How to handle a pandemic: A cinematic guide

Freshly returned from a trip to the East, a young mother dies with terrifying speed from an unknown illness. As similar reported cases jump exponentially, a field researcher from the CDC starts her investigation of Patient Zero.

“What we need to determine is this,” epidemiologist Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) patiently explains at the whiteboard. “For every person who gets sick, how many other people are they likely to infect?” She scrawls the following figures on the board: FLU-1, SMALLPOX-3, POLIO-4/6. “We call that number the R-naught.” A state public health official offers a huffy rebuke: “So far, that appears to be everyone with hands, a mouth and a nose.”

Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 eerily prescient thriller Contagion, about an unfolding global pandemic, has garnered intense attention in the last year, like many others in the genre of “outbreak narratives.” This inclination to look to film to make sense of the current pandemic moment inspired Washington University faculty members Corinna Treitel, professor of history and director of the medical humanities minor, and Patricia Olynyk, the Florence and Frank Bush Professor of Art, to create a space to watch and discuss these films together. 

Screening Contagion Film Series

4 pm | Thursday, April 8: Shaun of the Dead
4 pm | Thursday, April 29: Coronation

The Seventh Seal

Their collaboration, the Screening Contagion Film Series, assembles a rotating panel of scholars with specializations in art, English literature, film and media, history and medical ethics to offer insights on each of the series’ four films. So far, the panelists have discussed Contagion and Ingemar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (recordings are available on the site). Up next are Shawn of the Dead (April 8) and Coronation (April 29). All panel discussions are free and open to the public.

How can something as clinical as an infection rate frame a compelling story? In the first discussion, panelist Peter Lunenfeld, media theorist and vice chair and professor of design media arts at UCLA puts it this way: “Happy epidemic films have low R-naughts. Zombie films have high R-naughts.”

Below, organizers Treitel and Olynyk fill in the film series’ background, how they selected the films and what they hope people take away from the discussions.

What sparked the idea for the film series?

The spark came out of the alchemy of medical humanities! As an artist and a historian, each with a strong drive to bridge disciplines, we frequently brainstorm on ways in which to engage the community over contemporaneous issues that relate to the interdisciplinary field of medical humanities. During the COVID-19 lockdown and a socially distanced walk in Forest Park last summer, we pondered how we could create a meaningful event around the pandemic. This film series was the result.

How did you choose the films in the series?

The release of Ai Weiwei’s Coronation was the starting point for the series. We were intrigued by how this documentary represented the crisis in Wuhan, which raised for us the question of how various film genres address the topic of modern day plagues. That led us to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and then Bergman’s Seventh Seal. At that point, we realized we had a very heavy set of films and wanted to invoke humor to address this complex and difficult topic. After considering our options, we selected Shaun of the Dead for its comedic perspective.

We also engaged the medical humanities faculty in the curation of this series in order to produce a well-balanced program as well as film and media arts faculty at UCLA as part of their Medicine + Media Arts Initiative. Collaborating across institutions broadened our audience and critical analysis of these films. It also allowed us to showcase the medical humanities at Washington University to the UCLA community.

The Screening Contagion Film Series and panel discussion lineup (clockwise from top left): Coronation (April 29), Contagion (available now), Shaun of the Dead (April 8) and The Seventh Seal (available now).

What do you hope that folks watching the panel discussions get out of the experience?

We hope that panel attendees acquire a deep and broad set of perspectives on how film as a cultural practice processes contagion and its related traumas. We also hope this platform attracts an audience with broad differences in background and orientation, who can coalesce around the theme of contagion and engage in serendipitous conversations about the topic.

Since watching/rewatching the films, are there any moments that strike you as particularly resonant with our current moment, or that you see in an entirely different way because of where we are in this pandemic?

Several issues and themes resonated for us as we rewatched Contagion: R-naughts, global connectivity, how race and class are emphasized during times of crisis, humankind’s encroachment on wild habitats, and the interweaving of biological and moral categories in our quest to understand how this crisis began.