Work in Progress

Work in Progress

Making a film together, alone, on two continents, in two languages, in a pandemic.

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Sunset Park, Brooklyn—Who hasn’t come to terms with their own mortality over the past year and a half? So many people had life-changing realizations. Like others, I made a decision based purely on impulse. I went back to school. I hated the idea, in a way. Don’t get me wrong; I left undergrad with a deep appreciation for learning but understood that education can’t be bounded within an academic institution. The pandemic shifted my perspective. I needed a safe space to learn. My job with the New York Fire Department allowed me to stay home with my family for longer stints as I attended school virtually. Most important, I had something to do besides worry. I entered the screenwriting track at CUNY’s Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. I was processing what was happening in the world, and what was happening with me, and my family. And though communications about our works in progress were remote, I wasn’t alone.

February 22, 2021, 6:13 pm

Divad: I think the father should cry tears when he calms himself down. Not like happy 
tears or sad tears, more like repressed tears that have escaped. Like one or two tears.
Yera: I tend to think less is better in general. I think when we try to enhance, to point out 
that there is an emotion going on, it might kind of take the emotion out because the 
emotion is already there and it’s too much…
Divad: I was just thinking about masculinity and the performance of hiding emotion, but 
you're right; the story makes that apparent in the last scene. There’s no reason to double 
down. I’ve also been listening to a lot of sad songs  today, which may be influencing my 
judgment. [Insert: Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”]
Yera: Laughing out Loud with your depression song.

Yera Dahora is a talented director from São Paulo. For one of my classes, I wrote a short script that got thrown into a metaphorical hat from which first-year directors had to choose a story. Luckily, Yera chose mine.

[Insert: picture of the beach]
Yera: Yes, you should be jealous that I am working on the beach.
Divad: You read my mind. I am jealous.
[Insert: picture of a mound of dirty snow]
Divad: Greetings from New York.

Yera was based in Brazil and couldn’t travel to the United States. The film would be shot in Brazil, with Brazilian actors and crew. Almost all of our discussion took place via WhatsApp.

March 18, 2:41 pm

Yera: Things are tough in here. Really bad… we are not shooting on April 2 and 3. 
Lockdown is supposed to end on March 30 but they might extend it. We don’t know. 
The thing is, we can’t go on with preproduction while we are in the red phase in 
lockdown. We have to wait to get back to the yellow phase.… I don’t want to be 
pessimistic…we may not be able to shoot it within this term. On Friday I was like 
OMG OMG OMG lol, but in case we cannot do it this term we are going to do it, 
OK. Because I’m super into it, you're super into it, the little girl [actor] is super into 
it, the cinematographer is super into it, the production designer is super into it. 
Everybody. The editor is super into it. He just read the script. So, we are going to 
do it. Eventually. I just don’t know if I’m going to do it in April, May, or maybe June, 
July.… So good news. But it’s bad news and good news at the same time. I don’t 
know what you think about it, but we’re going to do it.

N

I gave Yera the nickname Captain. She had control of the ship and was leading us to shore on the stormiest of nights. But before I received that message from her, I was a little shook. I had listened to harrowing reports on NPR. Doctors from Brazil spoke of the shortage of oxygen supplies. People with Covid were dying of asphyxiation. The new strain in Brazil was more contagious. I asked myself questions like, Is this right? Is it really possible to execute this safely? Am I the mayor from Jaws right now? We weren’t the only students experiencing setbacks. Scores of Feirstein students were not able to finish their thesis films. CUNY protocols enforced far more restrictions than film industry standards. All of the students experienced a collective anguish. From the outside looking in, these preoccupations seem kind of childish in the context of a pandemic. But creating art is more than just producing an object. I had a cathartic experience writing the script. The story was inspired by a conversation with my daughter—when I was trying to put her to sleep, and accidentally gave her an existential crisis while answering her questions about the universe. I called it Goodnight Sun.

FATHER: The star light we see comes from distant suns in galaxies far, far away.

OCTAVIA: Cool.

FATHER: Another cool thing is some of those suns no longer exist.

OCTAVIA: How do we see the light?

Back when I was starting to transform the story, I contracted Covid-19. During my recovery and isolation, I lost my aunt Hope Johnson. She had health issues from serving as a chaplain during 9/11; those health issues were exacerbated by quarantining. I had to wait several weeks to mourn with my family. I didn’t need more time to worry. I remembered that Hope and her twin sister, Janice, had borne witness to my transformation into fatherhood. Hope had always shared with me stories of her late father. My favorite was about how he made sure to let his daughters know there was no Santa Claus. “He wanted us to know that a Black man bought these gifts,” Hope said, with a cackle. All of these things had been in my head and heart as I wrote.

March 28, 12:31 am

Yera: The governor has extended the lockdown period until April 11.… Two weeks ago 
we had about an average of 2,000  deaths per day and now we have nearly 4,000 
deaths per day which is just crazy. But I'm rehearsing with the kid via  Zoom. It is not 
ideal…but we are having a good time and she's advancing.

Yera shared casting videos and pics. We talked through each tension in a scene. The script was translated into Portuguese. I worked with my friend Michi Osato, who helped me read through the translated version so that I could continue to share notes with Yera.

May 15, 11:09 pm

Michi: The father says, “You used the bathroom,  right? I don’t want you to pee the bed 
from a tickle attack.” In the translation, it says, “I don’t want anyone peeing the bed.” I 
don’t know if it matters to you.

The film was finally shot. It is currently in post-production. Yera will be traveling to the US soon. My first year of grad school is over, and even as I rummage through WhatsApp messages, all of it feels unreal. What we managed to do together…

yera dahora

I told Yera that I felt like crying after seeing this.


Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.

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