Professor Kwame Phillips: In the Time of Covid, a response to the pandemic

Born from the opportunity to tell their perspective on the pandemic, In the Time of Covid, has become the creative accomplishment Professor Phillips needed in this pandemic to keep on going creatively.

Community Spotlight

By Julissa Castro Ruiz  / Staff Writer

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

From March 19 to the 28, The Royal Anthropological Institute held its 17th edition of the RAI Film Festival in which JCU Associate Professor of Communications and Media Studies, Kwame Phillips, participated with the film,  In the Time of Covid,a collection of nine short films that share the experiences of nine filmmakers during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of the films reflects each filmmaker’s uniquely creative style and represents their stories. While the films can be enjoyed individually, the collection offers a more global view into different experiences during quarantine.  

I interviewed Professor Phillips to talk more about his film, the filmmakers’ creative style, and the ways Covid has affected his creative work, as well as his hopes for the future as a filmmaker. 

Can you tell me about your experience at the festival? How did you get involved? Given the current COVID situation, did it affect the event, or did it help to have everything moved online?  

During my years at Emory University Grad School, I met with a group of classmates, which I eventually became friends with, to create different creative content, exploring the visual scholarship, visual methodologies, things that did not really fit into the traditional dissertation format, and relied a little more on the visual components. We were all from different departments, but everyone was coming into that space with different experimentations in terms of their approach to the scholarship. That group, in terms of its location inside of Emory, doesn’t exist anymore, but everyone that was a core part of that group is still in contact with each other. During the pandemic, we started having Zoom meetings every once or twice a month to check on each other and see how everyone was adjusting. And then we thought we could use that space to start doing creative works again and share them. We decided, given the situation we were in, that we should do a series of films, Covid related. In the Time of Covid  was born out of that creative space and the opportunity to collaborate. Anna Grimshaw was approached by the RAI. to be part of the panel in the film festival, which because of Covid, we were all able to participate and attend, given that we are all scattered across the globe.  

The project  In the Time of Covid  features a collection of nine perspectives of life in a pandemic. Each filmmaker through their quick snapshot gave a glimpse into their routines and how they felt towards the pandemic. How was it working alongside all of them? 

We scheduled a meeting that we knew everyone could attend and, during it, we discussed the film. When you are doing any kind of artistic work during a pandemic, the challenge is finding the energy and motivation to do it. It can be stressful to get things done while everything around you seems to be falling apart. Some of those feelings and sentiments are represented in the films. Dealing with those frustrations, with getting tested, traveling, or just doing your regular little task seems to have drastically changed due to the pandemic when the main goal is trying to stay safe. 

Your film is called Tea 1 of 7, which features a sort of never-ending cycle you have gotten into during the pandemic. You do all of these tasks that feel infinite, yet you are in the same place, with a focus on repetition, of actions, which lets the audience know that this is now your routine. What is the meaning of the piece title?    

It was signaling how I was going to do that same routine six more times. How after I was done with this cup of tea, I would have had six more throughout the day. We made the films during the early stages of the quarantine where everyone was locked inside. Many of us work in education, and most of us need to get into this mode of completing all the tasks. Our lives began revolving around one place, which was the chair for me, where I would be spending more than twelve hours a day just doing the same work over and over.  

In what way does Tea 1 of 7 reflect your creative style? 

Many of us worked on ethnographic film, and in that sense, our style is based on a more patient style of filmmaking that takes very seriously having things unfolding in front of the camera rather than pushing them.  

The filmmakers presented the world as it is with no intervention. It is more about observing the world around and having it reveal itself over the course of the viewing process. In the group, I may be one of the few that likes to tinker with objects, makes them look a particular kind of way. All those films are not trying to push you in a direction. They are letting the language of the film come to you and have them meet you there. I think that is what we try to capture: the human experience through a lens of observation. 

As a filmmaker and storyteller how has this new reality affected your work?  

I would say that it is very hard in terms of work. The teaching workload has quadrupled. When it comes to the things you need to do, they have increased but the amount of time hasn’t. So, you have a lot less freedom to do other things, and, also, it’s very difficult to have a mindset to be creative because you just have other stress coming from your other responsibilities. We tried to channel that into the films we made.  

How do you see yourself as a filmmaker once the pandemic is over? 

It has been a time of reflection, of deciding the path we want to take and the relationships we want to create. Now that we have finished the film, that alone is a success, because it keeps you motivated. I am currently working on a film that I had been sitting on for years so hopefully, I still have that creative bug.  

Born from the opportunity to tell their perspective on the pandemic, In the Time of Covid, has become the creative accomplishment Professor Phillips needed in this pandemic to keep on going creatively.  

In The Time Of Covid (2021) 

Total running time: 22min 11sec 

Each of the nine shorts tells a story that collectively takes viewers on a ride across the globe.  

You get a glimpse of Mexico, where “Cuarentena” from Mael Vizcarra takes place. It gives its viewers a sense of peace, almost desert-like. Yet, once you are in the house, you get organized chaos. The dogs are fighting, the baby needs attention, while Covid is spreading so close to their family. The film gives the idea of how these family members had to continue with their lives and learn to live together while hiding from “this thing” that is out in the streets. 

Then, the film takes the viewer to Italy, where “Tea 1 of 7” takes place and presents its viewers with a hypnotic routine that signals the physiological and emotional toll this quarantine has taken on many of us.  

The rest of the shorts happen across the United States. “A Movie” by Inara Franzen Udavant and Sarah Franzen presents the new normal for a kid; how they had to find new ways to entertain themselves inside. It shows quarantine through a kid’s eyes.   

Anna Grimshaw’s piece gives the viewer the calm before the storm through a series of shots from different angles off the sea and the waves crashing in the shore as a way of finding peace.  

“Untitled” by Andy Ditzler showcases shots of different locations in motion.  

“Testing, Testing” by Sydney Silverstein takes viewers through a Covid-testing procedure that most of us are too familiar with.  

“Tumbleweed” by Sasha Klupchak opens with the poem “Traveling together” by W.S. Merwin. In this short film, viewers experience what a road trip looks like during the pandemic. 

“Night repair” by Joey Orr, shot from the exterior of a house, uses shadows to tell a story. 

“Business as Usual” by Melissa Creary, films the same spot throughout a season; a way of showing how even though the inside can remain the same, the outside world is always changing.  

In the Time of Covid is an intimate film that explores the adaptation process to this pandemic and what the new normal means for different people. Using different techniques, angles, and shots, they crafted a unique narrative that every viewer can relate to.    

Watch it at 

Professor Kwame Phillips holds a B.A. from Macalester College, an M.Sc., from Queen Mary University of London, and a Ph. D from Emory University. He is an anthropologist filmmaker, specializing in visual and sensory media production, ethnographic documentary, and soundscapes. He has traveled all over the world teaching digital storytelling in underserved communities. He also works with Filmmakers Without Borders, an organization that “promotes student empowerment and cross-cultural exchange in the developing world.”