Surviving Covid-19 : Musings and Silver Linings

Covid-19 changed the world and with it changed how we make movies. It created covid free bubble sets that put the artists and crew numbering to around 80 to 120  in isolation for 20 to 30 days. 

An industry that requires a large group of people to do a creative endeavor and a larger group of individuals to appreciate it,  film and TV  was one of the hardest hit industries by the pandemic. The last two years and a half was a tremendous struggle for most of its workers to survive, with hundreds still jobless. Some have moved on to other jobs while the rest of the film workers have  learned to adapt to the “normal” working conditions – self-isolation before shoots, regular Covid tests, wearing of masks for 12-16 hours, eating cold food in packed meals, being in lock-ins and away from families for long periods, and being always at risk of acquiring Covid.

Barely four months after the March 2020 lockdown, I was already shooting a TV series for a 21 day lock-in somewhere in Rizal. At that time rapid tests were still being used before entering the bubble, which of course we all know today, are inaccurate. The mood on the set was upbeat and hopeful because people were out of work for a long time. There were bills to pay and families to feed so everybody was aggressive to beat Covid. We relatively had a smooth shoot, following strict health protocols and strictly working for 12 hours.  After going through the exit rapid tests on our 22nd day, we all went home. Two days after,  we were all requested to do an RT-PCR test because some of the crew had developed symptoms. I came out negative from that test but I believe a large number of people came out positive with Covid-19.

That pretty much defines how my life is in production sets. My day usually starts with a 20 to 30 minute travel from our hotel to the location. That 30 minute trip becomes a contemplative moment to think through what has happened to the world and how this pandemic will end. It’s something mildly therapeutic and at the same time utterly profound.  Upon arriving at the location, I check if the place has been disinfected before we even enter the set, I also check if people not involved in the shoot are cordoned off from the set and then I check if my crew is in the process of disinfecting the cameras. As people start to move after the director has given the first set-up,  you  mentally prepare yourself to work for the next 12-14 hours wearing a K-N95 mask and talking to people with a plastic goggle. Then I sit alone off-set as I listen to my muffled breathing and feel the 34-degree heat inside my mask.

Top: Wearing goggles instead of a face shield makes it possible for me to use the camera’s viewfinder, the battery operated Easy Flow pumps filtered air to my mask making breathing easier. Bottom left: Hotel isolation rooms, no one is allowed to go out so food are dropped on monoblock chairs. Bottom right: Endless covid tests before, during and after shoots

After a month, I’m back on the set while the pandemic rages. It is my first movie with a new set of health protocols – a one-week hotel quarantine, an RT-PCR test on the seventh day and once results come out,  that’s the only time you can start shooting. Within that 30-day shoot, no one is allowed to go out of the hotel not even to exercise. Subsequently, I entered into another bubble of  a TV series for another network with another set of health protocols. Interestingly, all succeeding shoots I had each laid out a unique set of rules. At that point, I have realized we really do not have a central body in the industry or a government unit that can lay down a more scientific and realistic approach to shooting during pandemic that we all can follow. You would think the pandemic will unify the film industry even to the level of health guidelines for production but it didn’t.  Early on the pandemic the Inter-Guild Alliance (IGA) was formed and it created a comprehensive guideline for shooting which I think became the basis for a lot of production. Sadly, the IGA does not have powers to check if the rules are being complied with. There are production units that disturbingly disregard the guidelines to cut corners even at the expense of the safety of film workers even up to this day.

Before the pandemic, I have always said that real change in the industry cannot come from the top. It should and will need to come from below — from the film workers themselves.  Back in 2000 when I started to raise concern about extended working hours, the general consensus among film and TV workers is that it is downright inhuman. Oddly enough, no one was questioning this unethical and unwritten rule. People simply accepted the system. Until Covid-19 came. Who would have anticipated that the catalyst for change would be  a virus? 

The major revamp in working hours did not only change the system but  more significantly,  it  reminded us of the joy of being able to spend more time with our families. All of a sudden, going home at 4am, and waking up at 6am for a 7am calltime seemed to have happened in the distant past. When in fact, for many years we accepted the long and grueling working hours of this industry.

At this point of the pandemic when protocols start to ease up, the biggest challenge to be confronted by each one of us on every shooting day is the moral responsibility not to go back to an old unjust system and to see the current situation as an opportunity to create a ripple for lasting change. Over and beyond Covid-19, the best legacy we can leave to future Filipino film workers is a just and humane working condition.

Top left: Exit swab test after a 20 day lock-in. Top middle: Constant check of temperature while shooting. Top right: My pescatarian dinner. Bottom left: Master list of antigen result. Bottom right: Required wearing of face masks during shoot.

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