Covid and Cinema

in 26th Vilnius Film Festival – Kino Pavasaris

by Paola Olivieri

“On December 31, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission (China) reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown etiology in the city of Wuhan, in the Chinese province of Hubei. Most of the cases had an epidemiological link with the Huanan Seafood market in southern China, a wholesale market for seafood and live animals.” (

When the first images of the very rigid Chinese lockdown reached us last year, they seemed to belong to a catastrophic blockbuster. But a month and a half later, Italy too would adopt almost similar measures. While terror was rampant, movie fans remembered Steven Soderbergh’s prophetic Contagion (2011). In it, humanity appears to be on the precipice, weakened by a lethal virus, and health organizations impose distancing and the purchase of gloves and masks. But Soderbergh’s MEV-1 virus envisioned a more violent death, while terrified scientists urgently sought for a possible vaccine. Journalist Chiara Maffoletti wrote in March 2020 that Contagion had become “one the most popular films of the moment, at the top of the iTunes charts, among the most sought after and viewed by the public on the planet.”  (“Corona Virus Effect: Contagion 2011 Among the Most Popular on iTune.” Corriere della sera Shows).

On March 11, 2020, the OMS declares a pandemic status. Cinemas, theaters and many festivals suffered a setback. In the months that followed, the release of numerous films, such as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, were repeatedly postponed.

More than a year after the outbreak of the pandemic, our present is still tyrannized by Covid. We are trapped in a suspended time, locked in an everyday life that is enlivened only with the solitary pleasure of a good film or perhaps an old book. It is true, we closed our doors to the virus, but not to the art of cinema! The latter was made accessible through streaming platforms and suddenly we have all become part of an anonymous digital community. Comfortably situated on the sofa we no longer queue for tickets and above all there is no popcorn to munch on. Cinephiles, who feel like orphans of cinemas, tend to invoke the magical ritual of the movie theatre, when darkness envelopes them and the secret plots of our unconscious surface. Can the world exist without this art? “Cinema will never die, it is now born and cannot die,” said the brilliant director Mario Monicelli.

The Lumière brothers, with the power of their cinématographe, have forever changed the vision of man. Talking about a post Covid future, Director Olivier Assayas said: “I am convinced that when it ends, young people will return to the cinema, albeit perhaps in different ways. In short, cinema will have to redefine itself; it will no longer be the same. There will be a period of collective and individual re-invention.” (Olivier Assayas, “The Pandemic Will Change Cinema and Us…” 6 November 2020).

In the article by Camilla Sernagiotto on we discover that Steven Spielberg “in his article for Empire magazine continues with extreme confidence in a future without viruses. With the certainty that all-round cinema enthusiasts (that is, let’s remember, the actual ritual that is the basis of this art) will return to crowd the cinemas, the famous director gives hope to all those who miss shared enjoyment.” (“Cinema Will Not Die, People Will Return to the Theater” on

Consequently, directors, tutelary deities of the seventh muse, forced to look at the less inhabited rooms of our unconscious, will not drop the keys of cinema in the hands of war or pestilence. Although the establishment was weakened, festivals have revised new cultural models by choosing online, face-to-face or hybrid formats. The Vilnius Film Festival 2021 (March 18 – April 5) was entirely online with 104 feature films and 44 short films spread over various sections. The experience of being part of the FIPRESCI Jury at the festival was exciting, like plunging into a magnificent journey in the Baltic regions, now so distant and unreachable. A series of cinematic voices told stories of broken hearts and of people searching for a dream or new justice. For example, in Veiko Õunpuu’s The Last Ones (Viimeiset) the magical and sacred lands of Lapland are barbarously violated while the reindeer breeders, the ancient guardians of the Arctic, are becoming extinct; in People We Know are Confused (Žmonės, kuriuos pažįstam) directed by Tomas Smulkis we see a modern, lonely but bright, Vilnius as the setting for three parallel stories about change, punctuated by the ticking of emotions.

 In Jerzy Sladkowski’s documentary Bitter Love the passengers of a cruise ship try to escape a difficult present. For others the search for sentimental authenticity is so rigorous that it empties their emotional side. The ship slowly sails along the Volga crossing a magical Russia towards an unknown destiny. In Itonje Søimer Guttormsen’s Gritt we see a Norwegian woman in crisis who tries to make a socially critical theatre production, but no door will open for her. In Laila Pakalnina’ In the Mirror (Spogulis) the denunciation of a prevailing narcissism meets with an ancient fable as if it were a very long selfie. In Never Gonna Snow Again (Śniegu już nigdy nie będzie), co-directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert, spiritualism and materialism meet through an angelic figure in an anonymous Warsaw.

While watching these films I imagined being there, in Lithuania, trying to learn new styles and languages and listening to new voices, in a magical and vibrant atmosphere. This is what we need now more than ever so films can really get through to man.

Paola Olivieri
Edited by Yael Shuv