Gratitude, Altitude, and Musings on 2020
This time of year, perhaps this year more than others, is a time for pause and reflection. As the world starts to let out a slow, quiet, and cautious exhale in the wake of the vaccine rollouts, I sit here and search for greater meaning in my own 2020; to remind myself of some joy in this otherwise dark and scary year. And my thoughts immediately take me to a tiny mountain village in Switzerland.
Andermatt, Switzerland. The village that stole my heart, while a little-known virus started to ravage the world. (Credit: Patrick Möhl)
Film production is an unpredictable world. One minute you are in a dark edit suite pouring over a short sequence of shots, and the next minute you are on a train ride through the Swiss Alps feeling like a femme fatale in a Bond flick.
A Bond flick that started a bit rough in beautiful Zürich. I recall standing with Robin, my good friend and Director of Photography, in the middle of a bustling airport, surrounded by signs in Swiss German. I’m not sure which was heavier – all the cinema gear we were carrying, or my realization that despite being fluent in three languages, Swiss German is not one of them.
Sights you rarely see in downtown Toronto. (Credit: Francesco Vaninetti)
Somehow (read, the kindness of strangers and good luck) we boarded the right train – our first of four – towards our destination. The view was something plucked off a postcard. Our eyes experienced lush, green, pastoral vistas followed by snowy mountain tops when we looked up. Our view was only interrupted by the countless mountain tunnel passes we entered and exited. Light, dark, dark, light. It seemed almost impossible that the train could even fit through a perfectly sized – seemingly small – hole in the slope of a mountain. It was a beautiful reminder that terror and exhilaration are close cousins.
Robin began to film. How could he not?
I stared in awe outside the window watching the train tracks below go by at lightning speed –like my mind before every production as I go through my shot list, thinking about the edit. I watched the shots Robin was framing and everything seemed to slow. I felt as though I was on top of one of those mountain peaks and pure calm overcame me.
But it didn’t last long.
Filming in the midst of a rising international crisis is not exactly serene, after all. My phone reliably kept active with all kinds of distractions. Local Swiss news, Canadian news bulletins, messages of concern from my friends and family. It was all a lot to process during remote location filming when you really want (and need) to shut out the rest of the world and focus your attention and energy onto one thing. But the world – that week in March – had other plans.
As we settled into our first few scenes, my excitement grew for the week ahead of us. We not only had a beautiful location, but from our pre-conversations, we had a remarkable storyteller who trusted us to capture her story (thanks, Max). The weather was perfect, there wasn’t a bad angle to be found in Andermatt, and don’t get me started on the beautiful people and the beautiful food they make.
But the rising cases of Covid-19 had my mind’s eye looking down at those train tracks again at times, my brain going through all the scenarios at warp speed. I knew my responsibilities on this trip. As the director, my job was to tell an incredible story but as the field producer, my job was to keep the crew and cast safe. And while the locals were reassuring – and the friendliest people you’ll ever meet – they didn’t know that our itinerary had us flying to Spain from Switzerland – a country on the verge of closing its borders.
The week progressed and we were getting great content. From my perspective not only were we capturing the shots I imagined but the humanity of this beautiful country and the love that Max has for it was coming through the lens. The days left me tired, but emotional and grateful.
Towards the end of the week, part of our story took us from Andermatt to Lugano which is about an hour away by car. I was expecting everything to be new, but not the temperature! We drove from snowy Andermatt in full Canadiana winter gear – hats, mitts, warm jackets – but arrived to a very warm Lugano that had us peeling off layers. Perhaps the removing of these layers was akin to my stress melting away as we got closer to completing our week of production. Even if I am stretching the poetry here, I can say unequivocally as a Middle Eastern woman that Lugano’s heat was fully embraced!
I snapped this in Andermatt.
Then I snapped this in Lugano.
And then the heat intensified again, or so it seemed. A flurry of calls and emails but the decision was ultimately made: emergency flights needed to be sourced to get Robin and I back to Canada. No Spain leg on this trip. It wasn’t safe. The threat of their border closing was too real.
It happened fast, it needed to. I well remember waking up in my condo in Toronto on my first of a 14-day quarantine. It felt surreal. Instead of sun-drenched Spain, it was snow-drenched Queen West. My jet-lagged body reached for my phone. Spain was officially in lockdown. My disappointment at being home was quickly replaced with gratitude.
But isn’t that what we all learned to hold onto more of this year? Gratitude? Gratitude for the simple things in life, like our homes – our safe havens. Our health. Our family and friends that have never been further away from us physically, yet never closer to our hearts emotionally.
What a year of extremes. The best of times, the worst of times. This may be my first Charles Dickens year yet.
(Footnote: We cut Max’s beautiful short film and we look forward to sharing it with you in 2021. It’s a goody.)
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