The middle of March 2021 will bring, for most Americans, a strange, surreal anniversary: the year mark of the horrifying realization – be it through a tweet, a cancellation, a diagnosis of a loved one or a celebrity, a lost job or gig – that the coronavirus was a very real threat that would implode the world as we knew it. For Aracelie Colón, then a 16-year-old high school junior in Manhattan, it was the email announcing a two-week closure from school. For fellow high school junior Shane Fleming, it was the positive diagnosis of a classmate and the closure of the Film Forum, where the movie buff caught a final feature showing on 14 March. For Arlet Guallpa, then 22, it was an ambulance outside her building in Washington Heights, fetching the first of many residents who would succumb to the virus.
While New York plunged into survival mode, the three aspiring documentarians, all involved with the youth film-making program DCTV Youth Media, picked up their cameras. Their short films, collected along with two others in HBO’s Covid Diaries NYC, observe the dizzying freefall days of early quarantine, from the corrosive fear of sending off loved ones to frontline jobs to the toll of isolation, the family strain of sudden unemployment to the summer’s electric charge of protests for racial justice. The six-minute films are all the more impressive in their brevity, each memorializing, in casual, stripped-down fashion, an individual thread of the generational catastrophe spinning through New York.
For Colón, whose short My Covid Breakdown traces the deterioration of her mental health in pandemic-induced isolation with bracing frankness, quarantine began as a tentatively welcome break, a chance to rejuvenate and address mental health concerns she had struggled to discuss with family and friends. But by April, when her school emailed to say they wouldn’t be returning in-person for the semester, the toll of isolation sank in. Before, she had been “just really good at hiding it with my schedule, with the things I was doing, focusing on my schoolwork,” Colón told the Guardian. “But then once I became isolated and I no longer had those, it became harder to hide with my family.”
Over the course of six minutes, Colón’s film veers from upbeat and darkly humorous to a raw, aching moment of vulnerability: “I just feel so many things and also nothing at the same time,” she says, through tears, to someone on Facetime. “Part of me just felt like my whole world imploding from the inside out, and then part of me just felt nothing,” she recalled of that period.
Colón is one of the untold many who grappled with mental health crises or breaking points during the pandemic, and the increasing number of young people, such as the high schoolers behind the podcast Teenager Therapy, to speak openly about acknowledging vulnerability and seeking help, be it through therapy, medication, or opening up to a confidante. “I understand how hard it can be, especially when it comes to mental health, because it’s not something that is physically tangible, it’s not something you can see,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to justify what you’re feeling, or to justify to others. But people should know that you do not have to justify how you feel to other people.”
While Colón spoke to quarantine’s isolation and disruption, other films delved into the teenage experience of frustration and exhaustion of witnessing a broken economic and social system. The Only Way to Live in Manhattan, by Marcial Pilataxi, observes the charged outlet for socialization ignited by protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, and Pilataxi’s protective instincts for his grandmother, a building superintendent with whom he lives. “We pick up the garbage for the rich people,” he says, pointing his camera at his reflection in the mirror. “That’s the only way for us to live in Manhattan.”
Fleming’s film, No Escape from New York, captures a family upended by uncertainty, as the pandemic evaporated his parents’ work (his father managed a restaurant, his mother worked at the 14th Street Y). Confined to their soon-stifling apartment in StuyTown, Manhattan, Fleming’s parents attempt to navigate the clogged system for unemployment claims and display the toll of frazzled nerves. “We knew so little,” Fleming said of the surreal, frenzied days of early quarantine in New York, when Fleming could ride his Razor scooter up an empty Park Avenue and the sirens of ambulances became a horrifying constant.
Filming some of his family’s tensest, most uncertain moments – at one point, his mother, overwhelmed, takes to bed in the middle of the day – “almost felt like sort of going through the motions”, he told the Guardian. “I just have to film this and detach myself from the emotion of the moment. And that’s really difficult to do.” It was strange to break out the camera as his mom cried, he explained, but he had a sense of purpose to recording the experience. Then and now, with unemployment benefits lagging behind and the end of New York’s eviction moratorium looming, “we’re in the boat with a lot of the people in this city and across the country”, he said, facing “a lot of uncertainty”.
The final two films observe the much-lauded but materially under-appreciated sacrifices of essential workers and, in particular, the transit operators who kept the city running when everything else fell apart. In When My Dad Got Covid, Camille Dianand worries over the health of her father, an MTA worker, after a colleague dies from the virus; when, weeks into filming, he starts to cough, the fear is palpable and devastating. At the outset of the pandemic, Guallpa began filming her parents: her father, a bus driver, and mother, a home caretaker for her short, Frontline Family. For weeks, Guallpa filmed their daily routines – getting up at 5.15am with her father, so exhausted he pauses for a deep breath while putting on his socks; following her mother on her three-bus commute, into the homes of mask-less older people for whom she cleans houses and bodies.
“You see what keeps these essential workers going and how they cope, you see how resilient they are,” Guallpa said of her film, which she intended “to start conversation on essential workers and who they are and actually giving a face to these people and this community”, particularly in the wake of an administration and president which denigrated immigrants, particularly Latinos, as lazy, dangerous, or dispensable. “I wanted to show that people who come to this country want to work, and work hard for their families,” she said.
At barely 40 minutes, Covid Diaries NYC offers a tantalizing peek at young film-makers’ potential, and the pandemic’s long shadow of disruption just coming into view. The future archive glanced here holds emotions and experiences whose impact will unveil slowly, over time: acclimation to constant fear, trauma of upheaval, hope for brighter days, faith in friends and family and the utility of recording one’s raw sliver of experience.
Putting such personal moments on camera “took a lot of encouragement”, Colón said. But “as they say, a personal story is a universal story”, she added. “We all felt that it was really important to put our stories out there, to give ourselves a platform and tell the world what’s going on, and how important it is.”