Documentary in the Age of COVID

by Dafydd Sills-Jones (Volume editor) Pietari Kääpä (Volume editor)
©2023 Edited Collection 280 Pages
Series: Documentary Film Cultures, Volume 4


«Documentary in the Age of COVID is a timely and astute volume that affirms and challenges our thinking about how the cultural and technological disruption brought by the pandemic response has upended documentary culture. It is a guiding light for documentary practitioners and scholars as they navigate the new terrain of a post-COVID world.»
(Professor Belinda Smaill, Monash University)
This collection responds to the unusual and disturbing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The volume surveys the immediate effects of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in documentary film cultures as well as providing a space for unpacking the recent past and future of documentary in the context of the pandemic’s possible effects. It is published as part of Peter Lang’s Documentary Film Cultures series and reflects the value of documentary as an enduring and influential channel of media discourse and community of practice. Media producers have been forced to both interrogate their chosen professions and innovate with limited resources. Already, we are seeing new distribution and production methods emerge to highlight the importance of media-makers as essential workers, as they are uniquely equipped with the ability to represent the various dialogues undertaken to respond to the cultural, social, economic and political challenges the pandemic has foisted on global society.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of figures
  • Foreword (Christian Enemark)
  • Introduction: Documentary in the age of COVID (Dafydd Sills-Jones and Pietari Kääpä)
  • Part I Setting the scene: Views from the frontline
  • Closeness, co-creation and connectivity in times of social distancing and uncertainty (Sandra Gaudenzi and Sandra Tabares-Duque in conversation with Anna Wiehl)
  • 2 The view from the funders: An interview with Doc Society’s Sandra Whipham and Lisa Marie Russo (Steve Presence and Alice Quigley)
  • Part II Experimental practices and technological innovations
  • 3 The Smallest of Worlds: Participation, construction of space and micronarrative in VR-based experimental documentary (Joan Soler-Adillon, Uwe Brunner and Bettina Katja Lange)
  • 4 Live documentary performance in the time of COVID-19: Ephemeral forms for precarious times (Kim Munro)
  • 5 Diary of COVID-19 filmmaking (Catherine Gough-Brady)
  • Part III Changing documentary perspectives during COVID-19
  • 6 Childhoods during lockdown: Danish children as documentarians of the COVID-19 pandemic (Eva Novrup Redvall)
  • 7 ‘Telling China’s anti-pandemic stories well’: Documentaries for public diplomacy and the paradox of China’s soft power (Jian Xu, Qian Gong and Weiwei Xu)
  • Part IV Institutional responses to disruption
  • 8 The Documentary Film Council: Developing non-fiction policy frameworks in the COVID-19 pandemic (Steve Presence)
  • 9 ‘We’re in this together’ – but not in the same way: Institutional responses to the COVID-19 production stop in the British and Dutch film and television industries (Willemien Sanders and Anna Zoellner)
  • 10 ‘If you have no savings, you are screwed’: The impact of COVID-19 on documentary film production and distribution in South Africa – a story of devastation and innovation (Liani Maasdorp)
  • Notes on contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

←viii | ix→


Figure 1.1: Visual Haiku created for Corona Haikus – images and words by Alex Tzavella.

Figure 1.2: Visual Haiku created for Corona Haikus – images and words by Tereza Stehlikova.

Figure 1.3: Visual Haiku created for Corona Haikus – images and words by Tereza Stehlikova, comment by Sandra Gaudenzi (2.2).

Figure 1.4: Visual Haikus created for Corona Haikus – images and words by Laurence Finet.

Figure 1.5: Visual Haikus created for Corona Haikus – images and words by Catalina Ortiz Arciniegas.

Figure 1.6: Visual Haiku created for Corona Haikus – images and words by Valentine Goddard.

Figure 3.1: The Smallest of Worlds (courtesy of <www.thesmallestofworlds.com>).

Figure 3.2: One of the rooms in The Smallest of Worlds (courtesy of <www.thesmallestofworlds.com>).

Figure 3.3: A point cloud image, with its undefined edges (courtesy of <www.thesmallestofworlds.com>).

Figure 3.4: A composed space (courtesy of <www.thesmallestofworlds.com>).

Figure 3.5: The navigation structure of The Smallest of Worlds (courtesy of <www.thesmallestofworlds.com>).

Figure 3.6: A 3D-printed miniature (courtesy of <www.thesmallestofworlds.com>).←ix | x→

Figure 6.1: The poster for Dengang Danmark lukkede ned.

Figure 6.2: Worksheet on filming the lockdown material (courtesy of Buster Film Festival).

Figure 6.3: Drawing by girl of her corona life (courtesy of Emil Norgaard Munk and the girl).

Figure 6.4: Screenshot of children in boxes (courtesy of Emil Norgaard Munk and Mariella Harpelunde Jensen).

Figure 6.5: Screenshot of the use of split screens (courtesy of Emil Norgaard Munk and Mariella Harpelunde Jensen).

Figure 8.1: The Documentary Film Council organogram (courtesy of DFC).

←x | xi→
Christian Enemark


In late 2019 a mysterious infectious disease had begun circulating in central China and probably in parts of Europe too. Caused by a novel coronavirus that sometimes generates severe and acute respiratory distress among its victims, this disease would later achieve infamy as ‘COVID-19’. Eventually, despite efforts to contain it, the disease spread to every corner of the world, carrying the potential to infect all people everywhere, and thus acquiring the status of a pandemic. Not since the ‘Spanish influenza’ pandemic of 1918–1920 had a fast-spreading disease presented so great a risk to human health in so short a period of time. And never, in the intervening century, had disease-control measures been implemented so intensively and on so wide a scale as they were in response to COVID-19.

Many of us who endured the present pandemic have sought to track its progress in the abstract, by following (perhaps obsessively) the constantly reported changes in epidemiology. Anyone with internet access has been able, from one day to the next, to check numerous data dashboards showing the number of new cases in a given country, the rates of hospitalisation and mortality there, and the pace of distributing and administering doses of vaccine. At the time of writing, the World Health Organization’s website was reporting a total of around half a billion confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, including more than six million deaths. However, such numbers alone are but a bare representation of the pandemic’s burden. They reveal nothing about the huge variety of negative effects and difficult experiences that have been caused throughout the world, especially during 2020 (and much of 2021) when an effective anti-COVID vaccine was generally unavailable.

In people’s personal and professional lives, and as a matter of concern for national governments, the ongoing story of this pandemic has been one of severe disruption as well as deadly disease. Although the coronavirus ←xi | xii→itself is ultimately to blame for myriad misfortunes, the very attempt to protect people against this pathogenic microorganism has also been a distinct source of tensions within and between societies. In the initial absence of a vaccine, the swift and widespread implementation of non-pharmaceutical methods of disease-control came as a shock. This was especially the case in wealthier Western countries where local populations had long ago stopped thinking of infectious disease as a major life risk. Thus, the surprise caused by the emergence of COVID-19 inside those countries became compounded by surprise at the immense cost associated with heroic and unfamiliar efforts to stop this disease by radically curtailing human interaction.

As the coronavirus proliferated and mutated, state institutions derived political capital from describing the pandemic as an ‘emergency’ or a ‘crisis’. Then, on this basis, governments of all political persuasions surged to the fore as makers of rules and spenders of money in the cause of keeping their societies functioning. From time to time, whole populations were cast into ‘lockdown’ conditions. The hard-won globalisation of travel and trade was rolled back as national borders were tightened or closed. And, in many parts of the world, a beggar-thy-neighbour approach to medical resources (exemplified by the phenomenon of ‘vaccine nationalism’) swiftly smothered any residual enthusiasm for global health solidarity. Nevertheless, in the taking of these and other drastic measures, policy practitioners around the world faced a dilemma. How much interference in people’s habitual freedoms (of movement and assembly) could be justified as an effective way of limiting COVID-19 transmission? And how much interference would, by contrast, be unduly excessive in the sense of causing more harm than good and tending to diminish public trust in government?

Where a deadly disease is spreading rapidly through a population, there is a public health advantage to be gained from promoting and enforcing social distancing. By thus reducing the overall risk of human-to-human infection, the likelihood of local healthcare systems being overwhelmed by patients is reduced too. However, it is undeniable that the implementation of stringent disease-control measures also carries the potential to undermine individual human rights and collective economic prosperity. The complete closure of schools, for example, can slow the community-wide spread of COVID-19, but it can also make unavailable any healthcare ←xii | xiii→workers (and other workers deemed ‘essential’) who must then care for their own school-age children. In the longer term, where homeschooling options are unavailable or inadequate, there can be an adverse impact on some children’s education and life prospects.

Requiring workers to remain in their homes for the duration of a severe disease outbreak can likewise reduce the risk of viral infection, but in many places and professions it is often difficult or impossible to implement remote-working arrangements. Thus, those workers’ economic productivity vanishes, and the viability of their continued employment is jeopardised. Restricting or prohibiting cross-border travel can slow the transnational progress of COVID-19 via travellers’ bodies, but it can also inhibit the in-person sharing of much-needed medical expertise with disease-affected countries. Worse still, a government’s conspicuous emphasis on international border controls carries the risk of externalising the pandemic, leading to surges in xenophobia and the scapegoating of foreigners.

The pandemic-driven tension between competing interests and values, and the stories of how this tension has variously affected people’s lives, are subjects ripe for detailed exploration through the practice of documentary. Societies function and flourish largely because people have regular contact with and rely upon each other. So, when COVID-19 and disease-control measures combined to generate a crisis of human connectivity, this needed to be investigated urgently and sensitively. However, as is made clear in Documentary in the Age of COVID, the people producing, participating in, or communicating through documentaries were suddenly faced with a crisis of their own. Just at a time when documentary practices had become more socially important, many of those practices had also become more dangerous and difficult because of the pandemic itself and the many government-imposed restrictions designed to contain it.

The features of this crisis are well-illustrated in this timely volume, for which Dafydd Sills-Jones and Pietari Kääpä have assembled a diverse collection of rich reflections by scholars and practitioners. Each chapter provides a fascinating insight into the challenges that disease transmission and social distancing have posed to the concept and continuation of documentary. Moreover, the volume overall reveals much about documentary’s fragility and resilience under adverse conditions. Improving our understanding of ←xiii | xiv→the importance of documentary is important now and is likely to remain so in the future. More pandemics comparable to COVID-19 seem likely to occur, and it is now clear that the full range of human ingenuities and creativities will be required to confront these comprehensively. In the decades ahead, medical and scientific expertise will continue to be important in the search for disease-control solutions. Beyond that, though, disrupted societies will need to be served also by experts in social dynamics and, especially, by documentarians who can help to keep people connected.

Christian Enemark

Professor of International Relations
Southampton Univeristy, UK

June 2022

←xiv | 1→
Dafydd Sills-Jones and Pietari Kääpä

Introduction: Documentary in the age of COVID

Documentary, despite its vague and problematic generic boundaries, has stood the test of time. Its roots stretch down further than the beginnings of cinema, back into the early years of photography and cinema’s forebears such as the magic lantern. Due to this long reach, it is also anchored in a range of media forms and genres that have evolved since the beginning of mass electronic communication, giving documentary a choice of homes and retreats, if circumstances ever threatened its existence. Immediately before the COVID-19 pandemic, documentary, arguably, had never been stronger commercially. It had a presence in the new global SVOD platforms that few would have predicted back in the age of broadcast and VHS/DVD, and had been at the forefront of adaptations to the possibilities and limitations of numerous waves of interactive and web-borne innovations in cinema, showcasing a tremendous ability to sustain its presence and viability despite ongoing artistic and technological disruptions.

Documentary’s tenuous grip on its ascription as scientific evidence also remained intact despite the ravages of postmodernism and the ubiquity and embeddedness of screens, and screen representations, in our daily lives. Documentary’s paradoxical relationship to the real served to preserve its flexibility in reacting to evolving philosophical and cultural formulations of reality, allowing it to survive the rupture from idealism (Grierson 1933), to structuralism (Barnouw 1993), to post-structuralism (Winston 2008), to new materiality (Hongisto 2013), and beyond to the post-cinematic and the post-humanist (Nash 2021). One might say that documentary is no stranger to disruption, and that part of the documentary’s function is to grasp the emergence of events, and the flow of time, in its ever-flexible and re-inventable form(s).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (February)
documentary media covid-19 media production Documentary in the Age of COVID Dafydd Sills-Jones Pietari Kääpä
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. XIV, 280 pp., 13 colour ill., 5 b/w. ill, 1 b/w table.

Biographical notes

Dafydd Sills-Jones (Volume editor) Pietari Kääpä (Volume editor)

Dafydd Sills-Jones is Associate Professor at Te Kura Whakapaho, Te Wananga Aronui o Tamamki Makau Rau (School of Communication Studies, Auckland University of Technology). Dafydd publishes in both traditional scholarly mode (on history in the media, minority language media, documentary culture) and screen practice as research mode, making installations and films that have been screened in several countries and at major international festivals. Previously, Dafydd worked in the media industry in the UK in a number of sectors and roles, including producing, directing and researching documentary, drama-documentary, and interactive non-fiction. Pietari Kääpä is a Reader in Media and Communications at the University of Warwick. He works in the field of environmental media studies with a specific focus on media management and industry studies. His monograph Environmental Management of the Media: Industry, Policy, Practice (2018) explores the ecological footprint of media production and the policies and strategies developed in the media sector to curtail these impacts. In addition, he is the author of several books on ecocinema, including Transnational Ecocinemas: Film Culture in the Age of Environmental Depravation (with Tommy Gustafsson, 2013).


Title: Documentary in the Age of COVID