Erika Kiss teaches the new course “Cinema in Times of Pandemic.”
Courtesy University Center for Human Values
The course examines themes the world is experiencing — isolation, political strife, and racial protests

The pandemic has fundamentally shifted the way so many things are done — including the distribution and viewing of films. As at-home movies reigned, lecturer Erika Kiss was inspired to teach the class “Cinema in Times of Pandemic” to analyze the impacts of COVID-19 on the film industry. 

“I believe that the pandemic, which destroyed theatrical film distribution, also created an opportunity for higher education to keep the circulation of important new, or forgotten, or never-distributed films alive,” said Kiss, founding director of the University Center for Human Values Film Forum and a lecturer in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program in European Cultural Studies. Her spring-semester course features a mix of old and new films that look at many of the themes the world is currently experiencing, including isolation, political strife, and racial protests. 

Students in the class of nine submitted videos explaining why they wanted to take it. Gaea Lawton ’23 said she applied after taking a fall course that explored similar themes from the theater perspective. 

At the outset, Kiss told students they would figure out exactly what they’d be creating as they went along. She envisioned students creating short films and a live website with content and commentary about each of the movies they would watch for the class. The group works together virtually.

During a mid-February class, Lawton and two classmates moderated a discussion with Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, the directors of Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution — a documentary that follows a group of people with disabilities who attended camp together and later were heavily involved in the Disability Rights Movement. The film was produced by the Obamas and distributed on Netflix. The discussion was open to the campus community. 

Kiss has organized interviews with many directors, film critics, and other prominent figures in the industry for the class. She “wants to start looking at filmmaking through a different lens,” Lawton said. “She wants to expose us to films that don’t necessarily fit that American narrative of if you work hard you’ll eventually win.” 

Because of Kiss’ own interests and passion to challenge the clichés of Hollywood, the films her class studies are produced by and feature marginalized communities. She points to the 1989 film Chameleon Street, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival the following year but was never picked up for distribution, as an example of the problems within the industry. It wasn’t mainstream enough, Kiss said. 

She hopes that in addition to gaining an understanding of the industry, this class will teach her students to look beyond the status quo to appreciate great films that didn’t get their due. “Some of the best films are actually not even known,” Kiss said, “because they happen not to be distributed.”