Culture Under Quarantine III
Film & The Power of Story Telling By James Levelle
The third most intense hurricane in American history had struck and we were miles from safety. Things were clearly not going to plan. 160-mile an hour winds raged around me, snapping trees like matchsticks, razing buildings to rubble and flipping a freight train. The engine roared as our pickup truck powered through the storm struggling to stay on the road. It was like driving through a jet stream. A screaming wall of white air ripping past us laced with deadly flying debris. We battled on barely able to see and then, STOP! The road ahead was blocked by toppled power pylons. It was the only way home.
“We’re gonna die in this damn truck!” yelled Steven.
Well, what happened next? You might ask. I won’t spoil it for you because you can watch the whole death-defying debacle on television.
I’m a filmmaker. I make films that take audiences on immersive, adventurous (often extreme) journeys as I explore the world in ways that excite, engage and ideally inspire. And so, whilst I didn’t exactly plan to damn near die in Hurricane Michael, I successfully captured the apocalyptic power of climate chaos at its most extreme, and what it took to survive. A survival experience that remade the way I see people and the planet.
Now a different kind of disaster is overwhelming us and like everyone else I’m in lockdown. Some might say it’s doing me a favour if it’s keeping me clear of hurricanes. But how is this disease impacting the film and television industry? What happens next?
JRR Tolkien wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost” but whilst I’m forbidden to wander, the one journey I can undertake is inward. Self-discovery takes courage, but they say it’s the greatest adventure of all. Either way there’s not a huge amount else going on right now and I figure jumping on the transformation train can only be a good thing, so I’m having a crack at meditation.
For those not ready to dive into the dark recesses of their minds one sure fire way to counter lockdown claustrophobia is escapism by boxset. There’s nothing like losing yourself in good drama, comedy or documentary series and there’s never been so much to choose from because fortunately for us all production has been booming… until now.
Understandably most people never think about what it takes to make this constant stream of content. An army of freelancers is the simple answer. Jumping from job to job, uncertain of where the next paycheque will come from and now, for nine out of ten, no paycheques for the foreseeable future. With concerns that almost three quarters could be ineligible for government support, the pandemic is revealing just how vulnerable TV freelancers are.
A return to the creativity stifling days of the old film and TV unions is probably not the answer, but we must find a better way of doing business and put an end to this uncaring and exploitative era.
End of an Era vs New Beginnings
There is an opportunity for a new beginning, but it seems to me that we need to rebuild pretty much everything.
The world has involuntarily hit the reset button, and this is shining a spotlight on social and environmental problems across the board. In Barcelona local government statistics reveal that people in poor neighbourhoods are seven times more likely to get infected than those in wealthy areas, whilst across the pond preliminary data indicates the virus is killing a disproportionately high rate of black people in America emphasising entrenched inequalities. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to pick apart the narrative that got us into this mess.
The loss of life and impact on health care, jobs and mental wellbeing is devastating but there is good news. We are seeing what a difference we make when we look after each other and also how quickly we can change our habits when we really need to.
Every year pollution accounts for seven million deaths globally but when we slow down and travel less the skies clear and Nature bounces back. We do need to get the economy back up and running but we must take the opportunity to do so fairly and cleanly.
Everyday I’m buoyed by stories of selfless doctors and nurses saving lives, hundreds of thousands of people volunteering, communities getting organised to help those in need, and all those kids painting rainbows to cheer everyone up. These stories restore our faith in humanity. Just imagine what we can do with this narrative.
Stories shape our understanding of the world and what we believe is possible. Moving pictures are the most powerful storytelling medium of our time and therefore film and TV doesn’t just have a great opportunity to help change the social and environmental narrative, I believe it has a huge responsibility to do so.
Once upon a time I almost died in a hurricane. An entire town was wiped off the map. People were forced to rebuild their homes and I was forced to face up to how vulnerable we are to climate chaos.
What if this devastating virus knocks our decrepit socio-economic structures to the ground, sparks our great potential for transformation and gives us the courage to construct a fairer society in which we take better care of our environment and each other? That’s a story I want to tell.
- James Levelle is a filmmaker, adventurer and presenter who undertakes daring journeys to challenge assumptions and change perspectives. He has hitched 6000 miles across Latin America, ‘Free Ride’ (2016), hiked over Alaska’s frozen fjords, ‘Gold Rush Trail’ (2017), hunkered down through hurricanes, ‘Hurricane Man’ (2019), and most recently raced from the UK to Chile fossil fuel free, ‘Race For Future’ (2020). For further information: Visit: www.jameslevelle.com / Follow on instagram: @James_M_Levelle
- ‘Culture Under Quarantine’ is a series that will appear in Citizens of Hope Magazine out 3rd May 2020