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Lessons from Programming in a Pandemic

February, 2020. I was sprawled out on a hotel bed in Walt Disney World, idly perusing the news channels on the large TV in front of me. The style of American news reporting has always amused me; there seems to be a penchant for catastrophising, sensationalising, and inciting panic. Earlier that morning, they had reported on a bin that had blown over into the the road. What was the impact of this monumental event, you might ask. Well, people were late for essential appointments. There was chaos and disruption on the road. Days – nay, lives – were ruined. So when they began reporting on a mysterious virus that was starting to spread, I readied myself for the inevitable deluge of melodrama and exaggeration. A killer virus! The world will be in lockdown within weeks! Infections and deaths are coming, on an enormous scale! Sure. I hit the power button on the remote, and headed out to the Magic Kingdom without a care in the world.


The sobering reality arrived all too quickly. In the months that followed, the pandemic brought about an exhausting combination of devastating losses, major life changes, and a collective state of anxiety. Like many, I watched the moving parts of my life rearrange themselves and eventually settle into a new routine. However, an area of my life that remained completely untouched by the pandemic was watching screeners and submissions for Celluloid Screams.


Programming during the pandemic did present many challenges, chief among which was the ever-present possibility of having to pull the plug on our event entirely. But in terms of actually doing the work, there was little to no disruption. Simply put: when I’m watching the films, I’m sat alone in a room in front of a screen, pandemic or no pandemic. If anything, Covid-19 arguably presented one or two advantages to this routine. For example, getting in a few submissions before or immediately after work was no problem, as I was privileged enough to be working from home.


But these "advantages" were in fact the very opposite. I thought I'd been given the gift of time, and therefore had been piling pressure on myself to fill every available minute; not taking the time to distance myself from the stresses of the day and switch gears. In addition to this, the lack of social activity presented the biggest and most precarious imbalance. When punctuated with plans and little adventures, programming time presented a balancing contrast of solitude; a time to focus and apply myself. In lockdown, that solitude no longer brought contentment. It brought feelings of isolation and a rapidly dissipating sense of self.


Inspired by the ever-expanding conversations about mental health on social media, I decided to cautiously unpack the shift in my wellbeing, to see what could be learned. Changes were definitely needed, and a concept I found to be the most impactful was that of embracing vulnerability.


I realised it was time to stop pretending I was invincible. Organising an event alongside a full time job can be hard at times, and I no longer saw anything to be gained from pretending otherwise. There was never anything to be gained from that, and honestly I don't know where that pretence came from. A product of society's obsession with workaholism, perhaps. Ignoring the burnout wasn’t a sign of strength, it was a sign of weakness. I wasn’t being brave by soldiering on regardless; quite the opposite. There's power in embracing vulnerability and the authenticity it fosters, and I'm only now starting to experience that.


Beyond my own experience, I hope to continue the conversation and would encourage others to do so. Balancing different aspects of life isn't always easy, especially where passions and dreams are involved, and the vulnerability in admitting that can be tough. However, it allows us to exist authentically in our chosen spaces, to be more mindful of our feelings and struggles, and more forthcoming around setting boundaries. The result is the ability to maintain momentum in our endeavours (and engage with them more wholeheartedly) without compromising our emotional wellbeing.


The effects of 2020 are undoubtedly still with us. For me, things that once felt achievable and motivating now feel overwhelming and beyond my capabilities. On the other hand, I am incredibly fortunate - the pandemic has wrought devastation in the lives of so many, and I don’t have to look far to see the heartbreaking consequences of it. I’m lucky to have learned from 2020, and privileged to be here continuing my work on the festival.


A heartfelt thank you to everyone who supported our 2020 edition of Celluloid Screams, and continues to support the event going forward. I'm excited to be planning our next edition. I think we're all keen to move on from the pandemic; I too am anxious to leave it all behind, but I'll be bringing these lessons along with me.