A Toronto filmmaker has made a disaster movie about COVID-19

Oscar-nominated director Adam Benzine is producing and releasing his latest doc The Curve in time for the U.S. election in November


COVID-19 forced innumerable film and television productions to postpone shoots or shut down entirely. But if one was a documentary filmmaker stuck at home with one’s editing software, one might find a way to keep busy.

Toronto-based journalist and filmmaker Adam Benzine – an Oscar nominee for his 2015 documentary short Lanzmann: Spectres Of The Shoah – set himself the task of making a movie about the failure of the American government to respond to the crisis.

The result is The Curve, the first three minutes of which he released on YouTube earlier this week, to tease the film’s release and generate interest in a Kickstarter to complete its post-production.

Benzine initially conceived of The Curve as a short film, hoping to sketch out the early failings of the American response to COVID-19.

“And the reason it became much longer is because the scale of ineptitude from the U.S. government was far beyond anything we could imagine, really,” he says. “The amount of different ways that they got it wrong – it was really quite shocking.”

Explaining that he’s structured the documentary to explore “nine chunks of failure,” Benzine explains that he’s basically made a disaster movie.

“In the first act from January to mid-February, everybody is blissfully going about their lives – we were focused on Prince Harry and Meghan and the impeachment process and the Oscars, and this was just something happening far away. ‘Oh, Asia has another outbreak of some kind,’” he says.

“We’re talking about the Australia wildfires, we’re going about our lives. And unbeknownst to us North Americans, it was already there,” he continues. “The second act is the scene in the movie where scientists in a white lab coat comes running in waving sheets of paper, saying there’s going to be an earthquake, there’s going to be a tidal wave, a meteor is going to hit. And the general with lots of badges and a big cigar says ‘You’re an alarmist liberal scientist, there’s never going to be an earthquake or a tidal wave or a meteor.’”

The second act focuses on all the things the U.S. government could have done in February to prepare, from lockdown to getting PPE and revamping the testing systems. The third act covers mid-March to mid-April – the disaster.

“Suddenly you have a thousand people a day dying,” he says.

A fast turnaround in time for U.S. election

Working with a team of four other people, Benzine produced the entire film remotely.

“As things were falling apart in March, I had this idea that you could make a documentary as everything was locking down without actually filming,” he says. “Part of this was informed from the experience I’d had on the Lanzmann film – that by using stock footage, archival footage and news footage, you could tell a contemporary history of what was happening.

“We would do interviews by Skype, and then when things reopened back up – that’s how naïve I was – we could just fly to the country and redo those interviews,” he continues. “But once we started doing the Skype interviews, I thought, ‘Why don’t we just incorporate these as they are now?’ I don’t think that the audience hugely cares whether an interview with the CDC director is done via Skype or with a 4K Red Epic camera in their living room.”

Once The Curve was locked, Benzine brought the movie to (virtual) market at TIFF with the intent to get the documentary to audiences in advance of the U.S. election next month.

But that turned out to be more difficult than he thought.

“We had one [streaming service] tell us it takes us three to four months to ingest a film to their system, to get it ready for global distribution. And in some cases there was nervousness about political sensibilities,” he explains. “Some of these networks are owned by large corporations who didn’t necessarily want to [carry] the film before the election, right? Even though I think our film is as even-handed as it can be.”

The Curve is one of a small handful of documentaries about the pandemic. Elevation Pictures is releasing Alex Gibney’s pandemic documentary Totally Under Control on VOD on October 13, and Ai Weiwei’s Coronation makes its Canadian premiere at Planet In Focus the following day.

“I know that there are many documentary makers working on significant COVID documentaries,” Benzine says, “but what good do they think they’re going to do, launching them in January as Trump’s being sworn into his second term? For me, it was essential that this get seen before the election; I think Americans need to understand what happened before they go to the voting booth.”

To that end, Benzine is planning to make The Curve available for free on YouTube – at least in the U.S. – for two weeks leading up to November 3.

“We do want to commercially exploit the film. We want to be able to pay the crew, who were working on deferred salary, of course. But the plan is tentatively for it to go up for Americans on YouTube but then for it to come down on November 4, or to move to a paid rental model. So not just keeping it up indefinitely for free like [Michael Moore’s] Planet Of The Humans or something like that, but essentially treating it as an online theatrical window.”

With the Kickstarter already more than halfway to its goal, Benzine is confident he’ll be able to get the documentary out on time. And then maybe he can rest a little.

“It’s stressful making a film in six months with zero resources,” he allows. “Probably not one of my smartest ideas, but there you go.”

@normwilner

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