By Luwen Qiu
“I Hope You Are Doing Well” is a 40-minute documentary about resilience and community during these trying times. The documentary premiered on the 24th of July. Filmed by a group of students from the Columbia Journalism School, the documentary focussed on following four distinct narratives from the Philippines, South Africa, Azerbaijan, and the United States. Refreshing in its depiction of narratives that have largely eluded the mainstream US media, the film is successful in expanding the audience’s understanding of how the pandemic has impacted lives around the globe.
The four groups of subjects each encountered unique challenges coming from such different walks of life. Maricris Bofill from the Philippines and the three co-founders of HNP Production in South Africa had to find new sources of income to support their family. Ilkin Rustamzade, a human rights activist in Azerbaijan, was subject to house arrest and daily harassment for demanding protection for socially vulnerable groups during the pandemic. In the United States, Heretic Brewery had to quickly train inexperienced employees and figure out how to break even as the company transitioned to hand sanitizer production.
However, rather than painting a bleak picture of struggles during the pandemic, the film highlights strength and hope. The co-founders of HNP Production sustained themselves by selling bread and groceries and endured in their dedication to telling the“the African story” through music and film. In the documentary, Ilkin Rustamzade, struggling against the Azerbaijani government, insisted, “I will go on.”
Brandon Drenon, who reported on Maricris from the Philippines said, “there is a stark contrast in between what we complain about and what people in third world countries like Maricris complain about, and the living condition we reside in, with or without COVID.” While the other three storylines dove into urgent personal problems, the story of Heretic Brewery in California examined concerns around business and operation as the company pivoted towards producing hand sanitizers.
In addition to presenting diverse and global perspectives, the documentary was also distinct in the way it was filmed. In an Instagram post, the team explained that due to the pandemic, most of the footage used in the film was shot by the participants themselves. The clips may have been shaky at times, yet they immersed the audience in the stories through first-person point of view. Furthermore, the b-roll footage shot by the subjects filled in crucial and intimate details for each storyline, whether it was Maricris cooking for her family at home or Ilkin smoking on the balcony as he received threatening messages. Although there was limited screen time for every story, each character was shaped in an authentic and multifaceted way.
It was impossible to overlook the difficulties of producing an entire documentary during a pandemic. Confronted with unexpected problems such as online classes and halted productions, the team buried their heads down and carried on with telling meaningful stories. In the behind-the-scenes clips, the filmmakers revealed that they relied heavily on Zoom, emails, and WhatsApp to interview their subjects as well as to communicate with the team. Although the project was particularly challenging due to online communication and time differences, the team found it incredibly rewarding to see the film come together with each other’s support.
As one of the reporters, Trevin Smith put it, “The kind of journalists that are drawn to Columbia aspire to report at all times, maybe even especially when times get difficult.” Just like the participants in the documentary, the team behind the film is a testament to the power of strength and community during this time of crisis.
The film can be accessed here.
Luwen is a writer at Honeysuckle Magazine who recently graduated from the Media, Culture, and Communication master’s program at New York University. She is interested in journalistic as well as academic writings.