In his documentary and experimental movies, Boulder-based filmmaker Usama Alshaibi has long looked at how historical trauma influences the present. When COVID-19 hit, he started an audio diary and began chronicling his experiences through various mediums.
"I had this idea of a film program about the virus, and the title 'Cinema-19' stuck, but I was reluctant, and it was my partner who encouraged me to go for it," Alshaibi says. "I knew I couldn’t do it alone, and I needed a collaborator who I could work with. My friend and fellow filmmaker Adam Sekuler immediately came to mind."
"Usama contacted me with a nugget of an idea, and over a series of several phone conversations, we honed a concept and strategy to execute the project," recalls Sekuler, who is based in New Orleans. "Each of us approached filmmakers whose work we admired, with an eye toward an inclusive makeup both in terms of styles and backgrounds."
The filmmakers, a group from across the United States that includes Courtney Stephens, Eman Akram Nader, Alex Megaro, Scott Cummings, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, William Brown and Mila Zuo, set out to make new shorts for the project.
Alshaibi, who used to work as a digital archivist at the Chicago History Museum, has long thought about his work in a historical context, and he asked his fellow filmmakers to do the same.
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"We trusted each filmmaker, based on our experiences with their previous work, to produce a film that we could stand behind," says Sekuler. "Nobody let us down."
Cinema-19 debuted this week. The shorts are presented without titles or credits, so they create an uninterrupted flow, reflecting how one day blended into the next during quarantine. Some are horror films, others are experimental essays, a few incorporate performance art, and some are abstract. Tension infuses them all.
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"This period, especially those first three months of quarantine, were such introspective times," says Sekuler. "That is so clearly reflected in these works. Each of the films really explores the internal sphere of the pandemic. I think that’s somehow more universal than regional, and while the films are reflective of each filmmakers’ inner dialogue, there remains this universality in the work as a whole."
Making and programming urgent films about a social moment comes with risks. History marches on quickly, and what seems crucial one week can seem musty the next.
"At some point in the middle of summer, with protests against police brutality and the conflicts on the streets in the United States, we questioned if we even needed a film program like this," admits Alshaibi. "But I believe we do need artistic expressions and documentation during a historical time like ours. There is no singular narrative of what we are going through, but we are definitely going through a transformation collectively — and all these films are trying to make sense of our strange and dark days. In the end, I think there is hope...there has to be."