By Ivonne Spinoza
“Producing films often translates to putting out fires before they start, so I suppose this gets you ready for parenting in a pandemic, generally speaking, but did I feel prepared for the reality of 2020? That’s a hard no.”—Nico Opper
COVID has revealed and intensified all kinds of challenges in our lives and our society, and, while it is certainly a complicated time for everyone, amongst all, parents find themselves in a particularly tricky position during this whole global pandemic.
Being stuck at home can strain most relationships. When it comes to creatives who already have unusual work circumstances and demands, who often experience difficulties separating their work and living spaces—be it physically or mentally—and who also might need to adhere to often impossible schedules to create and produce while still maintaining a somehow balanced lifestyle, the expectations and challenges can be next level.
We talked with a few documentary filmmakers who all have different lifestyles and family configurations, to try to shed some light on what’s working—and what isn’t—when it comes to producing while parenting in 2020, as well as what the year will leave behind once the dust settles.
When asked about the first signs of change, all those who had scheduled shoots and any other type of work out in the field suddenly found themselves with an abundance of time and an abundance of uncertainty when the whole industry essentially shut down. Meanwhile, those who were mostly freelancing and already working from home now had new full-time “co-workers” who could be teenagers, toddlers, and even newborns.
Nico Opper, director of the feature documentary Off and Running, had this to say about co-working with their kid: “Working with a toddler is a little like working with a small drunk person. He’s become a regular staple of my Zoom meetings just to keep us all from dying of boredom, and my colleagues who are parents share this experience. Need to excuse yourself for a feeding? Do your thing. Gotta prevent a tantrum brought on by an apple that was sliced four ways instead of six ways? No worries, we’re standing by.”
“On the other hand,” Nico continued, “Having to work from home alongside him has made me slow down, realize it’s okay if I don’t get my entire to-do list is done in one day, and have grace for myself and others. This whole lockdown experience isn’t easy for our kids. Mine is more anxious, more vulnerable. Six months ago he was already a very independent kid, but these days he wants to be picked up all the time, and the way he just collapses into my body and rests his little head on my shoulder: it breaks my heart because I know it’s coming from a place of needing to feel safe.”
Even as some filming has resumed, there are new challenges with safety, and with previously unheard things like border crossings being restricted. At the end of the day, how much work we can do these days is not only about it being “allowed”, but also about the risks we’re willing to take, personally.
Filmmaker Reed Harkness, producer and director of the documentary series House on Fire and currently at work finishing a documentary about his half-brother, had some experience with this dilemma:
“When I did start getting calls, I had to turn a couple of things down because I didn’t feel safe, or that it could be safe for others on the crew. It’s strange because I can tell some people are hungry for work and willing to take more risks.
“With my personal documentary (Sam Now) I felt like I needed to be extra careful because it features my family. If someone got sick as a result of filming it would undermine the whole family health intention of the project. I’ve approached every inquiry since with the same sensitivity and as a result, I’ve done just 2 shoots since last February.”
For Sergio Rapu, producer and director, along with his wife Elena, of the documentary Eating Up Easter, it has been all about adaptability: “At first I panicked and briefly considered a career change,” he says. “Then, I became more pragmatic and stopped down all travel and face-to-face meetings. At the same time, I was losing a lot of projects because clients or funding was being pulled back.”
“I had to quickly shift projects that were about to go into production into a holding pattern as we figured out how best to create content in this new virus infused era while also ramping up development for other work,” Sergio says. “Since then, we’ve tried adopting more production techniques from the podcast/audio story realm to continue to create stories but ones that rely less heavily on original film production.”
“I also started pitching more local stories—ones that didn’t require an airplane trip and a hotel stay—in order to keep budgets smaller and crews safer,” Sergio continues. “[And] invested in beefing up my edit system to be able to support more freelance edit work and my own projects, which has paid off.”
In contrast, some parents have had a smoother transition because of their already more-flexible working conditions, like Ariana Garfinkel, producer of Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story and Best and Most Beautiful Things. While she’s had struggles like everyone, she is also aware her work style has been an advantage:
“My work situation made parenting easier than it has been for many people I know because I already worked somewhat flexible hours, and as an independent contractor, I’m in control of my time,” says Garfinkel. “But I am used to being very present and responsive in my work, so it has been hard to feel like I can’t contribute all that I normally would to my projects.”
Creative work has its own set of challenges, but by virtue of doing what we do, we’re also wired to find solutions to all kinds of problems, often even anticipating them.
Chris Metzler, co-director of the film Rodents of Unusual Size, says: “My work experience definitely gave me an advantage in dealing with this situation, as it prepared me to roll with the punches of the unexpected. Being a documentary filmmaker means planning as best you can and then dealing with unexpected reality when it comes your way. Now that is my day to day living during the pandemic.”
Julie Ha, co-producer and co-director of the upcoming documentary Free Chol Soo Lee, has found a bit of a silver lining: “We’re very lucky that our team has been able to keep working and have actually made great progress on editing our film during this pandemic. All the forced hunkering down maybe was beneficial for us in a way.”
The need to isolate to varying degrees depending on the location and the phase of the pandemic has been one the most difficult parts of this whole process for everyone, but when it comes to parents who rely on external support to manage schedules, childcare, and all kinds of responsibilities, things can get dire.
Brett Story, producer and director of The Hottest August, says: “When I decided to have a kid I knew the only way to do it and to continue to have a filmmaking practice and an intellectual and creative life, was to involve the village; to load up on aunties and uncles from our friend circles and to share the joy and challenges of child-rearing.”
“The pandemic has been isolating! And that’s hard mentally and emotionally, and also literally, in terms of finding help with our kid when there are competing obligations (which there are almost every day),” she adds. In cases like this, the children’s age, and the presence and responsibilities fairly shared with partners can make all the difference between being able to manage somehow, or not at all.
Fenell Doremus, producer of the feature documentary Cooked: Survival by Zip Code, also stresses the importance of carving out your own space and time, which certainly any of us can relate to. “I’m just going to come right out and say this, when you have young kids and you love your work, Mondays can be a blessing because when they go off to school you can turn back into a focused professional,” Doremus says.
“As kids get older and the challenges of parenting are less demanding, you feel that less and less, and yet parenting has been a 24/7 job during the pandemic,” she adds. “At a certain point, we all need our space, we all need our independence, carving out moments away from each other during the day is important.
But the togetherness of this moment, even with all the anxiety in the air, has provided some treasured opportunities to bond between families. Especially for those parents with younger children like Judith Helfand, director/producer of Cooked and Love & Stuff. “There have been moments of extreme joy amidst the extreme stress and fear and freakouts and insomnia,” Helfand notes. “I have found ways to be utterly present with my daughter. I have grown more patient in some ways, I am gentler in a lot of ways and I think that comes with having more rituals and just more time together.”
This time has been a good reminder of “how important it is to take the time to be there with family, reflect and participate in life fully,” adds Chris Metzler. “The pandemic has given me more opportunities to be there for my kids even though it’s hard to always have answers when they want to do things that just aren’t possible. The daily conversations about germs with our 4-year-old can be heartbreaking.”
There isn’t just one takeaway about this insane time we’re living in. But for Story, “This moment helps crystalize what we need and what we want, and I hope it renews a collective fight for both. For me, those things are all about community and resources. We need free childcare. We need free healthcare. We need smaller class sizes. We need cinemas and dinner parties and festivals. We need to go into each other’s homes as friends and neighbors to help each other fight despair. The point is that grief teaches us what’s important, and in my pandemic-induced grief, I’m personally trying to remember what’s worth fighting for.”
Ivonne Spinoza is a South American trilingual Latina writer and Illustrator. She writes both for TV and about it, and her work aims to contribute to better representation while advancing equality. She mostly writes genre fiction and cultural analysis, but will branch out quite often wherever her curious mind takes her. You can learn more at ivonnespinoza.com and find her everywhere online as @IvonneSpinoza