2020 was the most tumultuous year of our lifetime, the year we found ourselves doing the unthinkable — isolating in our homes, staying away from loved ones, shutting down our businesses, wearing masks in public, now two masks — and normalizing them. And thanks to people’s need to blame someone for the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was the year when over 3,000 Asian Americans became victims of harassment and violence, as reported by the organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
How do we Asian Americans find hope and peace amidst the chaos? The answer may be different for everyone, but 15 short documentaries presented by the Seattle Asian American Film Festival show a wide range of Asian Americans not only coping with the challenges of COVID-19 but finding community and joy.
Most of the documentaries are just two minutes in length, showing slices of different households across the country. They each tell a compelling story and are easy to watch. There is the poignant Back to Work, by Alexander Catedral whose mother is a nurse in Phoenix. The film shows everyone in their household isolating in separate rooms after several people get sick, including the director. Logging into Zoom meetings, they do breathing exercises together, cry and pray. Catedral reports that he couldn’t use the bathroom, and shows plastic bottles filled with pee. In spite of all the hardships, there are moments of joy in the film, smiles shared, an engagement ring being bought, a man — presumably Catedral’s father — laying in bed with a mask on, giving a valiant thumbs-up signal.
Together, Alone, by Laj Waghray shows another healthcare worker being quarantined in his own house. Waghray’s husband, a doctor in Milwaukee, comes home from work, gets undressed in the garage and disinfects his belongings before stepping into the house. His bedroom is now in the den, to keep him isolated from the rest of the family. Waghray’s two grown sons are home, but while “everyone is together under one roof, it feels lonely,” she narrates. The camera shows Waghray’s husband watching the rest of his family like a voyeur through a closed window of his room. “My husband’s act of love was to distance himself,” Waghray narrates. It’s a somber view of the fractures that COVID-19 has caused in the households of frontline workers. It would have been great if the film were longer and gave Waghray’s husband a chance to speak.
The challenges of COVID-19 have inspired some artists to become even more creative than ever. Two examples of this resilience are Shu Mai Online by Emory Chao Johnson, which shows LA-based drag performer Jeffrey Liang taking his shows online and giving dance lessons. At the beginning of the film, Liang says, “The Queer Asian community has been hit differently by this pandemic. It’s made being out in public a little bit more unsafe.” But the rest of the story, thanks to Liang’s energy, is infused with beauty and joy.
This creativity is also seen in Quaran-zine Connections by Xinyi Zhu, which shows four young Chinese women connecting during quarantine by making hand-drawn zines of their experiences. The strength of this film is that each woman shares their stories as if we are all gathered at a cafe. One woman still makes an effort to look her best online, by wearing a white off-the-shoulder top and a big statement barrette in her hair. Another woman talks about resuming fiction writing again after a hiatus. What is apparent is the sweet friendship that has endured in spite of the pandemic’s physical distancing measures.
These are just a few of the films that could be reviewed in this space. All of the pieces in the COVID-19 showcase are worth watching. Together they show that friendship, joy and empathy can be challenged, but never canceled.