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San Antonio-born filmmaker Ya'Ke Smith on documenting an event the world would rather forget in 'The Pandemic Chronicles'

We spoke with Smith about the unorthodox production of his new short anthology movie ahead of the 2021 San Antonio Film Festival.

SAN ANTONIO — Ya’Ke Smith, the Alamo City native and longtime Texas-based filmmaker, knows you’re likely to hear the title of his new movie and wonder if you would even want to see it. 

Yet for all the connotations one would associate with its title, “The Pandemic Chronicles” – an anthology short film screening Saturday at the 2021 San Antonio Film Festival – is a more reflective work than you might expect, and also a more considered one than most big-name productions in how it weaves pandemic-era details into the four short tales making up this diorama of the times. Social distancing and COVID-19 and uncertainty are present in the film, but they’re treated as much more than mere gimmicks. 

For Smith, who’s also an associate professor of film at the University of Texas, “The Pandemic Chronicles” represents the latest of his films to screen in his hometown festival over the last 15 or so years. It also represents an artistic ethos of thoughtfully mirroring both the bad and the beautiful in the world, an intention summed up in a James Baldwin quote found on his UT webpage: “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”

Ahead of his film’s San Antonio Film Festival premiere, KENS 5 journalist and film critic David Lynch talked with Smith about the challenges of filmmaking during a pandemic, the value of viewing recent history through a humanistic lens and why he sought to capture 2020 in more shades than just the impact of COVID-19. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

David Lynch: When and why did you decide to make a movie about a historic pandemic that most people would say they’d rather move past and forget about?

Ya’Ke Smith: It’s interesting because I’ve been making films since I was 15, and I’ve made a film, for the most part, every year since then. I had some ideas that I wanted to create and I had some film ideas that I thought I was going to be able to produce. But then the pandemic hit, we all went home, you couldn’t get a crew together, you couldn’t get more than four or five people in a room—all of that stuff. So I immediately said, “Well, what can I do, how can I use these constraints to make a meaningful project, one that becomes a historical document of our time?” 

And so here I am. We’re in the house, we’re watching the news, we’re seeing how this pandemic is disproportionately affecting certain communities when you think about Black and brown folks, right? We are disproportionately affected. Internationally, it’s affecting people differently. We’re all dealing with the same pandemic, but depending upon many different things – our socioeconomic status, our race, or geographic location – we will be dealing with it in a very different way. 

With that in mind, I started looking around and seeing the ways people were dealing with it and decided I wanted to make this narrative. We had to make it as true to life as possible yet create something that could bring both joy, maybe a little bit of laughter, could really tap into our deep desire to connect with other human beings in a time when that literally could be life-threatening. And then also, just wanted to document how, again, the pandemic is affecting each of us differently depending on where we are and who we are. 

Lynch: Your film is made up of four familiar stories about love and reunion and separation. But the fact that they’re told within these parameters that we associate with the COVID-19 pandemic reframes them in a certain way. Were the basics of those stories something that was already in your mind before the pandemic, or are they totally original?

Smith: They were original. For example, our first one is about this couple and being with another human being (for the first time) in a while. I was reading online about this new dating app they created called, I think it was called Quarantine. And I was like, “That’s interesting.” You get on there and it’d say, like, “Have you washed your hands today?” And once you say yes, they start to connect you, and if you say no they say, “All right, we’re going to give you five minutes to wash your hands.” 

So it was this sort of new and interesting way for people to connect again at a time when a physical connection could be, again, life-threatening. And I said, “That’d be interesting, what would happen if two people got on this dating site and they met each other during the pandemic,” right? Same thing with the second story, about the African immigrant. I started seeing how a lot of immigrants were afraid to get and get tested, even though they had symptoms because of their immigration status, because of the fear of being deported, the fear of not being treated as human because of who they were. 

These stories, although they could happen at any given moment in time, I do think, to your point, the pandemic gave them a deeper meaning and really helped me to color these stories in a way that, when you look at them, you know they happened at this specific time in our history. In a time when all of our lives have been shifted and changed in ways that we never imagined. 

Lynch: That’s something “The Pandemic Chronicles” does capture; it’s not just the specific annoyances of how the pandemic has turned life upside down, but how it exacerbated those inequalities and emotions. 

Smith: Exactly, and when you think also of what happened to George Floyd, in some ways these issues have always been with us. We have been fighting these things since time immemorial. But because we were all at home, we were all hyper-focused not only on our survival, but we were also having more time to look at the news and watch TV and really be engrossed in what’s happening in the world. Because of that, it exacerbated these issues that have always been there and it made us become hyper-aware of them. 

And also it made a lot of people, I think, rethink the ways in which they thought about inequities. I think when you’re sitting at home, and you’re seeing it happen in front of you, you realize that even if you don’t intentionally play a role, there’s a historical role that you play and that historical role seeps into the ways in which we deal with each other. I think the pandemic just made us hyper-focused on things that were always happening. 

Lynch: And at a certain point in “The Pandemic Chronicles,” it becomes clear that, despite its name, these stories aren’t just unfolding against the backdrop of COVID but against the Black Lives Matter protests. How important was it to you that you capture the whole scope of history in 2020 and not just COVID?

Smith: Very important. I think although our lives will forever be changed by this past 18 months, I do think that we sometimes have the tendency to forget. Once life starts and things open back up, I think we’ll go back to business as usual, and that’s sort of a dangerous thing that happens all the time: These tragedies happen, we mourn for a month, we deal with it for a year, and then we just go back to doing things the way that we’ve always done them. 

My goal with this was to make sure that if you watch these in 10 years or 20 years that you remembered how life-altering this pandemic was for all of us, and how it opened up a portal for us to begin to change things that we should have been working on changing for years and years and years. Now, have those things completely changed? No, right? When you think about George Floyd, we got all excited about that and then, again, we’re back to business as usual. 

And so I hope that, at some point, when someone looks back on these films, they say, “Wait a minute, we can’t go back to business as usual.” Because these are things that, yes, they happened during the pandemic, but they were already happening way before the pandemic begins.

Lynch: Tell me about the production itself. What kinds of precautions did you take on the set?

Smith: Yeah, so, it was interesting because I never went on any of these sets. The way this worked is I contacted people who either were quarantining together or who remained in close proximity and in close relationships with each other throughout the pandemic. And I wrote things centered around the resources that they had at their disposal. So like the first short film, they (the actors) are a married couple, so they’re in a house together anyway. Which is why they’re so comfortable with what ultimately ends up happening. So I wrote something based around that. 

What I would do is I would write these, send them to the crews, we would have virtual production meetings, I would have virtual rehearsals with the actors where I sort of broke things down, beat by beat, and talk about intention. I would talk to the DPs, create a shot list and storyboards. Every (story) has a distinct look to them, yet there’s some cohesiveness in the visual language. And that has everything to do with the fact that as I was planning them out I knew that they had to sort of feel differently because they’re dealing with different things, but when you watch them you know that you’re watching the same film. 

So we would have those conversations and then they would shoot and I would literally be on Zoom, directing from Zoom, so sometimes it’d be an eight-hour shoot, sometimes more like a 12-hour shoot. But all of these were shot in one day with me on Zoom, with me on Facetime when Zoom wasn’t acting right, and me directing and running the show from here in Austin. And, really, I have to say that it’s a testament to the crews and the cast that I was able to find, because they really were collaborative. They really wanted to help me tell these stories. I think they elevate the vision, and without them I don’t think we would’ve been able to pull them off the way that we did. 

Lynch: It makes total sense, because one thing that stays true across the four stories is that the casts all have such great chemistry with each other, and the fact they actually know each other so well adds a whole different dimension to that. 

Smith: Yeah, so, the first couple is married. The second team, they’ve been working together forever and ever and ever, they’re like best friends. Third team, sort of same thing. And the fourth team, that’s a brother-in-law and sister-in-law acting as husband and wife. 

Lynch: Virtual directing and operating from a distance...what is that like?

Smith: So I was literally there while they were shooting, I was there virtually and between takes I would call, “Cut,” I would call, “Action.” I would direct them via Zoom, call the actors over, say things to them away from others. If the technology started acting up, we’d get on a phone call. But yeah, I was there throughout every step of the way. Then, in post-production, we were kind of doing the same thing where they would cut scenes, send me links, I would send those back, they’d cut again, send more links. Then same thing with color. So it was all virtual directing. 

Credit: Courtesy: Ya'Ke Smith

Lynch: How does your mindset as a director change on this kind of a production where your job isn’t just leading the way in telling these stories as best you can but also making sure your cast and crew is staying safe?

Smith: I think it changes everything. I had just gotten through directing a TV show in Atlanta, and everyone is now having to take these precautions to keep everyone safe. Yeah, we’re artists and we want to get back out there and do our thing, but I think it’s so important to make sure that everybody is safe and nobody gets sick. That everybody tries to ensure that not only are they taking care of themselves, but they’re taking care of the other people that they’re working with. 

For me, to be honest with you, I’ve always operated that way where safety is first. Because we can make a great film, and if something happens to someone, none of that matters. So I’m always trying to make sure that my actors feel safe with everything I’m asking them to do, that the crew is good with everything that I’m asking them to do, that the cast and crew are collaborating with each other and talking with each other throughout the entire show and creative process. And I make sure I set the tone for that, because the director sets the tone. If you come in chaotic and unsure of what you want, you will see that the whole set will be chaotic and unsure. But if you come in with a steady hand and set expectations for what you want everyone to do – safety-wise, performance-wise, crew-wise, respecting each other-wise – if you set that tone, then you will see that that tone will just become part of the culture of your film set. 

So yes, obviously it was a situation now where people could get physically ill, but I’m really taking the things I’ve always practiced and I’m forwarding them into this new era that we’re in that we’re now calling COVID. 

Lynch: The four stories in “The Pandemic Chronicles” go on a noticeable tonal trajectory. It starts off with a story that’s a bit exaggerated and inviting the audience to laugh, and ends with a story that’s grounded in melancholy. How much thought did you put into arranging them?

Smith: Tons of thought. You said this earlier, this is going to be a time where people just want to forget this right? You’ve got to remember: We went home in March, I started shooting these in May. So we were six weeks into this thing. And I knew that I had to bring a little bit of levity, I had to make people laugh and I had to make people chuckle a little bit before I threw them in the deep end with folks potentially dying. 

And so as I thought about not only the arrangement of them but even in the ways they’re shot, I wanted to start that way. I wanted to start with some joy. In that first one you can see that beautiful neon lighting going on, it’s really sort of sexy, even with the jazzy music. I wanted to start you there so then I can hook you before I then say, “Alright, now let’s get to the real deal where we can see how this is really affecting us on a deep, emotional, physical level.” 

Lynch: One of the things I think people intrinsically associate at this point with COVID is screens and Zoom and communicating through laptops. But that’s not in “The Pandemic Chronicles.” There’s an emphasis on isolation in certain scenes, but there’s no screens. Was that a conscious decision on your end?

Smith: It was. For me, this idea of being completely isolated...remember, I made this in May or June, and I’m not saying we hadn’t jumped on Zoom by then, but there was still a sense of trying to figure out how we were going to communicate with each other. Yeah, we had our FaceTime and our phones, but we were yearning for that physical connection with other human beings. I wanted to put us in a space where we could be in close proximity with each other, where we could see two people in a room, where we could feel that even though we’re in a global pandemic that we could find interesting ways to physically connect with each other in a safe but maybe not-so-safe way. 

And actually one of these that didn’t make the cut, it was a Zoom party (theme), my wife directed it. We didn’t finish it because we had technical issues and whatnot, but that was one of those that were all in Zoom, these friends get together, they were supposed to go on vacation but can’t so they have a Zoom meetup. 

Lynch: Yeah, that sounds familiar.

Smith: Right, but we’ve seen that. I think that’s sort of what people leaned into. And I’m not saying that’s not interesting, but I wanted to steer away from that. I wanted to get people in a room. I also wanted these to feel like real films in the sense that we have real camera composition and we have real cinematography going on, real connection between human beings in rooms. It’s called “The Pandemic Chronicles,” I’m not saying you aren’t going to know you’re in a pandemic because you will, but you will get a sense that, “Huh. Were these really shot during the pandemic? How did they pull these off?” I wanted to, again, keep that connection that I’ve always been able to build with people on the set. So I didn’t want to go the Zoom route. 

Lynch: I’m wondering if in the past couple days or weeks you’ve thought about the impact your film might make with audiences seeing as July showed we’re still very much in the thick of the pandemic. Has it changed how you think folks might respond to it?

Smith: I haven’t even thought about that, but it’s interesting that you say that because I made this when we first went home, last May or June. And two months ago, right, we all thought we were gonna be good. We got vaccinated, we went out. Here we are now in Austin, we’re at Stage 4 (of coronavirus protocols) and potentially going to Stage 5 before school starts. I think these films will have new life because people will realize that, you know, if we rush it we’re going to find ourselves right back where we started. Which is what’s happening, really. 

So I think people will connect with these, and I think people will appreciate that they’re not on Zoom. That they are seeing people connecting physically with each other in close proximity, because that’s what they’re going to end up desiring yet again. Because I have a feeling we might be going back home for a little while. I don’t know, but we might.