In 2020, Linda Moroney, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, had to cancel her plans to travel and find ways to safely produce films without stopping production all together. Moroney was well on her way to develop five film projects, each in various stages of production that required travel.
With COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines in place, she was able to complete only one of her film projects, a short documentary about Election Day 2020, a follow-up to “Election Day 2016,” which she produced and directed. Moroney, along with other filmmakers, traveled to five different cemeteries across New York, where suffragists are buried, to follow the local tradition placing their “I Voted” stickers on their graves. Filming outside, her team maintained a masked six-foot distance. Moroney’s other projects have been pushed back till 2023.
Moroney is not alone. Film production changed forever when COVID hit the United States last year. Now with the fast-spreading Delta variant, area filmmakers have had to regroup and find new creative ways to keep the industry alive.
“There was a time when everything was shut down, but the film industry was one of the first to come back because the guild and governor’s office came out with a workflow for working during COVID,” says Nora Brown, executive director of the Finger Lakes Film Office.
Film producer and Rochester native Ken Wyatt finds that COVID created a space where filmmakers could push themselves more than usual. Also, the film community in Rochester stayed united and efficient.
“It forced everyone to be more creative because if you literally have something to say, you’ll find a way to say it one way or another,” Wyatt says.
Adds Brown: “We had email, we had Zoom meetings, there was plenty of ways to meet. It actually became more efficient, and we have carried it over to this post-COVID world where things are beginning to get back to normal.”
Meeting online enabled more to join the tight-knit community.
“Some people may not have the time … to come down to the theater in person when we were there but we were starting to see lots and lots of more people show up in the Zoom meetings each month. … It’s not just about surviving but figuring out how to thrive, and our community is pretty close knit and we are rooting for each other’s success when it comes to making documentaries in Rochester,” observes Moroney, who teaches documentary filmmaking at St. John Fisher College and is founder of Rochester Documentary Filmmakers.
Collectively, filmmakers wanted to find a way to continue to share their voices and stories and to make it so that others could do so as well. Wyatt compares filmmaking during the pandemic to an artist’s pallet when missing some of its colors.
“Some of the greatest things to ever happen was because something was missing,” Wyatt says. “You have to be creative, and it can turn out even better.”
With the COVID challenge came an opportunity to examine change. Filmmakers grew closer to their communities and began to focus on issues such as equity and lifting the underrepresented.
“There’s really been a reckoning in documentary film about who’s telling whose story and who should be doing that and how to support other voices and lifting them up,” Moroney says. “I think that has been a large part of our conversations, which is about time.”
Says Wyatt: “People are learning more about the power in subtext in language in storytelling. I think more people have (developed) their own documentary and journalistic approaches. Either way, the message is going to get out. You can’t shut it down and you can’t shut the voices down.”
Unity and breaking through barriers have become mantras for Rochester. Forced to adapt, filmmakers were able to learn more about their communities and find creative ways to produce content while being safe.
“(As) documentary filmmakers, we’re often working in really small teams, so to be able to get together to discuss practices, to have educational meetings and also just share war stories about where we are in the different parts of the process of production or post or wherever we are in the process, it’s kind of important to have that community dialogue,” Moroney says. “To know as well, that were not alone.”
While her plans to travel internationally have been pushed back till 2023, Moroney’s film “Women and the Vote” is slated for a television broadcast in late October.
Johairy Delacruz is a freelance writer.