styles. Collectively the films express the core anxieties, fears, and unease that marked life during the pandemic. Rather than pick and choose among the films, it’s best to watch all of them and let them sink into your consciousness for you will discover as I did that the themes speak to one another from film to film. Watch them a second time (they’re all under 15 minutes in length) and you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation of the choices each director made as they worked with their subjects.
Although the subject matter varies from film to film, each director is committed to an honest portrayal of how their characters cope with the challenges of life during Covid-19. There’s a visceral quality to dropping into their lives and watching them figure out on the fly how to cope with exhaustion, despair, loneliness, anger, and the unknown.
Kiyoko McCrae’s portrayal of several working mothers in New Orleans, including a Latina who becomes infected with Covid-19 and nearly dies, in We Stay in the House, is unforgettable. Several of the mothers who are artists only find time to work after an exhausting day of home schooling rambunctious albeit charming children. McCrea ends her film with the fact that the pandemic has forced many women out of the job market diminishing economic gains they have made. Several of the mothers work in theater and they bring to the screen a commanding presence laced with humor and grit.
Anissa Latham’s portrait of spoken word artist/activist Dikerius Blevins in Birmingham, AL in Missing Magic brings us into the heart of national rebellion against police brutality that coincided with the pandemic’s lockdown. Blevins’ bluesy incantation “resistance in always necessary and there’s beauty in the struggle” set over a moody track by Eric Mobley recounts his arrest in a protest demonstration in a city which seeks to cast race and class issues as something in the past. His spoken word piece “Missing Magic” forms the spine of this visually stunning, thoughtful work.
This Body by Zac Manuel also delves into African American history via an examination of the historical mistrust of the medical community and vaccinations in particular (think Tuskegee experiment where hundreds of African American men suffered from untreated syphilis). Manuel focuses the film on Sidney Hall, a medical student who volunteers to participate in the experimental coronavirus vaccine trials in the hopes that this will lessen the reluctance among African Americans in New Orleans to get vaccinated. Even though the pandemic permeates with a sense of dread, Sidney Hall is even keeled and resolutely committed to making sure people get the medical services they need, despite the legacy of racism.
Amman Abbasi’s film Udaan (Soar) follows his 19-year old cousin Baneen as she journeys from Karachi, Pakistan to Paragould, Arkansas to attend her first year of college during the pandemic. The film plays like a muted trumpet. Long sustained notes of loneliness fade into the background as Baneen adapts to living with her aunt and diving into her studies, all of which are conducted via zoom. Abbasi conveys the suspended sense of life with artfully composed shots that dissolve into dreamy sequences, an unusual but apt approach that bridge Baneen’s memories of home and her new life in the American South. The harsh reality of the US immigration laws complicates the situation as Baneen’s mother, who accompanied her to the U.S., is turned away by immigration authorities for having an expired visa and abruptly sent back to Pakistan. We see in Baneen’s calm demeanor the lingering sadness and deep love she feels for her mother and the friends she’s left behind. Abbasi’s unhurried pace lets you see Baneen as she develops her resilience.
Comida Pa’ Los Pobres (Food for the Poor) by Arleen Cruz-Alicea brings us into the pre-existing hunger crisis that expanded during the pandemic in Puerto Rico. Cruz-Alicea focuses the film on Giovanni Roberto, leader of Comedores Sociale (Social Eaters), a charity organization that provides sustenance for the poor. Frustrated by government inaction in the face of the mounting crisis, Roberto organizes a car caravan in San Juan, Puerto Rico to call for immediate action. Hand-held footage captures Roberto being arrested. While in jail, Roberto composes a song with the refrain “food for life, strength is my dignity” that enters the public sphere. Family photos sprinkled throughout the film tell the parallel story of Roberto’s close bonds with his mother and the dire food insecurity the family endured. The cinematography and still photos of Laura Magruder are beautifully composed lending empathy and dignity to the poor in a way that reminds me of Sebastiao Salgado’s work. This is a film that celebrates life in the most difficult of times.
Dilsey Davis, whose family is multi-racial (South Asian, Native American, and African American, documents the work of her mother who leads the One Human Family interfaith, multiracial choir in Durham, North Carolina. The film Now Let Us Sing combines snippets of performances completed prior to Covid-19 with the travails of keeping the choir together while socially distant. Frustrated by the time lag in zoom, the choir has a hard time learning new gospel songs and meshing together as a unit. The film also mentions the ongoing dialog needed to overcome racial tensions that arise among the group. Given the brief running time, Davis isn’t able to flesh out the diverse members of the choir, but this work certainly whets your appetite to learn more about how they harmonize (musically and socially) and their impact on communities as they travel through the South. I hope she expands this work in the future.
Here’s a brief clip from the film.
Hindsight was produced by Firelight Media, Reel South, PBS’ southern regional documentary series, and the Center for Asian American Media. Funding was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Author’s bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He graduated from UCLA’s EthnoCommunications Program in the School of Motion Pictures/Television. For many years, he was a documentary filmmaker with Visual Communications in Los Angeles and later became the Executive Director of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association now known as the Center for Asian American Media.
Bonus Video: Filmmakers Kiyoko McCrea and Amman Abbasi discuss their films with their subjects Tiffany Vega-Gibson and Baneen Khan in a discussion moderated by Chloe W. Wallace/Firelight Media held during the Center for Asian American Media’s annual film festival in May 2021.
The Directors of Hindsight: