Convergence: Courage in a crisis

“When I was a boy and I could see scary things in the news, my mother said to me, ‘Look for helpers. You will always find people helping.”- Fred Rogers

The British documentary Orlando von Einsiedel has a deep understanding of the helpers Rogers talked about so indelibly. His 2016 Oscar-winning short film, “The White Helmets,” was a completely galvanizing account of the first responders to save the lives of Syrian civilians buried in the remnants left from airstrikes. A sequence in which a baby is safely drawn from what appears to be a concrete birth canal until its cries evoke cheers is as deeply moving as any single image, non-fiction, or otherwise captured on film.

There are many moments in von Einsiedel’s new COVID-19 documentary on Netflix, “Convergence: Courage in a Crisis,” which achieves a similar power, especially those involving migrant workers who have risked catching the virus to heal others whole time is treated as second-class citizens. The interesting thing is how the film’s main strength at the same time turns out to be its occasional stumbling block. Ten co-directors from around the world were brought together by von Einsiedel to give their own perspectives on those who have kept society afloat during the pandemic. No matter what language is spoken in a given case – from Arabic and Farsi to Mandarin and Portuguese – the prevailing message conveyed is one of unity.

After creating the various story threads during its first half hour, the film continues to jump seamlessly between them as a way to highlight their universality. This compilation is most influential as editors Karen Sim and Raphael Pereira illustrate how the assassination of George Floyd resonated around the world, highlighting how the struggle for equality transcends the boundaries of nations and how COVID-19 confirmed this truth in the strongest terms with its disproportionate impact on disadvantaged communities. Everything about this recording is of enormous value, yet I was occasionally frustrated at times when the film would disrupt a particular storyline that I would continue to follow.

At worst, the film threatens to evolve into a long-running PSA for front-line workers made up of familiar soundbites and fragmenting vital material that deserves to be expanded into a miniseries. That said, there are enough individual vignettes here that allow for breathing and therefore resonate on a deeper level, allowing “convergence” to overcome even its hokey virtual sing-alongs. As the number of American lives claimed by viruses rises above 700,000 while about half of the population is still stubbornly unvaccinated, von Einsiedel and his team have created a touching tribute to the erratic nature of the victim from countless caregivers.

“There is no vaccine against deceptive nationalism,” declares World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedro’s Adhanom Ghebreyesus, which we see in Geneva, Switzerland, as a railing against the caustic divisions exacerbated by world leaders like Donald Trump, on which the virus directly feeds. Professor Sarah Gilbert, the vaccinologist at the University of Oxford, also briefly featured in the film, was a co-developer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, which was approved for use in the UK last December. I was reminded of Nanfu Wang’s great HBO documentary, “In the Breath,” and its footage of Chen Qiushi – the Chinese activist who disappeared last February after reporting on Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak – while watching the videos recorded by vlogger Wenhau Lin, who talks about his efforts to run doctors and transport medicine. He speaks ingeniously and compassionately with his passengers before diligently disinfecting the car seats as they walk.

The Iranian couple Sara Khaki and Mohammad Reza Eyni’s portrait of their everyday life together in quarantine is undeniably skewed at times, yet it does not add much to the picture in general, except for a brutal and overly relatable moment when Sara cries on the phone while he mourns the loss of a loved one. The most potent montage of all in the film, set for “Only You,” examines the kind of crucial municipal events that have long been taken for granted, namely weddings and funerals that families have been forced to experience only through their computer screens.

Perhaps it is fitting that many of the best scenes in von Einsiedel’s picture were shot off and centered around a Syrian refugee in Britain, Hassan Akkad, who is eagerly seeking work to clean the COVID-19 ward at a local hospital, despite the trauma he has previously been subjected to at such institutions. Akkad masterfully uses the Internet to create real change, celebrate his colleagues from other countries in Twitter posts that go viral, and when the National Health Service does not involve migrants in its mourning scheme, he films a passionate statement to the Prime Minister that results in politics, revised to protect everyone. Some of the thrilling parts of the film were filmed by Mauricio Monteiro Filho at the Paraisópolis favela in São Paulo, Brazil, where we follow event organizer Renata Alves as she supplies her neighborhood with its first ever reliable ambulance service.

The eradication of the stigma that was etched by her during her time in prison makes Alve’s rebellion against a fascist government that she believes wants them in poverty, branded as “cheap labor”, to die. Her observation that the pandemic has only added to what people living on the margin are already dealing with is repeated by Dr. Arm Henderson at the University of Miami Health System, which aims to help the city’s largely black homeless population live in camps that the government repeatedly destroys. Henderson’s scenery, which is stunning optics by Amber Fares, also depicts frighteningly how he was racially profiled by a white, maskless officer outside his own house.

What “convergence” amplified for me, more than anything else, is simply the overwhelming gratitude I have for every significant worker who took my temperature, baked my groceries, and drove me to my desired destination over the past twenty months. I will never forget the benevolent nurse in Cook County who administered both doses of my Pfizer vaccine, or the sister of a colleague who died after caring for the pet of a client infected with COVID-19 at his veterinary clinic. The client refused to wear a mask and eventually forced the cancer-stricken veterinarian to quarantine for 25 days without chemo. No monument, no matter how towering it may be, could possibly encapsulate heroism among helpers like her.

The same can be said about the doctors who ensure that the birth of an Indian couple is not threatened by the pandemic (these scenes, directed by Juhi Sharma, give a tangible glimmer of hope). But the film’s most moving moment of all takes place in Lima, Peru, where Dr. Rosa Luz López cares for a young patient, Aldair, with a refreshing dose of good humor (she refers to her hazmat suit as a “Tellatubby costume”). After Aldair recovers well enough to have a crying reunion with her father, co-directors Lali Houghton and Guillermo Galdos López return to her office, where she finally lets go of her tears of gratitude. “I do not want praise,” she insists, “I want a better health care system.” The principle of treating others as you wish to be treated is expressed with such a radiance of López that it stands as a guiding light for all of us.

Now playing on Netflix.

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