Age of Blight: Scenes from Asia under the pandemic


A filmmaker aims the camera at a mirror, we see him in a protective medical suit covered from head to toe. He adjusts the focus of the camera, seemingly preparing the looker for a better picture of what lies ahead. There is a sense of emergency in the images of a hospital room mixed with the chatter of heightened medical alert in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Thus starts Age of Blight, an omnibus film on the pandemic made by a dozen Asian filmmakers. For an hour, the audience is transported to different places –from the mountains of the Cordilleras to the streets of Bangkok– expressing the anxiety of the times. 

Produced by Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival and Los Otros, with support from the Film Development Council of the Philippines and The Japan Foundation, it started in August 2020 by identifying Filipino filmmakers and their Asian counterparts to collaborate on this project. The filmmakers identified were as follows: Bagane Fiola (Philippines), Ligaya Villablanca (Philippines), Rudi Daniel Haryanto (Indonesia), Gladys Ng (Singapore), Mervine Aquino (Philippines), Nontawat Numbenchapol (Thailand), Abdul Zainidi (Brunei), Carla Pulido Ocampo (Philippines), Mark Lester Valle (Philippines), Edmund Telmo (Philippines), Hassanodden Hashim (Philippines), and Takayuki Yoshida (Japan).

The instruction was simple: they were asked to film themselves, their families or communities in a period of a month that encapsulates their world under the pandemic. The scenes could be actual events or staged to reflect the mind of their creators. They could edit the footages into scenes and sequences, or even a singular film of no more than 5 minutes. Or they could just remain unedited footages. These were turned over to the Festival, and in a series of online conferences both in Zoom and Facebook, the participating filmmakers and the editor, John Torres, talked not only about the film but also about the situation in the filmmakers' communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the course of modern life. With a global recession at its heel, its devastating and long lasting effects on the world are being felt. The film industry is one sector of the global economy that is grappling with the effects of this pandemic. Until March of 2021, film festivals have staged a virtual edition in lieu of the usual physical event to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Theaters remain closed and numerous film productions are still awaiting favorable conditions to resume operation. One thing remained unfettered though – the filmmaker's imagination. And we see that in the Age of Blight. The film also allowed participating filmmakers to reflect on the extent of the pandemic when they saw what was happening in their fellow filmmakers' communities.

When asked the question, “When you saw the video materials of other filmmakers, what were your realizations regarding the pandemic?” some of the filmmakers have these answers:

I realize that one way or another our experience and how we endure the pandemic is not unique. In a great extent, there’s also a commonality, regardless of border, of anxiety on how institutions responded to the pandemic. That such response fatigued and brought us in distress. However, we, as filmmakers, always come back and find refuge to our crafts. The longing for the adrenaline, the sweat, and the synergy in making films. And the yearning for that coldness in our feet and comfort in our seats inside the cinema.” 

– Edmund Telmo, Ozamiz filmmaker 

The project made me realize that the pandemic took us small filmmakers out of the comfortable ways we think of cinema and create works since the lockdown situation put us in bubbles, while the weight of documenting the/our world and communicating it outwards remains upon us as artists. The pandemic also limited the mobility by which we artists create connections, make a living, and generate ideas, thus making it more difficult to collaborate and unify our concerns as everything is flattened in virtual agreements and video streams.

As a participant and viewer of this particular work, the varying qualities and scopes of the video contributions direct the attention to the current technical capability/availability and reality of other filmmakers as most have to work alone and in place. Others bravely go out to take it upon themselves to document the situation with whatever they have, while others make the most of the confines of their own homes to try to make sense of the personal impact of the pandemic. While the regional concerns vary, the biological and political situation makes itself evident through a certain unrest in the images and tone of the clips.

The process is also evidence to the unevenness of filmmakers' regional situations, which in turn translates to how they treat their video submissions. For example, some with a more defined direction, while also with a more limited network connection, like Ate Carla and Manong Lester in Bontoc and Ligaya from Leyte, opted to create a singular work that stands on its own. Others also had a lot still going on within their own spaces, like our friends from the SEA and Japan, which made fragmented clips more convenient, in turn making their clips more miscible with other clips as they are versatile enough for montage with those from different regions.

Personally speaking, I have a hard time thinking of my situation photographically or even cinematographically unlike friends who are unfazed in responding to the situation through art production, so this pandemic project was really challenging since the stress, loneliness, and indoor mundanity was hardly any place of creativity or inspiration.

I think that there is a certain potential of the collected image archive and the collective video work, especially in our times, as it creates a conversation within itself-- (1) between the images and (2) among the participants-- which I hope could also expand beyond participating filmmakers.”

– Mervine Aquino, Baguio/Manila filmmaker 

As a new guy in film and collaborating with experienced film makers, it was a lot to take in, the techniques, everything was new to me, until now I am still overwhelmed how big the world of film and how it connects us. With my personal mission sending a message about COVID-19, when I was invited to join the project, It was like the rope has tightened and my mission was sealed. To participate in this and make my own independent work on the pandemic, too, which I just finished two days ago, I was so inspired how diverse the world of film is and how little I knew about it. It was a humbling and learning experience.”

– Hassanodden Hashim, Marawi filmmaker

After I saw the videos of the other filmmakers, I believe that the pandemic paralyzed the system on earth but also gave birth to a new hope, including cinema. The COVID-19 pandemic destroyed the aesthetics and techniques of films, but new ideas were formed...Collaboration also provided a new way of telling stories.”

– Daniel Rudi Haryanto, Indonesian filmmaker 

We are suffering a double whammy: first, the COVID-19 pandemic, and second, the pandemic of social isolation. Despite the myriad of audio-visual language employed in the omnibus project, the collective experience of social isolation - in varying degrees - was the dominant, resonating narrative among the co-filmmakers. 

This collaboration has helped us break free from the stifled freedom to express (and experiment) artistically in these unprecedented times. It provided a lifeline to recover somehow from the setback and get back on track from the creative demotivation brought about by this crisis. Ultimately, I wish this film would give the audience a sense of belonging (in the collective experience of loneliness) and a sense of hope as it did us.”

– Mark Lester Valle

I feel that even if we are linked by the same global crisis, the same goal of making films, and more-or-less similar technical-knowhow, one filmmaker’s isolation will draw no similarities to another filmmaker’s isolation. Among participating nations in this omnibus, the localized images proved the truly stark differences in economic and political stability, infrastructure, and knowledge/belief systems. We saw crudeness, but we also saw refinement. We saw a familial connection, but we also saw gaping isolation.

I realize this is precisely why this project is an inspired idea. The coming together of different truths presented by different filmmakers about a singular crisis is a very necessary exposition – and at the same time: indictment – of global and regional inequalities, made more pronounced by this novel virus."

– Carla Pulido Ocampo 

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