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“What Does It Mean To Be ‘Essential'”?: Tinx Chan on a Storyteller’s Obligation

In April, as we began to put together the Summer, 2020 issue of Filmmaker, we asked directors, cinematographers, editors and other film workers to send us their thoughts on the quarantine and their own creative lives. The responses printed here were collected from April through mid-June — personal statements that speak variously to individual filmmaking practices, films halted mid-production, politics, art and life. Read all the responses here. — Editor

One month into the New York lockdown, as anyone deemed “nonessential” was required to stay at home, I procrastinated another day away, as I had a long list of recommended films to watch from my cinephile and filmmaker friends. Perhaps it was a mild form of depression resurfacing, but I couldn’t help but ponder what it meant to be deemed “essential” during these times.

As a “nonessential” worker, unemployed along with my wife, who’s a lettering artist, I truly felt a bit useless. What does it mean to be “essential”? Snapping out of my self-pity, with this lingering thought in mind, I brought my camera out to capture what I could observe through my car window as I drove through the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Very soon, I discovered a similar theme.

Lone figures sitting in bus stops, waiting for what seems like eternity. Postal workers and delivery men pushing their carts through freezing rain. Nurses and hospital workers, walking slowly, worn and tired from long shifts. The “essential” workers in the streets, they all seem to have something in common—they were all Black, Brown, and yellow…. And, to be honest, they didn’t seem like they were volunteering themselves to be out there.

Before the pandemic, I was prepping on a film about a Congolese immigrant who works in a nursing home, suffering from PTSD.
Are artists and storytellers “essential” workers? No. We’re not physically saving or preserving lives, but we have the privilege and in my opinion, the obligation—be it fiction or nonfiction—to tell the stories of those who do.

Tinx Chan is a cinematographer from Brooklyn.

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