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Moving Images in the Zoom Era

By Natalia Almada

Filmmaker Natalia Almada's son. From her work-in-progress film 'Users.' Courtesy of Altumura Films

In October 2016, when my first son Gray was born in San Francisco, I became intensely aware of the relationship between children and screens. Would I let my baby play with my smart phone? Would I show him baby videos? Would I send him to a screen-free daycare? When would I bend the rules? On a plane trip? With the grandparents? Such banal questions reflect a very complex relationship that we have to technology and to screens in particular.

I’ve also thought a lot about the screen as a filmmaker. In the 20 years since  I’ve been making films, I've experienced a drastic change in how we watch films—or in my case, in how people see my films. The combination of higher bandwidth, better compression and portable screens has completely changed how films are distributed and consumed. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned and unrealistic, but when I am making a movie I still imagine a theater filled with people. It is not just the projection on a big screen and surround sound that seduces me, but the commitment of the audience to gather with strangers and surrender to the film. 

So here’s what we did: we put our kids in a nature-based outdoor daycare. Then, at night we close the curtains, turn out the lights and sit together to watch a few minutes of a film from a highly curated list of movies we deemed worthy and enriching for our children.

Since COVID-19, two things I care deeply about have been lost (at least for now). Movie theaters are closed and our son’s daycare moved to a one-hour Zoom story time. Not knowing how long this would last and wanting to be in solidarity with our daycare community, I sat my two kids in front of my laptop for their “daily Zoom” (which also meant I couldn’t work because they couldn’t really hold still or keep their fingers off the laptop).

The beauty and madness of toddlers is that they are totally in the present. This means that they will first see the medium with no ulterior purpose. They do not think of what they might accomplish on the video chat; they simply see the screen. In order for them to think beyond the medium, an illusion must be created and believed. The screen has to become a portal into something else and essentially disappear—in this case, an illusion of presence: those are your daycare friends and they are real. When the kids fall into this illusion, they can be captivated and lose awareness of the medium, but when it falters it’s as if they are being pinched. 

Watching my kids get pinched with each glitch–like a frozen screen or an unintentionally muted mic–reminded me of accounts of early cinema: People running out of a movie theater afraid the train on the screen was about to run them over; a mother wailing at the sight of her deceased daughter resurrected on the screen. Early audiences didn’t yet understand that what they were experiencing was not real, and moving between reality and illusion created a kind of painful shock. Today’s video chats do not ask us to believe in fictitious worlds, but they do ask us to suspend our understanding of distance (space, physicality, presence). For the toddler who is still coming to terms with object permanence and who cannot measure time or distance, imagine how disconcerting this illusion might be?

I wondered what my children will remember of these daycare video chats: Sitting at the table on the computer? The characters in the story the teacher told? Their five little friends’ faces? Or the time they were allowed to use Mama’s forbidden computer? I remember the movies I saw far less than the physical act of going to the theater. I can still smell the popcorn and remember the red seats of theater I used to go to as a kid. Since I probably wasn’t watching the red seats during the movie, my memories point to before and after the film—the ritual of going to the movie theater. The only movies I remember are those that I saw repeatedly like My Fair Lady, which I must have watched every night with my father during the summer when I was five. I remember the chair next to his bed where I sat to watch it, the lamp on the night table and the TV itself. My memories suggest that place and repetition (usually essential elements of ritual) shaped my memories. 

After a couple of Zoom-based daycare sessions, we abandoned video chatting in favor of other activities with our children. I imagine that if we’d continued the video chat experiment, my children’s memories would most likely be of the room in which it happened rather than of their five daycare friends laid out in a perfect grid. So if the goal was to preserve our daycare community and sustain their friendships through distance, my hypothesis is that it would probably have failed. We were probably building a stronger relationship to screens than to friends.

Secondly, I wondered what the video chat was doing to their understanding of distance, absence and longing? I remember how much I would miss my school friends during summer—how that longing, which was only possible through absence, made seeing them in the fall so full of anticipation. My parents are divorced and lived in different countries. International phone calls were expensive and a big event, yet I can’t remember what was ever said. I just remember the hole in my gut when I would hang up the phone–the presence of their voice heightened their absence. Perhaps those experiences were training for the harder permanent goodbyes that are inevitable in life. My kids “seeing” their daycare friends daily on the screen meant they weren’t going to miss them, but would probably also be reminded that they couldn’t play with them, which would cause a different kind of pain. Adults may feel that a Zoom cocktail hour is good enough under the circumstances of a pandemic and are rightly grateful for such a technology to ease the loneliness of physical isolation, but to a child who does not understand the circumstances or conversation, how can the screen be a portal to any kind of socializing or connection that makes sense to them? And if we are in fact teaching them that this is what connection looks like, how are we shaping their expectations of relationships with others? 

Like so many people in this country, we live far from our extended family, so we video chat with our relatives even before we were forced to by the pandemic. My children’s relationship with their grandmother is mostly through the screen. Grandma’s home is not a familiar place with its particular smells, nooks and crannies. She does not have the certain soft comfort of grandparents. To them she has no gestures that might resonate with mine and indicate to them that she is family. She is someone who appears occasionally on Mama’s computer. She struggles to understand their toddler talk with her failing hearing and faltering internet connection, so they have disjointed exchanges before running off impatiently. To us adults, it can feel like we’ve stayed connected because we “saw” each other every other week, but I wonder if our occasional video chats with my mother have lessened our actual visits with her because they prevent us from the pain of missing and longing. 

While all this has been going on, I’ve also been editing my new film—those same screen pixels that a moment ago represented my mother’s talking face are replaced by a timeline of video clips. Not long ago we had a call with a potential funder who asked how we were envisioning the film’s release in the absence of festivals and theaters. Switching into my role as a producer, rather than director, I thought, I am still making a film for an audience in a theater. The thought of someone watching my film between Zoom calls while getting notifications and cooking dinner is frankly depressing. Yes, there are those people who will close the shades and attempt to create a theater-going experience at home, but those are far and few between in our culture of constant connectivity and multi-tasking. How can my film demand absolute attention in this context? Especially now, when for many of us our whole world has been funneled into the computer, the same computer we’re expected to watch a film on. If rituals are distinguished by unique objects or locations, how can we separate them when they all occur in the single “place” of the screen?  

Movie theaters were already struggling before the pandemic, thanks to the steady decades-long parade of technological innovations from VHS to streaming video. Today, one portal exists for nearly all content. We can move between a work call and a movie with a click of a button; we can even do both at the same time. We needn’t even shift our bodies. So perhaps the movie theater was already dying and the pandemic simply nailed the coffin.

I think it is in our nature to fear that each new medium is going to obliterate the previous one. Painters feared photography, photographers feared film, and now I, a filmmaker, fear Zoom—as well as streaming media on a computer. Thanks to COVID, Zoom is temporarily replacing live, in-person experiences, while streaming media is replacing the physical theater with home viewing.. Perhaps people are more inclined to see video chatting as an efficient improvement as the telephone was to the telegraph or email to the postal service, but even more fundamentally it is a moving image on a two-dimensional surface. Not only does it have aspects of both photography and cinema, but video chats and movie-watching are now occupying the same space—especially as we shelter in place, and our worlds have been reduced to this one portal; work, play, shopping and socializing are indistinguishable. Everything is the same size and has the same glow. In the absence of the ritual of going to the cinema, how are we to change the way we relate to that which is coming through the screen?

A neighbor has two 12-year-old daughters. For their birthdays during the pandemic, they gathered their friends to watch a movie. All the kids watched the same movie at the same time in their own homes and video-chatted and texted about it as it was happening. They seemed to feel a sense of togetherness by chatting about it “live,” but to me this sounds hellish. I love going to movies alone because I don’t want a friend whispering in my ear mid-movie, and I resent voices in the theater and glowing cell phones. How were they able to focus on the movie? Why not wait until the movie was over and then chat about it? Perhaps this tells us something about a change in how people watch films. The theater required the audience to disconnect from the rest of their lives. Distractions like talking and texting were frowned upon, rude (I do realize in some cultures that this was not the expectation). My neighbor's daughters might find my quiet surrender to the screen boring. And with time they might find it intolerable and unfulfilling. And eventually that will probably change our films. We will make films that can compete with all those inevitable distractions—they might be louder, shorter, faster.

On our curated list of movie clips for our kids is the opening of Ron Fricke’s Baraka. Near the end of the segment is a sequence of people praying and meditating followed by a radical cut to a billboard worker against a busy urban environment and then… a plane takes off so close to him that it fills the entire background. When our kids asked about the people “doing nothing,” we answered that they are “en paz”—at peace. Our younger son has since come to equate being at peace with airplanes—the person is meditating because an airplane is arriving in the next shot. He will sometimes say, “Estoy en paz. Avión viene.” That which he experienced on the screen is now every plane he sees, and the feeling of peacefulness is to be followed by an airplane. He is transforming the movie into a live occurrence. That scene, or specifically that radical cut, has shaped his understanding of how the world works.

A recipient of the 2012 MacArthur “Genius” Award, Natalia Almada combines artistic expression with social inquiry to make films that are both personal reflections and critical social commentaries.