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'I handed in my dissertation on Monday - on Tuesday college was called off'

Students from Trinity College Dublin have made a documentary about their lives during the pandemic, which captures experiences from across the globe.

WHEN THE PANDEMIC hit a year ago, by mid-March students had left Irish campuses, unsure of when they would get to return.

Some were just weeks or months away from graduation; others were midway through degrees and were thrust into the world of online learning. For some students, going home meant a train journey, but for others it meant figuring out how to get to another country.

Among the many students grappling with the situation were final year and Masters film students in Trinity College Dublin, who had their plans to produce their own documentaries for a module scuppered.

Enter their lecturer Justin McGregor, who encouraged them to create their own short documentaries about their lives during the pandemic. The result is Is Anybody Out There? which will be shown at 4pm on 12 March at Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival. In all, 60 student filmmakers from across 14 countries took part.

‘Incredibly cathartic’

Jamie Lane, who graduated this year, is one of the filmmakers whose work features in the film. He says he found “negotiating the pandemic through the medium of film an incredibly cathartic experience”. 

“It’s been such a tough year so to have my work recognised in this way is massively uplifting,” said Lane. 

Lane (24) told TheJournal.ie that it was difficult at first to come up with an overall theme or tone for his piece. “At first I thought – all there was to do was walk initially, there was a big thing of ‘we’re all rediscovering nature’. I thought that was something I could maybe examine,” he said.

He decided against this idea, and it was while in desperation he started googling for ideas that he hit upon his theme – examining how the media was treating the coronavirus issue. 

“It was extraordinarily overwhelming. For myself ,the pandemic was experienced through a screen,” he explained. “I just pursued [the documentary idea] from there. I don’t have fantastic equipment at home, and it all helped. I thought I would film the doc on my webcam. So the majority of it takes place on a desktop screen through a webcam.”

“I trawled through an enormous amount of footage, newsreels, footage,” he said. “I was watching every newscast that came on looking for bits and pieces about the news.”

Making the documentary helped him reexamine his own relationship with social media. “I think in my section of the film there’s positives and negatives to that, and I think it was good to examine that and take a step back. Maybe I shouldn’t be trawling the news constantly, maybe that’s not the best for my mental health.”

As a filmmaker, he said that he learned “you can make something that’s impactful and insightful without fancy equipment, strip it back to bare essentials”.

The pandemic meant that the last seven weeks of Lane’s degree were thrown “up into the air”. 

It was quite bizarre – I handed in my dissertation on Monday and on Tuesday college was called off and we were told we were to return home. It was quite bizarre we didn’t get to celebrate the fact my dissertation had been done.

What was happening “didn’t hit home until my dissertation was handed in” and he had to move out of student accommodation. 

“It was a bit of a scramble – I remember my mum drove up to college for myself and my brother. The car was filled with stuff. The familiar setting of home but unfamiliar [situation of] having to do work there was quite strange. I’m lucky that I could return home and it was fine.” He has deferred his physical gradation until next year. 

He says the documentary is good at “conveying the student experience isn’t a homogenous experience”. He was fortunate that he could move back to the family home in Limerick, but realised others were not so fortunate. 

For Lane, it’s a “massively uplifting” thing to have the documentary being shown at VMDIFF. “The last month or two have been difficult for everyone, so it’s certainly been massively uplifting. It’s something to look forward to more than anything else.”

“At the end of my film there is quite a hopeful tone, but I didn’t expect it would still be going on now. But at the same time, I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel. It was pretty cathartic in a way to actually examine what was going on around.”

‘It helped me deal with what was happening’

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Mariana Rios-Sanchez (24), who also contributed a documentary to the film, used her work to show what people were experiencing in her home country of Peru. 

Like Lane, the Masters in Film Studies student initially found it difficult to decide on her angle. “It wasn’t a particularly inspiring time. In my case I knew I wanted to do it on Covid and the particularities of Covid in terms of how individual people were coping. And I thought of a lot of people, but the ones that I really connected with were people in my home in Peru.”

She drafted in her parents and some friends, and sent them on a list of questions. They filmed their answers and sent them back to her. “It was so strange hearing things that were familiar to me that were happening in Ireland and envisioning that in a place that felt far away or distant. That was eye-opening. Then the tone set in very easily. 

It was a lot of mainly listening to the subjects’ interviews and what they wanted to talk about. Then about meshing them all together and putting them together like a puzzle.

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Making the documentary helped her “deal with everything that was happening here”, she said. 

She looked at the personal elements of the impact of the coronavirus, but also the political, economic and cultural elements in Peru. 

She had last been in Peru three months before the pandemic broke out. “It was strange because of how quickly the situation deteriorated in Peru. I could see the contrast in what was happening in Ireland and what was happening in Peru, It’s a country of over 30m people and it was just very limited resources to help control what was happening and help people prepare.”

The country is currently going through its second wave. “It is a dire situation now not only in terms of resources, as they are depleted. ICUs were full at the beginning of this year. But also you get political instability and other social and cultural elements that have exploded in the mix of this crisis. All the situations that were already spiralling a bit blew up in the middle of crisis.”

As such, Sanchez’s documentary helps to give a much-needed look at how another county has been experiencing things. It also shows that “people have this social responsibility awakened in them” in Peru since, she said. 

She hopes her documentary “raises awareness and also brings into people’s head the idea that this is being felt worldwide, and it manifests differently depending on elements such as economic resources, geopolitical situations”.

Seeing the completed documentary which included her classmates’ work was “very moving because it’s like getting a snippet of someone’s thoughts in a very open format”, said Sanchez. “There was diversity – so many different stories.”

It also taught her a valuable lesson as a filmmaker:

“Just because you are stuck in a room doesn’t mean you can’t make awesome films.”

Is There Anybody Out There? premieres at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival on 12 March at 4pm. To buy tickets, click here, and to look at the full programme visit the official festival site. 

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