Making Kin, Making Children, and Making Coyote
Under Lockdown

Image Credit: Still image from Coyote (William Brown and Mila Zuo, 2020), provided by filmmaker.

William Brown

In this essay, I shall engage self-reflectively and critically with the making of Coyote, a short film that Mila Zuo and I directed in June 2020. Coyote forms part of Cinema-19, a portmanteau film combining work by 16 directors that was put together in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by Usama Alshaibi and Adam Sekuler. Cinema-19 consists of 14 films, each of which has a running time of roughly 190 seconds, with the films presented as a single work, divided only by brief moments of black leader, but without titles or credits. In this way, the film takes on an almost surreal montage effect, whereby one can transition from one short to another without necessarily knowing that one is watching a different work—or rather, a different section of the same work. The collection of films, or rather the film, was released on August 19, 2020, and was presented in association with the Anthology Film Archives in New York, the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, and the Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge in New Orleans.[1]

As a single piece of work, Cinema-19 reflects the first three months of western life during quarantine under COVID-19, which, as director Adam Sekuler says, “were such introspective times” (quoted in Macaulay 2020). However, while Cinema-19 does indeed explore “the internal sphere of the pandemic” (Sekuler, quoted in Macaulay 2020), the aim of this essay is not to speak for or about all 14 of the shorts that comprise the final film, not least because the films are very diverse, even as common themes and tropes emerge throughout its 43-minute running time. Rather, I shall focus on Coyote, the contribution that Zuo and I made, which provides a lo-fi attempt to reflect life under lockdown, while also seeking to frame the film’s “action” within a wider political reality, thereby lending to Coyote what we (Zuo and I) hope is some political urgency—an urgency no doubt shared by many of our Cinema-19 collaborators, whether subtly or overtly. In this way, I hope to demonstrate not only that Coyote is part of a community media project in the age of Coronavirus and Black Lives Matter, but that the film also posits a hopeful model of what Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2016) would term “queer motherhood” during otherwise “strange and dark days” (Alshaibi, quoted in Macaulay 2020).

Before we turn specifically to Coyote, however, it is worth setting a wider scene with regard to filmmaking under COVID-19 and to the experiences that I have had with community filmmaking, which drew Zuo and I to accept the invitation to participate in Cinema-19 in the first place.

Guerrilla Filmmaking

This essay is inseparable both from the context of COVID-19 and from the Coyote and Cinema-19 projects. That being said, had The Projector issued a call for papers on community media even in a world in which the COVID-19 pandemic had not happened, I would likely still have written about teaching courses on Guerrilla Filmmaking in a variety of contexts, including at my former university and at various other institutions like film festivals. Indeed, I have already written about teaching Guerrilla Filmmaking outside of the COVID-19 context (Brown 2020), and I was in the midst of teaching my Guerrilla Filmmaking course at my former university when the pandemic started. The course, or module in the UK, continued to run as the pandemic evolved and as the UK shifted into lockdown, with my students making numerous films about the pandemic and life under lockdown as part of their assessment.

COVID-19 is not fortuitous in the sense of being a lucky accident, nor is it necessarily the source of inspiration for people to make films who otherwise might not have done so. All the same, my Guerrilla Filmmaking course is well suited to working under conditions similar to those enforced by COVID-19, and in this way perhaps does function as a methodology for helping filmmakers to continue being productive during such times. The course combines both theory and practice, as it invites students to consider histories of filmmaking in less-than-ideal circumstances, while also asking them to make a portfolio of films at short order, with little institutional or technological support, and that responds both to thematic and formal constraints. With regard to the histories of filmmaking in less-than-ideal circumstances, the course involves an especial emphasis on the histories of Third Cinema and/or what Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa famously theorized as “imperfect cinema” (Espinosa 1979). The course also looks at more contemporaneous examples of no- and low-budget filmmaking from around the world, including Chinese, Iranian, and Philippine underground cinemas, as well as North American filmmaking in the “Mumblecore” and other traditions. Meanwhile, when thinking about thematic and formal constraints, it is worth mentioning that the course takes on the playful spirit of Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth’s De fem benspænd/The Five Obstructions (2003), in which the former challenges the latter to remake his short experimental film Det perfekte menneske/The Perfect Human (1968) multiple times, each time with a set of constraints, or “obstructions.” For example, von Trier tells Leth that he must remake The Perfect Human using only shots that last for 12 frames, and with the film being set in Cuba—a pair of obstructions that, even if unintentionally, lend to Leth’s remake a touch of the “imperfect cinema” (Brown 2020).

During this year’s Guerrilla Filmmaking course, but before COVID-19, I had even devised a “challenge” in which I asked my students to “make a smartphone film that features a cast of strangers and which has the title: 2020 vision.” Naturally, then, as students found themselves constrained to domestic interior spaces during lockdown, many chose to make films about precisely the strangers passing their window during 2020. Since many had been watching work by and reading about filmmakers making work under difficult circumstances (fiction or documentary, working in an activist mode or otherwise), it was as if the students were already equipped with some of the conceptual tools, practical skills, and attitudes for giving creative and critical voice to their experiences, even when faced with pragmatic and (if I may use this term to describe the deflating atmosphere of COVID-19) spiritual constraints. As a result, many of the students’ work was even stronger as a result of COVID-19 and the impositions that it imposed (and continues to impose), rather than being impoverished by this disastrous turn of events. For example, various students turned to an asynchronous use of sound and image in order to create works that employed soundbites from politicians and other figures in the public eye, while also editing together window shots of different types of people still on the streets in London during lockdown. The results were rhythmically engaging and often combined the funny and the angry through their juxtapositional use of sound—in the process anticipating lockdown films by more “established” artists such as John Smith, whose Citadel (2020) uses precisely these techniques. If the aim of Guerrilla Filmmaking is to turn filmmaking obstacles to one’s advantage and to work productively with limitations rather than to rail against them (or have them derail a given project), then Guerrilla Filmmaking is a tool for helping students and others to make films during times of crisis, such as a global pandemic—and in the case of several of my students, it seemed to work.

However, while I might normally have written about Guerrilla Filmmaking even without COVID-19, I cannot focus this essay solely on teaching Guerrilla Filmmaking during COVID-19. This year saw my university switch from making the films publicly available on YouTube to hosting them on an internal server, which means that they are neither readily accessible for readers to consult, nor are they available to me anymore, as I have since left the university. My description of teaching Guerrilla Filmmaking is not just a “what if,” though, since it helps to further the argument of this essay in three interlinked ways.

The first is that a “guerrilla” approach to filmmaking has been my own creative modus operandi for over a decade. Making films under difficult and relatively impoverished circumstances is not strictly new to me, even if COVID-19 is new, and even if I have not before lived through a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19, which involves lockdowns and other restrictions, such as the wearing of face masks. In this way, the making of Coyote feeds into my own practice (and theorization) of cinema in the digital age.

This leads me to a second reason for bringing up Guerrilla Filmmaking, which is that, in some sense, the “guerrilla” or “imperfect” aesthetic—or what elsewhere I have defined as “non-cinema” (Brown 2018)—becomes generalized at moments such as this one. However, that is by no means without precedent. As large parts of the world switched into a WFH (work from home) mode of living, much of film and media-making also became homemade or DIY (do it yourself) in its aesthetic. The remarkable success of John Krasinski’s short-lived series Some Good News (2020) can function as a key exemplar of this aesthetic: deliberately lo-fi but using this aesthetic to its advantage rather than trying to hide it—and filling a gap left vacant by the cessation of most mainstream and big-budget productions. More pertinent, though, is how the ceaseless filming of domestic interiors, as seen in lockdown films like In My Room (Mati Diop, 2020), had already been announced before COVID-19 in films like In film nist/This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2011), in which the directors film Panahi’s life while under house arrest in Tehran for supposedly acting as a spy against the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, COVID-19 films featuring extended shots of people passing by in the street from first floor windows echo short documentaries like 9 days—From my Window in Aleppo (Issa Touma, Thomas Vroege, and Floor van der Meulen, 2015). That is, as films about political prisoners in Iran and about the civil war in Syria use the interior and window aesthetic to make points about life in complex circumstances, so might those aesthetics conversely help to bring a political valence to lockdown films today.

This is not to say that COVID-19, especially in the West, is coterminous with life under house arrest in Iran or life in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war. However, it does suggest that making movies that illustrate life under lockdown does serve a political function. By “political function,” I do not mean to endorse paranoid conspiracy-theoretical thinking whereby lockdown is functioning as a tool for increased social control (even though in various ways I agree with this), with concomitant beliefs that the pandemic is a hoax (a viewpoint with which I strongly disagree). Rather, it suggests that the political is reflected in the personal and vice versa—with the “political” here being at least a (temporary?) levelling of the aesthetic playing field, whereby everyone must adopt a DIY/homemade/amateur aesthetic if they want to make films. This in turn opens up space for alternative worldviews to present themselves beyond those that are over-represented on our typical (and non-amateur) media screens—and which dominate at least in part because of the very economic advantage that they, as professional (read, expensive) productions, enjoy. That is, the “superior” (i.e. more expensive) aesthetic techniques that professional productions typically employ demonstrate their economic advantage, which in turn likely leads to greater success in the attention economy. If you will, the brighter and more expensive a film looks, the more people will see it; not to mention that the greater one’s publicity budget, the greater chances are that people will know about and thus watch one’s production.[2] It is by embracing the homemade/amateur or “guerrilla” aesthetic once again that Coyote (and Cinema-19 as a whole) wishes to make itself not just a testimonial to life under lockdown, but also, in its way, a political text, the attempted/desired meaning of which I shall discuss later.[3]

Finally, the third reason for taking this initial foray into Guerrilla Filmmaking is to return to the term spirit that I used earlier when discussing the “spiritual constraints” of life under COVID-19. Via its etymological roots in the Latin verb spirare, spirit relates to breathing and to breath—with breathing being perhaps the central concern of the human race in 2020 thanks to the attack on the respiratory system that the Coronavirus carries out, as well as the inability to breathe that led to the death of George Floyd on May 25 of the same year. This incident in turn prompted a resurgence of activism and activities in relation to Black Lives Matter, as I shall discuss imminently.

The Neoliberalization of the University

Before I return more forcefully to the issue of breathing, especially as it relates to BLM and the ways in which Coyote can hopefully generate some productive avenues through which to think through the present moment of COVID-19 and the renewed attempts to address/redress racial injustice(s) worldwide, it is worth examining the making of Coyote, a discussion that itself relies upon a further, personal context that also merits explanation.

Coyote likely would not have been made had there not been a global pandemic in 2020, but also had there not been industrial action taken at my former university both in 2019 and in 2020. Indeed, it is only because I was taking industrial action in the UK that I had time to visit my partner in Canada in March 2020. Flying just as the virus was beginning to increase its spread in Europe, I arrived in Canada in time to go more or less immediately into lockdown, with the result being that I was then able to teach remotely until the end of the semester in April 2020 and through the summer teaching period that my former university offers in May/June. While the strike had been waged by members of the University and College Union over four interlinked issues—pay, workload, job security, and the gender and race pay gaps—the strikes had received dismal coverage in the UK media and seemingly little support in the public eye. Furthermore, the pandemic more or less destroyed any chance of actually refusing to work, as most colleagues taking industrial action (or at least those with whom I have spoken) found themselves having to gear up for what was already being referred to as “the new normal” of teaching online and offering both synchronous and asynchronous components to their classes well ahead of the proposed end-date of the strike. More particular to this essay, though, is that at an institution that is small in size, regularly low-lying in the so-called league tables, not very old, and thus without any great endowments, and which has recently invested huge sums of money in upgrading its student accommodation and facilities, the pandemic did not so much de facto entail a large loss in revenue for my former employer, as threaten one. Nonetheless, anticipating (rather than experiencing) a loss in revenue, my former university started to offer redundancy packages to staff members.

It was around this time that I also discovered that my partner was expecting our first child, and so while I normally might not have considered applying for my former university’s voluntary severance scheme, the prospect of raising a child (as opposed to “simply” having a relationship) at a distance of 4,700 miles meant that at least applying for the voluntary severance scheme seemed like a good idea. Perhaps needless to say, my application was accepted—for better or worse confirming that I was certainly not indispensable to my old employer—and this in turn led to my departure from the university, such that I now cannot talk about teaching my Guerrilla Filmmaking course in as much detail as I otherwise might have. Nonetheless, I explain this context because I in some sense owe the making of Coyote not just to COVID-19, but also to the neoliberalization of British (and perhaps other) universities, such that I found myself on strike in Canada, about to be jobless, and also in the company of my now-pregnant partner for longer than I might otherwise have been. This meant that when we received an invitation to participate in Cinema-19 from Alshaibi and Sekuler, we could not only accept, but we could also make the film in the form that it subsequently took.

 

Making Coyote

As lockdown in my new home of Vancouver continued, rumours spread in the Wesbrook area, where my partner and I were living, that coyotes were approaching dogs, even when in the company of their human kin, and attempting to snatch/attack/eat them. It was speculated that this might be linked to the COVID-19-induced closure of restaurants in the local area, which in turn meant the lack of a constant food supply for mice, rats, and other smaller critters, which then saw coyotes and their mid-sized ilk going hungry and thus heading into unusual territory in search of food. My partner and I, together with our canine companion, Trouble, encountered coyotes on several occasions, with my being lucky enough to capture one on camera as it rustled around in a grassy bank no more than 50 metres from where we were then living in April 2020. This footage, taken at night, became the first image created for Coyote, and one of two shots featured in the finished film.

The film’s other shot is a long-take, about 180 seconds in duration, in which an unnamed white male character (played by me) initially sits on a sofa in a t-shirt and sweatpants as the word “Coyote” appears over his chest in small lettering for a few seconds in order to signify the film’s title (a feature of the film that broke the “rule” otherwise imposed by Alshaibi and Sekuler for the films not to carry titles). My character is talking via a telecommunications app with a friend from the UK, Tim (voiced by Aleksandr Krawec), about his anxiety regarding his relationship with his now-pregnant partner. Beside him, an iPad features a British-Indian woman (Radhika Aggarwal) against a green screen, reading aloud a series of incidents, all real, that had taken place in and around Vancouver and had involved physical and/or verbal abuse being directed at Asian and/or perceived-to-be-Asian residents over the course of the pandemic—the arrival of which saw a spike in racist incidents against Asians as a result of the perception that the Coronavirus was/is a “Chinese virus.” Meanwhile, on a television screen, there is a series of shots taken from the Black Lives Matter protest movement as it intensified in the wake of George Floyd’s assassination, fragments of which can be seen in a mirror behind me—including, at one point, George Floyd’s face.

After roughly 45 seconds, Vivi (Mila Zuo), initially seen only in reflection in the mirror, returns from a walk with a dog (Trouble Zuo) and joins me on the sofa. Vivi is visibly pregnant and asks about my conversation with Tim. In true British bourgeois tradition, the exchange is passive-aggressive, with my character sarcastically upbraiding Vivi for not wishing him well, before disappearing off screen to get a beer—just as Vivi receives a text message. This is from Paul, who has written to say that Vivi will be a great mother, to which she replies, “who knows?”—thereby giving voice to some of her anxieties about impending motherhood. Upon my return, Vivi and my character exchange some low-level jealousies about Paul and an otherwise unseen woman referred to as Karen Cole (a forename that, at the time of filming, was a hot topic as a result of women like Amy Cooper being referred to as “Karens”—a name supposedly typical of a white, and notably racist, femininity, per Cooper’s attempts to get Black birdwatcher Chris Cooper arrested in New York on the same day that George Floyd was killed). Vivi then explains that she saw “it” while on her walk with the dog, before Vivi accuses my character of having farted, a charge that he does not deny. He then begins to massage her feet as a gesture of reconciliation, and the film then cuts to a shot of darkness in which “it,” the afore-mentioned coyote, appears and then wanders off into the background—with Aggarwal’s voice swelling on the soundtrack as she continues to report anti-Asian incidents in Vancouver.

Before picking apart the film’s content, it is worth describing the film’s form. Coyote is, in particular, a film that employs a central long take, shot from a single, static angle, which was taken using a JVC GR-DVL815, the specifications of which are perhaps not so important as simply that it is a camera from 2001 that requires MiniDV cassettes, which are now more or less obsolete. That is, the film carries the grain of “old” digital images, and thus possesses a (here, deliberately) “imperfect” look and feel. Indeed, in accordance with the foregoing engagement with “imperfect cinema” via García Espinosa and my old Guerrilla Filmmaking module, our rationale for creating such an image was specifically to convey rather than to try to hide the “imperfect” aesthetic of making films from home, while also trying to create a look that connotes something visibly “digital.” The latter, in particular, was intended to engage with how the early movies of both the Dogme 95 and Mumblecore directors had a similar lo-fi aesthetic, but rather than working in the almost exclusively white context of both of those movements, working instead in relation to an inter-racial relationship that itself is taking place within the context of not just COVID-19, but also BLM.

The lo-fi look is intentionally juxtaposed with the laptop, iPad, smartphones, and television that are also visible within the film’s mise-en-scène. Whereas these objects and the images that they create and/or depict are defined by high definition and 4K “smoothness,” we wanted our film to feel more “rough” (and, indeed, for the film to have a “feel” rather than simply a “look”), with our intention being that this “roughness” better suited life under COVID-19, even as lockdown means for many people in the developed world a life dominated by screen mediation, or a life mediated by screen domination. This roughness was intended to be married to a certain “slowness,” hence the use of a central long take, which was designed to also convey the “slowness” of a life of confinement (perhaps one critique of the film might be that “too much” happens in its running time?). Indeed, given that Alshaibi and Sekuler had specified that the films made for Cinema-19 should preferably last 190 seconds exactly, it struck us that time, and specifically duration, were key qualities that the commissioning filmmakers were after, even as few participating filmmakers ended up using a long-take aesthetic (and certainly no others used a take as long as our main shot).

As the use of digital devices and screens conveys the “digitally mediated” nature of life under lockdown, so, too, did the visual engagement with BLM and the audio engagement with anti-Asian violence via these screens seem to us a logical component to include. Life under lockdown involves the gleaning of much information from screens, while the use of mirrors in the film also (hopefully) conveys a sense of how virtual space invades the home. Finally, in our performances, we hoped to convey a sense of cohabitation taking place in confined spaces; not just an inability to do anything other than lounge lethargically after several weeks of lockdown, but an inability to hide gaseous emissions like farts, while also involving intimate physical contact via foot massages—all framed by a static, unmoving camera that reflects the physical confinement of staying at home. In this way, we sought to capture, in some sense, the “spirit” of the lockdown: confinement, slowness, screens, intimacy, racial injustice, and entanglement.

Why a Coyote?

If entanglement is a key feature of Coyote, then the term requires some explanation. Drawn primarily from the work of Karen Barad (2007), simply put, entanglement conveys the interconnectivity of many, if not all, things. Even if the precise causes of COVID-19 remain unsure, it seems clear from my foregoing descriptions that Coyote as a project would not have taken place without COVID-19, and that I would not have been in Canada without a strike, nor remained there without COVID-19, nor would the coyote(s) have become so brazen in their forays into the (unceded Musqueam) land upon which my partner and I had (uninvitedly) settled. My journey to Canada, my remaining in Canada, my making of Coyote with my partner, and the presence of one of the two non-human animals in the film (the coyote–the second animal being Trouble the dog), are all therefore entangled—while digital technology further entangles us and further demonstrates the entangled nature of our multiverse by showing how we can be in direct contact from Canada with the UK, the USA, and other spaces. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere and in various ways, entanglement is perhaps itself inherently an (entangled) aspect of digital culture; or, more clearly stated, digital technology helps us to understand the entangled and interconnected nature of the entire world (and further afield). Humans are not separate from each other or from the world; they are fundamentally entangled with each other and the world (Brown 2013, 57-58; Brown 2018, 60-66).

Given that the coyote appeared to my camera as perhaps a direct result of COVID-19, it might seem insincere to suggest that the coyote has a metaphorical meaning beyond its literal, documentary presence. However, we might posit that a blurring of fiction and documentary allows us to, at the very least, conceptualize the entanglement of fiction and reality, an entanglement that is also expressed in the quasi-autobiographical components of the film. For example, my partner and I are expecting a child; my partner and I do argue and give vent to jealousies about people from our respective pasts; I do have the unfortunate habit of, on occasion, being flatulent in her presence; I do try to please my partner by massaging her feet. We might also say that, through its very real and documentary presence, the coyote can tell us something, via a certain kind of staging or fiction, that we can apply to our understanding of the real world.

Perhaps inevitably, I shall refer to Donna J. Haraway, who engages with precisely the coyote as both a conceptual tool and a literal animal in her account of Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991). For her, the coyote is, like nature itself, a “potent trickster [that] can show us that historically specific human relations with ‘nature’ must somehow—linguistically, ethically, scientifically, politically, technologically, and epistemologically—be imagined as genuinely social and actively relational; and yet the partners remain utterly inhomogeneous” (Haraway 1991, 3). That is, we are entangled with nature/the coyote, such that neither linguistics, nor ethics, nor science, nor politics, nor technology, nor epistemology can be removed from nature, and such that nature cannot be removed from any of these so-called disciplines. All the same, it is important to note that entanglement does not mean homogeneity or sameness, and that humans and nature/the coyote are thus different, or “utterly inhomogeneous.” With this in mind, I would propose that the coyote in our film functions as a means of conveying how, as Haraway goes on to say in relation to this animal, “we are not in charge of the world” (Haraway 1991, 199).

I can imagine a contention thus: “but the coyote would not have been coming into ‘human’ spaces looking for food were its regular prey, itself reliant on scraps from human society, not malfunctioning,” with the intention behind such words being that humans, in fact, are in charge of the world, and it is they who shape the coyote’s world more than vice versa (the coyote simply responds to humans, who do not respond in kind, except to dominate). However, those food supplies for the coyote might themselves not have dried up had humans not been themselves dominated by a lowly virus that was first reported in Wuhan, China, which then “went viral” within a matter of weeks. That is, the literal coyote does also serve a philosophical or would-be abstract function in reminding us, just as COVID-19 does, that we are, indeed, not in charge of the world, even as many humans like to both think and act as if they were.

Haraway continues: “[t]he Coyote or Trickster, embodied in American Southwest Indian accounts, suggests our situation when we give up mastery but keep searching for fidelity, knowing all the while we will be hoodwinked” (Haraway 1991, 199). That is, the coyote takes on an always-already mythical quality, inherited from Native Americans, emerging when our attempts at planetary mastery have been thwarted and/or exposed as flawed, and in the process functioning as a means by which we can get to know ourselves and the world (as well as the relationship between the two) a bit better (our search for “fidelity”). Perhaps COVID-19 is, by this account, itself a kind of coyote. And if our film is designed to in some sense reflect the work of the coyote, then perhaps our film itself “becomes-coyote” (or “becomes-Coyote”) in a fashion that is reflected in the title of the whole film put together by Alshaibi and Sekuler.

As Cinema-19 would suggest that cinema and COVID-19 are somehow linked, in that Cinema-19 and COVID-19 echo each other (as COVID-19 cannot help but echo a sense of “video,” even as the term is a contraction of Corona VIrus Disease). Not only might it be, then, that Cinema-19 in particular and cinema in general can function like a disease (“going viral”), but also that cinema can, like the disease, remind us also that “we are not in charge of the world”—even if cinema does not in principle wreak as much damage to humans as the disease does (although this point could be debated). By this token, for Coyote to draw from a documentary moment, whereby I captured a coyote on camera basically by chance, is to adopt a method of filmmaking that also responds to, rather than seeks to dominate, the world. Humans may have designed the confined spaces of movie studios precisely to be able to control the environment in which films are made, conjuring the desired lighting and meteorological conditions at will; but cinema is also a medium of contingency, a medium through which something like “reality” can assert itself, as theorists like André Bazin (1967) and Siegfried Kracauer (1997) have long since argued. Furthermore, with those confined spaces now themselves imposed upon humans under lockdown, rather than being inhabited out of choice, the very interiority that becomes the norm under COVID-19—and cinema!—suggests that we are not in charge of the world. It perhaps even suggests that cinema is in charge of us more than we are in charge of cinema—and that in some sense, the greatest cinema concedes control both to the world and to the medium. Cinema can teach us the most, or, if you will, cinema is most philosophical, when reality is allowed into the camera (even if in an otherwise fictional film), when cinema is itself allowed to think, and when we listen to cinema, rather than applying our own prejudices to cinema in advance.

Issues of Race

If the above seems to be drifting in the direction of the esoteric (“what can it mean to ‘allow to cinema to think and/or to listen to cinema?’”), then perhaps we can clarify what this means by engaging with another treatment of the coyote. Thomas King (who reportedly self-identifies as part Cherokee) has written, like Haraway, that the coyote is a trickster, but he also says that this is not simply because the animal is “tricky,” performing tricks on people and tricking them. Rather, the Coyote is a trickster due to its appetites:

Coyote is a creature of enormous appetites; appetites for money, appetites for power, appetites for anything he can
get his little paws on. And North America really is a kind of Coyote. There is never enough money, there is never enough
power, there is never enough comfort, there is never enough convenience for North Americans in general. We know that
we use more than our fair share of resources, we know that we are conspicuously consumed by material goods. And yet
we don’t do anything about it. (King 2013, 283) [4]

By this token, the coyote might well remind us that we are in charge of the world, but the coyote also reminds us of the very ambition to achieve this, and which we suggest goes by the name of capitalism. Furthermore, this ambition is embodied perhaps most especially in the white male, and it is for this reason that the film’s title appears over my character in the opening seconds of our short film. The suggestion is that, in addition to COVID-19 being the coyote, so might my character, as a white male, be the coyote. That is, the coyote is indeed a threat to human safety, but it is brought on by the (white male) human’s own ambitions and his attempts to realise those ambitions.

The attentive reader might now say: “Aha! I was right, see? It is the human who is really in charge, since the human is the coyote and not some nature that the human does not control.” However, we should make clear that the greed of white masculinity, or patriarchal greed, might well seek control/to be in charge, but by pursuing this goal with relentless determination and with insatiable greed, the white male demonstrates that he is, in fact, out of control, and that he cannot (or refuses to) control himself. In other words, the human is with nature, and nature is with the human, and thus they are not separated (one controlling the other), but inseparable, or entangled. The more the human tries to control the world, or to be in charge, the more this is revealed not to be the case. It is, as the Greek tragedians would have put it, a classic case of hubris.

For better or for worse, then, COVID-19, the coyote, and perhaps also cinema, can remind us of, or expose us to, the fact that humans are not in control. The more we seek to control the world, the more the world eludes our control and becomes unsustainable for us as an environment with which to live. Elon Musk can dream all he wants of colonizing Mars; but all this really tells us is that he suffers from the white man’s disease of not being able to control his urge to destroy this planet, and humanity along with it, as he bids to become not homo sapiens, but homo deus.

That this coyote logic is revealed to us through an engagement by both Haraway and King with Native American mythology suggests that the logic of the “human” as explained above is really the logic of the white man, or the logic of capitalist patriarchy/patriarchal capitalism. In this way, the presence of George Floyd and the anti-Asian violence in Coyote would hopefully suggest also that this uncontrollable urge by the so-called “human” to consume like the coyote is clearly raced, and that rather than the human, it is more specifically the white male who is out of control. This means that Coyote draws at least indirectly from the Fanonian philosophy of thinkers like Sylvia Wynter, who so cogently argued that the “human” has historically been defined as precisely the white male (Wynter 2001). Therefore, if “we” (by which I mean white masculinity) actually wish to learn from the coyote and to see “humanity’s” insatiable and destructive greed for what it is, then we must not just unthinkingly consume without listening to the world around us. We must instead listen to the world around us and think in what previously was considered an “inhuman,” and perhaps even an “animal,” fashion; we must think as the other, becoming wise through the other, becoming otherwise, finally achieving wisdom (sapientia), finally becoming truly human (seeking to become not homo deus, but finally homo sapiens, or perhaps just sapiens). As filmmakers, then, we cannot but allow our film to let in the non-white context that surrounds COVID-19. As film viewers, we can now allow cinema to think, or we can begin to listen to cinema, which hopefully will tell viewers, as it told us as filmmakers, that there is no escape from our white hell if we do not change our coyote ways (we can listen to the coyote in order not to be like the coyote).

We might posit, then, that it is not a coincidence that BLM should rise at the moment of COVID-19, since COVID-19 surely brings out otherwise latent racism in (white) humans—as a logical consequence of losing control and having that loss of control being made apparent to them. Thus humiliated, the (white) human seeks to reassert their control by reasserting the non-humanity of the non-white other, which in turn, of course, sparks increasing attempts to remind the white human of precisely how humanity is not confined to one race (and gender), but shared across all races (as well as across species, and perhaps even across kingdoms if not across all matter, existent and not, virtual and actual). And yet, as white humans deny this shared humanity and seek greedily and uncontrollably, coyote-like, to keep it all for themselves, so does non-whiteness become, in the mind of the white human, the virus/the disease that they are fleeing. That is, COVID-19 may be a logical consequence of a white patriarchal world system that is out of control, but rather than heed the lesson that white humans should perhaps not seek to control/to be in charge, instead they double down and attribute the disease to the other in a bid to deny their responsibility and preserve their greedy, coyote ways.

Dancing Jes Grew

Ishmael Reed has famously written about how Blackness is a contagious disease in his masterpiece, Mumbo Jumbo (Reed 1972). Faced with the spread of what in the novel is referred to as Jes Grew, various white (supremacist) groups act to prevent the epidemic from reaching New York. Taking its name from James Weldon Johnson’s description of Rag Time, which “jes grew” like the character Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852; Johnson 1995, 283), Jes Grew manifests in its most basic form as uncontrollable dancing. While various (white) characters seek to eradicate its spread, some actively seek to catch it, including a fictionalized version of real-life abolitionist Nathan Brown—“it may be a malady to you but many of us are attempting to catch it” (Reed 1972, 117). Towards the end of the novel, Harlem-based houngan Papa LaBas discusses Jes Grew with his daughter, Earline, saying that “life will never end; there is really no end to life, if anything goes it will be death. Jes Grew is life” (Reed 1972, 204).

Our claim here is neither that COVID-19 is “life,” nor that COVID-19 is synonymous with Blackness. However, if, as we have suggested, COVID-19 becomes conflated in the white imagination with non-whiteness, then in some sense Reed’s novel does tell a tale—the white treatment of Blackness as if it were a disease, even though the white world is built upon Blackness—that is as relevant now as it was when originally written. Notably, Reed has been described by scholars like Babacar M’Baye as a trickster who “resist[s] oppression” (M’Baye 2016, 113), while L.H. Stallings, herself drawing on the work of Erik Davis, links the trickster of the Black radical tradition to none other than the coyote (quoted in M’Baye 2016, 114; Stallings 2007, 9; Davis 1991, 37). In other words, we now have two coyotes separated along racial lines: the greedy coyote that always consumes and which is white (per King), and the trickster coyote that allows us (whiteness?) to realise both that it is not in charge, and, in the spirit of Jes Grew, that the body does things that the mind cannot necessarily control (akin to Haraway).

With Jes Grew emerging as a kind of contagious dance, the story of Mumbo Jumbo continues in some sense to be told in films like Anna Rose Helmer’s The Fits (2015), which tells the story of Black girls in a dance troupe beginning to get the titular contagious seizures. As Rizvana Bradley says of the film, “Black movement, insofar as it is understood to be embedded in a mode of sociality concerned with the irreducible and eruptive potential of black life and labor, is contagious” (Bradley 2018, 24), before suggesting that “The Fits draws our attention specifically to black dancing bodies whose physicality has historically suffered the violent interdiction from the general sphere of human movement” (Bradley 2018, 26). That is, the Black body, perhaps especially the Black female body, has historically been excluded, per Wynter’s argument, from the realm of the human; and yet, Black movements are contagious—and, we might add, regularly repackaged and commodified for white consumer culture, which continues to consume Blackness as voraciously as an unthinking coyote. Indeed, in his consideration of Rag Time songs, Johnson also acknowledges that several of them were appropriated by “white men” (Johnson 1995, 283).

Bradley concludes her essay on The Fits by suggesting that Blackness must “infiltrate, corrupt, and depurify cinema as the technological apparatus that would disqualify blackness and its sentient capacities” (Bradley 2018, 28). That is, if Blackness belongs on the outside of cinema (in the realm of non-cinema), Blackness is in some sense an “imperfection” in a cinema whose logic is otherwise white in its aspiration towards purity. Not only does Coyote try to negate this “pure” cinema by using an obsolete recording technology, even as its central protagonist (my character) is a white male, but Coyote also suggests how Blackness infiltrates, and yet is typically excluded from, cinema by having George Floyd appear not just on a television screen, but also in a mirror—doubly mediated. Lest we be tempted, however, to suggest that Floyd’s appearance is somehow “ghostly,” we can return to Haraway, who suggests that “our hopes for accountability in the techno-biopolitics in postmodern frames turn on revisioning the world as coding trickster with whom we must learn to converse”—an idea that echoes her call earlier for us to learn from the coyote. She continues:

Like a protein subjected to stress, the world for us may be thoroughly denatured, but it is not any less consequential. So
while the late twentieth-century immune system is a construct of an elaborate apparatus of bodily production, neither the
immune system nor any other of bio-medicine’s world-changing bodies—like a virus—is a ghostly fantasy. Coyote is not a
ghost, merely a protean trickster. (Haraway 1991, 209)

In other words, while the coyote might be a trickster, the coyote is nonetheless real, just as a virus like COVID-19 is real, and just as the world itself is real, even if denatured by white humanity. By this token, George Floyd’s presence in Coyote is not simply ghostly or fantastical, but is, in fact, real, or in Haraway’s terms, “consequential.” That is, George Floyd is not separate from but utterly entangled with COVID-19, as well as with the lives of an interracial couple about to have their first child in Vancouver, where they live with their dog. As we shall see, the entanglement of Floyd and COVID-19 is made particularly clear by the shared emphasis that the two have in relation to breathing.[5]

Breathing and Birthing

As has been widely noted, George Floyd protested for as long as he could that he could not breathe, an appeal that eerily echoes the same plea made by Eric Garner nearly six years earlier on Staten Island. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is a disease that attacks the respiratory system, while many who protest against the wearing of protective masks claim that it equally impedes them from breathing. Furthermore, when we consider the increasing amounts of air pollution (as well as the rising oceans) that human-induced (and uncontrolled) climate change brings to our planet, then not only is breathing of key importance at the present moment, but it is also of crucial importance when we consider the continuation of life on earth. Franco “Bifo” Berardi says that Garner’s last words “express the general sentiment of our times: physical and psychological breathlessness everywhere” (Berardi 2018, 15).

Notably, Bradley explains in her essay on The Fits how “breathing, as the condition for the dancing body’s giving and withholding, becomes the basis for a different kind of cinematic knowledge that has to do with the ontology of gesture in relation to black movement” (Bradley 2018, 15). While there is much to pick apart in this quotation (and in Bradley’s rich essay more generally), the key idea that I wish to highlight here is that if Black movement is contagious, as discussed above, then that contagion relates very much to breath and breathing. Dancing is, if you will, a matter of spirit, and the construction of the white world upon the labor and other gestures of Black bodies is a question of taking the breath away from Black bodies, which thus function as the air supply for white bodies.

Meanwhile, in his consideration of Black Pentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, Ashon T. Crawley links breath to spirit and, by extension, to belief (2017). Writing of Black Pentecostal worship, Crawley suggests that belief is expressed through “certain aesthetic behaviors,” such as shouting and speaking in tongues, central to which is breathing, and which are considered to be “blackness itself.” Whiteness, conversely, “is considered the absence of such purportedly primitivist behaviors, and thus, a lack of belief that moves the flesh” (Crawley 2017, 25). As a result, we might say that whiteness has no spirit and that it does not believe in others or in the world—hence the ability for whiteness to treat non-white others and the world alike as mere objects to be exploited. No wonder primarily white protestors have claimed during the COVID-19 pandemic that masks impede their breathing, since their breath, spirit, and levels of belief are poor, especially their ability to believe that the virus is, like George Floyd, real. Meanwhile, those with spirit, belief, and breath are, of course, those from whom those qualities and/or properties are stolen, both in terms of the increased susceptibility to COVID-19 among Black communities and in terms of the breath stolen from Floyd and from Garner before him, among many others.[6]

Berardi suggests that the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and onwards was simultaneous with “the transition from conjunctive forms of communication to the digital purity of connectivity,” and that “as the epidemic engendered fear of physical contact and dissolved the very possibility of imagining happiness, social energies migrated from the space of bodily conspiration (breathing together) to the space of disembodied communication” (Berardi 2018, 70-71). Coronavirus might well have similar effects, meaning that the virus functions in some ways as a tool for the increased atomization of the contemporary world. While conspiracies abound during the current COVID-19 moment, the possibilities for breathing together become replaced by an intensified desire to steal and/or to hoard air/breath, rather than to share it. Breath, therefore, comes to be in short supply in face of the virus, meaning that we collectively have to find new ways to breathe.

In her analysis of Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017), Rizvana Bradley reads the infamous moment when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) falls into the “sunken place” while under hypnosis by Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) as redolent of the sinking of innumerable enslaved people in the Atlantic during the Middle Passage. What is more, since Chris is remembering his indifference towards his own mother’s death at the moment that the sinking takes place, Bradley sees the moment as engaging also with “an irretrievable grammar of black maternity  . . .  the black maternal prefigures a return to the sea in the extended imagination of the womb” (Bradley 2017, 46). What I wish in particular to draw from this, then, are the connections between Black maternity and the sea: as air becomes unbreathable and a commodity over which people begin to fight, and as the oceans rise, so do we all collectively begin to return to the sea/womb, and so do we all need to learn, in effect, to breathe under water.

Except, of course, the human can already breathe when in a liquid environment—namely, when the infant is still in the womb.

The point that I wish to make by way of conclusion is not that we simply retreat into the womb like fearful viewers retreating into Plato’s cave. Nor is it that the white world appropriates the Black capacity to “breathe underwater” for its own purposes. Rather, I wish to suggest that the pregnancy that Vivi is experiencing in Coyote demonstrates the way these moments in which air seems in short supply, and in which it is difficult to breathe, do not just signal the impending death of the human, but also the imminent birth of new life—and that this new life is signally not white, and perhaps not even human, if humanity is coterminous with whiteness.

Haraway writes that “perhaps the world resists being reduced to mere resource because it is—not mother/matter/mutter—but coyote, a figure for the always problematic, always potent tie of meaning and bodies” (Haraway 1991, 201). That is, the world is not just an object to be controlled/dominated, but it can, as discussed, reveal itself as coyote, showing that the human is not in charge. Significantly, Haraway seems to posit here that motherhood involves being dominated, a conception of motherhood that we might suggest reveals the whiteness of Haraway’s own thinking. While motherhood might, for Haraway, reduce woman to a “mere resource,” mothering in the non-white world is what Cynthia Dewi Oka calls a “revolutionary praxis” (Dewi Oka 2016, 51-57). Or, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs states, “mothering, especially the mothering of children in oppressed groups, and especially mothering to end war, to end capitalism, to end homophobia and to end patriarchy is a queer thing” (Gumbs 2016, 20).

Coyote revolves around the impending motherhood of Vivi. Within her womb lies a life that can breathe underwater, and from which we can therefore learn. This ability to breathe underwater is, in effect, already widespread in the non-white, and perhaps most specifically in the Black, world. For mothering to be a revolutionary praxis rather than a mere resource, we can and perhaps should, therefore, all learn the lessons of (rather than simply appropriate) Blackness. In mothering to end patriarchy, perhaps we can all be or become queer mothers. Vivi will be a queer mother, as my partner will be a queer mother. More outrageously, while my character in Coyote is perhaps suggested as a white coyote, insatiable in its lust for consumption, I hope in my real life to be less of a father to my forthcoming child than a queer mother, perhaps an especially queer mother as a result of my appearance as an otherwise cisgender white male.

One of the growing number of feature films to have been made under COVID-19 is The End of Us (Henry Loevner and Steven Kanter, 2020). As the title indicates, it tells the story of the end of a relationship between a white Los Angeles couple (played by Ben Coleman and Ali Vingiano) during the COVID-19 pandemic. While charming and low-budget (as well as charming because it is low-budget), the film nonetheless aspires to a big-budget look and feel, with short, vignette-style scenes that move along at a rapid clip. While Coronavirus is clearly acknowledged in the film, there is no reference to any other current affairs, including BLM. In its whiteness, then, The End of Us perhaps cannot consider COVID-19 to be anything other than an ending. In its interracial story, told slowly and with imperfect means, as well in its engagement with the death of George Floyd and anti-Asian violence, Coyote hopefully conveys something different: an entanglement with the world, and the potential for new life to doggedly emerge. As I aspire, and as I with my partner conspire, towards queer motherhood, I wish to stand in solidarity with Blackness, and to listen to and to learn from the radical potential for Blackness to survive, hopefully not by appropriating that potential, but by taking inspiration from it. Finding breath means finding spirit, which also means finding belief. In this way, we can perhaps cease to be greedy coyotes and instead believe both in each other and in this world. We can hopefully become otherwise and, finally, sapiens.[7]

Notes

[1] The full list of participating filmmakers includes (in order of appearance in the final Cinema-19 film): Courtney Stephens, Kalpana Subramanian, Usama Alshaibi, Scott Cummings, Lori Felker, Matt McCormick, Eman Akram Nader and Alex Megaro, Christin Turner, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Kelly Gallagher, Sarah Ema Friedland, William Brown and Mila Zuo, Amir George, and Adam Sekuler.

[2] With this in mind, my example of Some Good News is to a certain degree an unhelpful example. In being hosted by a star, featuring star cameos, and having a huge pull on social media, the show absolutely benefits from techniques and traits that connote great wealth. Furthermore, as is implied in the Netflix special, Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine (Natasha Lyonne, 2020), Some Good News is also predominantly white. However, since Krasinski’s show is widely seen, and since it does involve a relatively home-made aesthetic (and without distribution from Netflix), it nonetheless functions as a good example.

On a related note, however, I might suggest that as cinemas closed, as studios pulled their big screen releases, and as audience members dwindled, there was (and potentially remains) an opportunity for our screen culture to diversify. With Netflix and other content providers suddenly not providing enough content/supply to match the demand of those viewers now looking for material to replace what they would have seen in theaters, it quickly became apparent (at least going by my own viewing experiences) that my film viewing has become more pronouncedly non-linear. That is, rather than chasing the latest releases, I suddenly found/find myself more regularly watching older films. Furthermore, I started watching films from a much wider range of sources. In other words, with theatrical releases no longer dominating the collective consciousness of what to watch (including what to watch at home once it has been released on a non-theatrical platform), an opportunity emerges for viewers to no longer all watch the same films, but for viewers to watch many different films—and in a fashion far more pronounced than previously (which is to acknowledge that there are, of course, micro-cinemas and micro-audiences even without a global pandemic). By this token, having mega-shows that huge swathes of people have seen, per Some Good News and Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine, is almost antithetical to the idea that under COVID-19, many films and filmmakers can (or could) find decent audiences. If you will, COVID-19 causes the long tail, whereby 80 per cent of productions battle it out for 20 per cent of the viewers (while 20 per cent of the productions enjoy 80 per cent of the viewers), to swell; now each production can have a greater audience size, rather than small movies fighting it out with each other for small audiences. At least, that’s what exists/existed in potential during COVID-19, whether or not it quite worked out like that.

[3] Cinema-19 notably features at least two films, those by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Sarah Ema Friedland, that consist of window shots. With 9 Days—From my Window in Aleppo in mind, and with increasing amounts of civil unrest taking place at the time of writing in the USA, where those two contributions to Cinema-19 were made, one wonders that films shot from windows lend themselves to and/or become a “civil war” aesthetic. Of course, films shot from windows perhaps inevitably recall Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), in which looking out from a domestic window for long enough also becomes a mechanism for revealing (here, gendered) violence and murder. Playfully, we might say that the aesthetic of fenestration (the window aesthetic) demonstrates the dark, murky, and muddy being (the Fenn-être) that lies never far from the surface of human existence.

[4] King also features prominently in a film that takes its name from his text, Inconvenient Indian (Michelle Latimer, 2020). The title is clearly reminiscent of An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006) and An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, 2017). As such, the book/film would follow the “Indian” perspective as a true one, but one that is antithetical to the functioning of capital. That said, since director Michelle Latimer has subsequently been revealed to be white, rather than belonging to the indigenous Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg community as she previously had claimed, we can see that while the “Indian” perspective might nonetheless be “true,” it is always at risk from unacknowledged appropriation. For a consideration of the matter, see Tailfeathers 2020.

[5] Amir George’s film for Cinema-19 is directly about BLM and its relationship with the pandemic, while various others, of course, also make reference to George Floyd’s murder and related events in at least an indirect fashion.

[6] For a visible, recent, and real-world example of whiteness’ refusal to breathe and to believe, one need look no further than the television coverage of the wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. During the sermon delivered by Michael Curry, one can see various white members of the congregation, including Prince William, suppressing smirks at the “Pentecostal” (Black) stylings that Curry brings to his worship. While the smirk is a demonstration in some sense of how the future King of England refuses Blackness, the smirk is in other ways also an admission in and of itself of the Royal’s desire to be Black. That is, William is not blank or indifferent to Curry; the smirk suggests that he really wants to breathe and to believe, but his whiteness, together with Curry’s Blackness, means that he cannot. Small wonder, then, that Harry and Meghan soon parted company (be that permanently or not) from the British Royal family amid a flurry of rumours concerning its white supremacist beliefs.

[7]  I would like to thank Adam Sekuler and Usama Alshaibi for commissioning Coyote, and Jamie Rogers for encouraging me to write this essay. Most of all, though, I would like to thank Mila Zuo, without whom any queer motherhood would be impossible, but with whom we can hopefully form a weird, 8-limbed queer caregiver that radically raises our beautiful daughter, Radian.

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