What I Learned From the Pandemic

When COVID-19 forced Spoor director Agnieszka Holland to stop working, she paused to observe some truths about life and cinema.

One thing we learned from COVID-19: We know nothing about the future.

I spent the past 10 years constantly working: four feature films, two miniseries, four series. Numerous promotional trips, film festivals, social and political events, conferences, award shows, meetings …

Several projects overlapped and before finishing one, I had often already started another. My schedule was packed and precisely planned: plane and train tickets, hotels, car rentals. And then one day, in the middle of March 2020, everything stopped, and all my plans, releases and preparation became irrelevant.

First, I felt a kind of relief and curiosity: Can I function without constant movement?

Agnieszka Holland with her daughter Kasia Adamik, the second unit director on Charlatan. (Photo courtesy Agnieszka Holland.)

I love being at my house in the French countryside and never previously had spent enough time there, because I had so little free time. Now, though, it looked like my dreams had come true as I could finally have long walks on the beach, but it was not long before French lockdown limited people to walking for only one hour, no more than one kilometer from home. I also planned to catch up on movies, TV series I hadn’t yet watched, books I wanted to read, but the real drama – the pandemic and the uncertain political situation, which I was following in the American, French, Polish and Czech media – was so exciting, new, scary and inspiring, that any fictional narratives paled in comparison to reality.

I immediately started to think about how a movie or TV series might be able to express our experience in this moment and anticipate the future: this time of danger and challenges, our fears and hopes, the many changes humanity has to deal with, and the effect of pandemic – as well as economic and ecological catastrophes – on the life of future generations. I was able to find traces of this in some documentaries, but fiction mostly seemed to be narcissistic, superficial and merely an escape from the freedom of reflection.

My latest project, an ambitious TV series for a big U.S. company, was supposed to be shot in Paris, but it was cancelled just before its start date, and the releases of my two most recent movies were delayed in several countries – the cinemas closing only a few days before the films were supposed to open. I had made those two films – one after the other – in consecutive years, and both had premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, where they had been positively received and sold for distribution. And I was even more lucky: In France, my movie Mr. Jones opened just after the first wave of the pandemic and was very successful, hitting number one at the box office, getting great media coverage and stimulating a lot of deep discussions about its subject, the Holodomor, the man-made famine in 1930s Ukraine that caused the deaths of millions. In the U.S., where a theatrical release was planned for April, the movie pivoted to a release in virtual cinemas and on VOD and also got a great response. Similarly successful was my latest film, Charlatan – about healer Jan Mikolášek, who was persecuted by the Czech Communist regime in the 1950s – which is now the official Czech entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the Oscars. It opened in the Czech Republic at the end of the summer and did extremely well before the theaters closed again during the second wave of coronavirus.

James Norton as the title character in Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones. (Photo courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films.)

Both films have serious, historical subject matters paired with philosophical and political messages and certainly don’t provide any kind of an entertaining escape from our current gloomy reality. And still so many people – more than in the time before COVID-19, actually – wanted to watch and talk about these films. For me, reaching audiences was always my true reason for telling stories through cinema and I feel a responsibility to communicate a sensual and visual reality, stimulate emotions and ask questions which prove that people, and life itself, are truly complex. So I was grateful that viewers wanted to go with me on this journey, even when fighting their own fears and problems.

Because of the pandemic, theaters closed in most countries and remain closed in several. Most film festivals canceled or went online, with only a few having the courage or the money to create hybrid or in-person events. The release of the most anticipated movies have been postponed, and many other films were released directly to Netflix or other online platforms. Some theater chains filed for bankruptcy, and many are still fighting, uncertain how long they’ll be able to survive. And we don’t know how movie-watching habits will change after the pandemic ends. Even before COVID-19, the new generation of filmgoers increasingly existed in the virtual world; in the past year, my own life moved more and more inside Zoom and, like many others, I think I became slightly autistic, silent, afraid of others.

Let’s hope, however, that all this will pass and ultimately be forgotten. And that the desire to be together in a big, dark room, share emotions, laughter and tears – and even the terrible smell of popcorn! – will overpower our fear and laziness. I watched several movies online recently, and those I’d seen before were palpably different when seen on a small screen; it was the difference between a deep, meaningful experience and … information.

I hope and believe that the magic of cinema is not over, and that movies will be seen in the theaters again. But I know one thing: To succeed, we need to make better films. More original, courageous, special, important, spectacular, sincere. We have to leave our comfort zones, be more open to reality, innovate for the future, let our imaginations run wild.

If we can do that, then we, the filmmakers, shall overcome.

Featured image shows Agnieszka Holland with actor Ivan Trojan on the set of Charlatan. (Image courtesy Alžběta Jungrová / Marlene Film Production.)

Agnieszka Holland is a Polish-born, French-based writer-director who has been directing films since 1975. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film for Angry Harvest (1985) and for Europa Europa (1990) she won a Golden Globe and a second Academy Award nomination, for Best Screenplay. Holland’s subsequent films include Olivier, Olivier (1992), The Secret Garden (1993), Total Eclipse (1995), Washington Square (1997), and Julia Walking Home (2001). Copying Beethoven (2006) marked her third collaboration with Ed Harris, followed by In Darkness (2011), for which she received her third Oscar nomination. Her recent films include Spoor, which is out on VOD through Samuel Goldwyn, Mr. Jones and Charlatan, both of which also premiered at the Berlinale. As a screenwriter she collaborated with her close friend, Krzysztof Kieslowski, on the screenplay of his acclaimed trilogy, Three Colors (1993) and wrote several scripts for her longtime friend and mentor, Andrzej Wajda. In TV, she directed numerous episodes of The Wire, created by David Simon, who asked her to direct the pilot of the first season of Treme, for which she received an Emmy nomination. She has also directed episodes of The Killing and Cold Case, directed the miniseries Burning Bush (2013) for HBO-Europe, directed and produced the pilot of the Hulu series The First and directed the pilot of the Netflix series 1983, which she also executive produced.