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FILM REVIEW – A Pandemic Poem: Where Did the World Go? – Sheffield DocFest

Reviewer: Rich Jevons

Director: Brian Hill

Poet laureate Simon Armitage has penned a poem for the pandemic which forms the focus of Brian Hill’s moving and incredibly relevant documentary. Armitage describes how the world has gone into “suspended animation” in a surreal way that is “always Sunday”. The subjects of the film explain how the coronavirus has affected their lives, and while some of the stories are tragic, overall the film looks at what we can take from our experience.

One such narrator is a shoe-maker whose business has been forced to close, thus making all his staff redundant and ending the economy of a prestigious outlet. It is the small things that Hill picks out that really make these narratives so powerful, all highlighted by the poetic genius of Armitage.

Another example of the ravaging effect of the virus is seen in the Huddersfield Choral Society. They lose two of their members to COVID and are gagged from singing to prevent viral transmission. But we witness a beautiful song that Armitage has written especially for them which tells of hope and warm-heartedness in the face of adversity. And it is noted how the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ really came out in lockdown with those classified as infirm and at risk having their shopping done lovingly by neighbours.

Against this very spirit we see Dominic Cummings dodging questions about how he broke the lockdown rules by travelling away from London, supposedly for child care. This hypocrisy is met with great hostility from the public, with one contributor commenting that he would “never trust them”.

A mother with an infant child is seen talking into her phone to maintain her sanity as she borders on plunging into madness. The footage is candid and almost disturbing, finding her at a “new low” and having to do things to amuse her child that she thinks are quite ridiculous. One of the most emotional storytellers describes her mother being institutionalised, then hospitalised following a stroke, and eventually passing away. Her daughter has to hold back the tears in her narrative and Hill deals with the subject of loss, which so many of us have experienced, with compassion and integrity.

Another case for consideration is that of a twin whose brother goes into a coma, causing the nervous system to affect his brain cells adversely. When, finally, he and his sister are allowed to visit they have to hold on to the fact that hearing is the last sense to be lost. More tragedy appears with a mother whose scan reveals defects in the foetus which demand a termination. The horror of this after years of trying infertility treatment is excruciating and made all the worse by her partner not being able to be with her for the procedure.

A cheerier tale is told by a pub-owner who refuses to close his venue. Initially he is serving free food but gets into trouble with the authorities so accepts a penny donation. Even this is then banned so he takes on a delivery service with volunteers coming to the rescue of those unable to get food deliveries themselves.

Interspersed to great effect is the use of dancers, choreographed by Nat Zangi and Kane Klendjian, which says in movement what cannot be expressed with words. While Fraser T Smith’s music adds an extra depth to the already emotive footage. Robert Chapman’s photography is candid and no-nonsense.

In a fitting finale Armitage weeps at the death of some 100,000 victims to the virus. With Hill’s help this is a brilliant testimony and epitaph for the dead and dying.

Reviewed on 8th June 2021 at Sheffield DocFest

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Emotional & Cathartic

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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