Unmasking the Pandemic at SXSW: “We’re going to have to Sean Baker this!”

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A healthy sense of the absurd runs through a trio of SXSW 2021 Covid-era films. Gemma Gracewood and Selome Hailu report on the comedies that capture the barminess of quarantine, pathetic stimulus checks, and our reliance on cats for happiness. Featuring (pictured above from left to right): Puss, Learning Tagalog with Kayla and I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking).

The Covid movies we feared are upon us. Not just films made during the pandemic, where masks are visible in the background, or worn by an interview subject, or documentary footage is captured through Zoom interviews, but films about people affected by its ongoing consequences (those consequences ranging from basic horniness through to acute homelessness). 

As much as we don’t necessarily want art to remind us of the long, lonely slog through lockdowns, several selections at SXSW Film this year suggest that a healthy sense of the absurd is the magic ingredient for encapsulating these times.

Leah Shore’s delirious Midnight Short offering, Puss, takes place inside a Brooklyn apartment where Samantha is months into quarantining with only her cat and her vibrator for company. Her sexual frustration is at an all time high, her chances for getting laid at an all time low, and when even the food delivery guy gets weirded out by Samantha’s seismic thirst, it seems all is lost. That’s when things really turn loopy, in a plot-twist that is truly, stupidly delightful. 

Shot by a tiny crew over just a couple of days, Puss traverses the shaky moral ground of Covid-era hook-ups, and the intensified codependence of adult-pet relationships when confined for months at a time. Best of all, it’s extremely relatable (and it’s not her first cat-Covid offering: Shore’s animation to Gina Volpe’s Don’t Touch Your Face was an early pandemic ear-worm). 

Also relatable, also featuring a cat, and also made in a matter of days, is Kayla Abuda Galang’s Texas Shorts selection Learning Tagalog with Kayla. The same-sameness of life in lockdown has its perfect formal expression in the lo-fi public television design of Galang’s faux-educational video, in which she starts out teaching conversational phrases in her mother tongue, but is sidetracked by domestic mundanities. The smell of cat litter. Seeing the same two faces every day. Final Fantasy XI. The ubiquitous quarantine uniform of bike shorts. And the baked goods that are doing a number on all of us. We can be grateful to Galang for giving us “okay lang” as a welcome alternative to the ineffectual “I’m fine”. 

Regular festival-goers are used to strange coincidences and common trends bubbling up across unrelated films in a single event. And so it is with SXSW, where “I’m fine” are also the pivotal words in Angelique Molina and Kelley Kali’s candy-colored feature I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking), which literally skates a fine line between comedy and crushing tragedy.

Part of SXSW’s narrative feature competition, the film follows Danny (played by Kali), a newly-widowed mother shielding her eight-year-old daughter from the truth of their poverty. While traversing Los Angeles on a pair of leopard print roller skates in search of quick gigs, Danny pretends that their extended stay in a tent on the side of the road is nothing more than a camping trip. 

Like its short film counterparts, this was a Covid production pulled together on a ticking clock. Kali, desperate to feel creative in quarantine, went to Molina and producer Roma Kong with an idea: they’d always made shorts together, but it was time to try their hands at a feature. “From the time I came to the team saying ’let’s do this’, it was two weeks before picture up,” Kali tells Letterboxd. “I said, ’Look, we’re going to have to Sean Baker this. Tangerine it.’”

Feature films are big enough beasts on their own without financial strains and an airborne virus at your doorstep, but with their stimulus checks in hand, Kali, Molina, and Kong pulled together some meager starter funds and a Covid safety plan. They’d have no more than ten people on set at a time. They’d provide all cast and crew members with individual tote bags of hand sanitizer and food—no buffet lines. And of course, while regularly testing everyone for Covid, masks were non-negotiable when off-camera. But decisions about what you see on-camera were a little more complicated. 

“Because we were guerilla-ing it, that discussion came up,” says Kali. “’Do we make a movie that doesn’t have masks?’ But since we were stealing shots outside, we knew that we were bound to catch someone in a mask.” So the horrors of 2020 had to bleed into the universe of the film, another choice taken away by the pandemic. “But we decided we are not going to mention it. The characters are not going to go around talking about it.”

As a result, Danny walks around with a mask around her neck, pulling it up to her nose when she comes indoors. But when she bumps into close friends, or argues with stingy shopkeepers, the mask comes back down. Molina describes Danny as “sometimes conscientious and sometimes all over the place,” and notes how intentional that was in the writing. “We saw people around us not wearing masks. We’re not condoning it, but to us, that was realistic,” she says. 

The realism doesn’t end there. I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) sees Danny get tricked into free labor, fight off sexual harassment, and debate selling her late husband’s wedding ring—she can never catch a break. It’s an honest and ugly image of how, for many in the working class, homelessness is never too far away, and it’s a miserable process to get back on your feet. That level of pain is hard to stomach in any film. And in a pandemic film where the underlying circumstance is so immediate to the entire audience, these debut feature first-timers had a monstrous task in front of them.

But still Danny survives, and even has some laughs, kept afloat by her devotion to her daughter Wes. For a guide to bringing levity to the film via parental love, the team looked to Roberto Benigni’s famous Holocaust dramedy, Life is Beautiful. Kali found inspiration in “how [Guido] was protecting his son from the truth through fairy tale... That’s one of my favorite films. It is my favorite film.” Molina also cites the way movies from their childhoods keep them excited: “Movies were such an integral part of our lives growing up that—you know, I could be obsessed with Harry Potter and Love & Basketball at the same time. Forrest Gump is one that Kelley and I get down with,” she says. “And with Life is Beautiful, that’s not what our movie is. You know what I mean? You might get inspiration from something that’s totally different genre-wise or plot-wise from your work, but the inspiration is still there because of how the storytellers executed it. So, so many people… it’s a lifetime of inspiration.”

So what makes a good pandemic movie? There’s something at once escapist and realistic about Puss’ hysterical loneliness, Learning Tagalog’s perpetual distractedness and the adversity of I’m Fine communicated via neon getups and little wheels. We may have to keep waiting for a definitive masterclass on Covid filmmaking, but SXSW is at least revealing the preliminary trends: it takes a sense of humor. It takes some juxtaposition. And above all, it takes vulnerability.