Behind ‘American Voices’: How 2 Dozen Cinematographers Followed People Across the Country for FRONTLINE’s Latest Film Documenting 2020
Mike Shum films on Election Day at the Powderhorn poll station in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Georgia Fort)
In March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic intensified and Americans were first encountering stay-at-home orders, documentary filmmaker Mike Shum’s phone rang.
It was a friend he had first met in college around 15 years ago: Blair Woodbury, now an emergency medicine physician near Reno, Nevada. Woodbury — who had been reading “The Great Influenza,” John Barry’s book about the 1918 Spanish flu — was calling with an unusual set of doctor’s orders.
“Blair very much suggested, ‘Yeah, I think you should be out there filming,’ and I thought he was crazy,” Shum told FRONTLINE, laughing. “Sure, yeah. I’ll just go out there and start filming in a pandemic!’” But Woodbury wasn’t kidding.
So began the process that would lead to American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil, a FRONTLINE documentary premiering November 17 that follows people from various walks of life as they navigate the pandemic, widespread protests over racial injustice and a historically polarizing presidential election.
“We both knew the importance of this moment,” Shum said. And for historical posterity, he and Woodbury felt a shared urgency to document — in as safe a way as possible — how ordinary Americans were responding to what Shum calls “a collective unknown.”
Following that initial phone call, Shum and Woodbury assembled a team of roughly two dozen cinematographers filming in some 12 states. The duo recalls one of those cinematographers, Portland, Oregon-based Derek Knowles, describing the effort in a way that stuck with them: “We are living through an unpredictable but also incredible time in history. It’s like…imagine we’re in the Great Depression, and someone hands you a camera. What would you want to remember about this time?”
As they’ve worked to capture history in real time, none of the team members shooting in the field has gotten sick. From the beginning, Woodbury and Shum were committed to protecting the health of both the cinematographers and their subjects: “We knew we were taking a risk; all of us did,” Shum said.
Woodbury’s experience as a practicing physician was key to developing and honing safety protocols, and he acted as a medical consultant throughout filming. “I was reading everything I could possibly read about pandemics, about coronaviruses, about masks, just because, clinically, I needed it for my patients,” Woodbury told FRONTLINE. “Also, I’ve had, of course, many conversations about risk stratification — for contracting COVID, for spreading COVID — with patients. So that was very practical when talking to filmmakers about risk mitigation.”
Before recruiting other cinematographers, Shum did some filming on his own, driving south from his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Sioux City, Iowa, to test out a slew of COVID protocols: how wearing a mask would impact a cameraperson’s ability to film, how to capture footage that felt intimate while staying distant, and how to keep up with sanitizing microphones.
“I think I called you like three times a day during those first couple of days because I was terrified,” he said to Woodbury.
One key element of mitigating risk, the duo decided, would be to work with filmmakers who, like Shum, could fly solo: “We wanted to make sure that it was single cinematographer-producer-type people, who could run their audio on their own, because we didn’t want to create another potential transmission point,” Shum said.
“We understood that if someone we were filming got sick because one of our filmmakers was an asymptomatic carrier, for example, we’re done,” Woodbury said.
The team began to take shape. Shum connected with Michaela Ternasky-Holland, a fellow member of the Asian American filmmaking community, and Arthur Nazaryan, with whom he had worked on past films. They put out calls for cinematographers on a Facebook group called the Video Consortium and decided together which leads to pursue.
Shum and Woodbury knew they wanted to focus on following ordinary people in a mix of urban, rural and suburban areas, including small business owners. To avoid unnecessary air travel, they sought cinematographers local to the stories they were pitching. Other than the safety parameters, each team member had a lot of latitude: The broad mandate was to find people with compelling stories and differing perspectives who were willing to invite the crew into their lives.
“We were very much relying a lot on the cinematographers to bring their own questions to the table of who they want to cover,” Shum said. For example, Derek Knowles, the cinematographer in Portland, Oregon, was curious about how a nearby barber was navigating the pandemic in a profession that requires close contact. Another cinematographer, Emily Thomas, suggested following a young couple who own a nail salon near her in Oakland, California.
As the cinematographers filmed these and other Americans — including a mom active in anti-lockdown protests in Utah, a construction company owner in Virginia, a doctor in Texas and a COVID-19 survivor in Illinois — Shum kept on filming while also acting as mission control, gathering footage, supporting the cinematographers and connecting thematic threads as the weeks went on.
One event that shaped the trajectory of filming was George Floyd’s killing while detained by Minneapolis police in May. Against the backdrop of a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Black and Latino people, Floyd’s death sparked protests for racial justice in Minnesota and across the country.
“The reason why I took my camera out had to do with George Floyd,” Shum said of filming Black Lives Matter activists in the Twin Cities. But “we knew that hundreds of people were gathering in south Minneapolis. And that alone warranted me to say, yeah, this is something important to cover, because people are getting out of shelter-in-place to protest.
“That was definitely a different stage of the pandemic,” Shum said.
As the events of 2020 continued to unfold, through the election and beyond, Shum and his team have continued to document the people featured in American Voices. The hard drive where Shum stores footage now contains 22 terabytes’ worth of material.
Beyond Tuesday’s FRONTLINE special, which focuses on 12 characters in eight states, Shum and Woodbury don’t know exactly what’s next for the reams of footage they’ve gathered — a series, perhaps, or a feature-length film. But they plan to keep going until the pandemic ends. And they hope what their team captures will be a valuable record of how people across the country experienced this tumultuous period.
“This is a pretty unpredictable and, at times, fear-inducing ride,” Shum said. And much like the pandemic, “it’s not over.”
American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil releases Tues., Nov. 17, 2020. It will premiere at 10/9c on PBS stations, on YouTube, in FRONTLINE’s online collection of streaming films and in the PBS Video App.