With the constant use of numbers and statistics in the media’s ongoing coverage of COVID-19, it can be hard to remember that every fact and figure represents a human being. As of Dec. 3, the worldwide death toll stands at 1.5 million, meaning that 1.5 million human beings have since lost their lives and 1.5 million families have lost a loved one to the pandemic.
Thursday evening, the Human Rights Institute hosted a virtual screening and panel discussion of the new PBS Frontline Documentary that sought to tell the COVID-19 story through a human lens. As the first installment of the Human Rights Film+ Digital Media Series, the event showcased the latest project of Emmy award-winning director and assistant professor of film and video at UConn Stamford, Oscar Guerra. Titled “Love, Life, and the Virus,” Guerra brought the story of an immigrant family’s fight against COVID-19 to the screen.
The film follows a Guatemalan American family from Stamford, as mother, Zully, receives a COVID-19 diagnosis while eight months pregnant with her second child. Zully’s health rapidly deteriorates as the doctors decide to deliver her baby early and place her in the Intensive Care Unit. Upon his birth, baby Neysel tests negative for COVID-19 as his mother continues her battle with the virus. Shortly before being put into a coma, Zully reaches out to her son, Junior’s, ESL teacher, Luciana Lira, who takes in the baby until the entire family tests negative for COVID-19. Both heart wrenching and heartwarming, the film tells the story of a tight-knit community that came together to help a family in need, and reunite a mother with her newborn child.
The film screening was followed by a panel discussion with Guerra and several community leaders attached to the project, including Luciana Lira, the Hart Magnet Elementary School teacher from the film, Erin O’Neal-Baker, a local lawyer and secretary of the CT Bar Association who specializes in immigration law, and Vania Galicia, a recent graduate of Eastern Connecticut State University who sponsors immigrant organizations in the greater Windham-Willimantic area.
When asked about the film’s origins, Guerra admitted that Zully’s story came to him later in the filmmaking process, with the film’s original focus being the pandemic from a healthcare worker’s perspective, as lived by his wife who works as a nurse at Stamford Hospital – Bennett Medical Center.
“You get inspired by other people,” Guerra said. “I got inspired by my wife and what she was doing. Then I got inspired by what Luciana was doing and what Catalina was doing. You get inspired by the power of the community, and that’s what I try to do as a filmmaker. I try to document the reality that is happening, in between is a reality so complex to understand, so it’s presenting a human element.”
“The role of the film should be a case study: What could happen when we work as one?” – Oscar guerra
Guerra decided to follow Zully’s story, not because it was a common story, but rather because it was a rare occurrence where an entire community came to the rescue of a family in need.
“The story on its own is a contradiction,” Guerra said. “This is not the reality for the working-class Latino family; not every single person is going to have an end like this. It’s not going to be a happy ending, but when you have the right people surrounding you, it is possible.”
With people like Lira, it was not a question whether or not she would aid Zully’s family.
“I received a phone call from Zully and I just couldn’t say no,” Lira said. “I’ve been working as a bilingual teacher for the last 20 years and I know how hard it is for immigrant families to get help. It was just an amazing journey. The entire community gathered together to rally and help me help this family who needed help when there was no help around.”
Galicia spoke to the experienced traumas of the immigrant community represented in the film, as the pandemic has added to the already burdensome worries that face immigrants living in the United States.
“I know everyone’s mental health right now is very sensitive,” Galicia said. “But in the immigrant community I think it’s been even harder. It’s really scary to see our communities in these places where they have been so resilient yet finding themselves giving up in a battle because they have been hit so hard.”
Guerra spoke to the goals of his film, hoping it will serve as a call to action to aid fellow human beings in this time of crisis.
“The role of the film should be a case study: What could happen when we work as one?” Guerra said. “I think that the film should bring hope to people, saying that there are moments of despair and moments that are hard for everyone, but if we act as one, your community becomes your family and you have to rely on your family in order to survive and succeed.”