Filmmaker Hannah Olson is perhaps the only person to ever have two world premieres in South by Southwest, while she never gets her work shown on a single screen in the city. Back in 2020, Olson was ready to bring Baby God, her HBO documentary on the fallout from revelations about disgraced fertility doctor Quincy Fortier. But then it happened on March 6, 2020 ̵
“The pandemic became very real to me very quickly because my premiere was canceled on March 6, 2020,” Olson told Ars. “So at that point, I felt very strongly that I wanted to swing … and I started looking more closely at these people who are stuck on a cruise ship out in Japan.”
This is exactly how Olson had unexpectedly started with her second documentary before her first had debuted.
Two months earlier, in January 2020, Olson had traveled to India on vacation. As she moved across Asia, she quickly became aware of the turbulent spread of a new coronavirus across China long before the situation landed on the radar of many Americans. But it was the news reports in February 2020 that this virus was discovered on a cruise ship docked in Japan that really caught her attention.
“I’m a drug addict. So when I read a news story, I’m looking for people’s Facebook profile or social media profiles,” Olson recalls. “OK, who are these people? ‘ I started looking at social media and thought, ‘Maybe if they were on the ship, they would still post on Facebook.’ Through social media, I began to find this huge amount of footage – people on every deck recorded their lives around the clock: the crew, the passengers. I just started collecting, and eventually I reached out to people to hear their stories. “
The result, Olson’s new documentary The last cruise, which debuted sans Texas screens as part of SXSW Online 2021 (the film hits HBO Max on Tuesday, March 30). Built largely on an impressive cache of spooky home video, it’s a gripping, frenetic, first-person show of a very trying month aboard Diamond Princess cruise ship when it docked in Yokohama, Japan. This real exercise in horror with found footage may very well be the most disturbing, anxious ~ 40 minutes you see all year long.
Dry land, please
The last cruise takes viewers back to January 20, 2020, when only four confirmed cases of COVID-19 existed outside China. For anyone who has ever dared to go on a cruise ship, the opening scenes will look familiar: older travelers living out their global dreams on small daily excursions, packed halls watching stage performances, all taking selfies as they look out to sea at night .
Olson uses these “before the times” to introduce a wider range of experiences than that. She makes contact not only with American tourists, but with Indonesian workers in the ship’s crew or kitchen staff, the Italian doctor who oversees the ship’s medical resources, a ship’s operator and a pastry chef. Everyone of these people apparently have their cell phones continuously filmed, even if it is only to say that they will wish good health to family and friends in this new year.
“As much as this film is about the first days of the COVID crisis, it’s also about the way we tell about our lives – people filming and taking pictures all the time, guests and crew. So what happens when your holiday photos become plot points? real movie from reality? “says Olson. “What happens when your holiday photos become part of something bigger, become part of an international news story? [During production] I felt that I was looking at evidence – evidence that the government seemed to know more than they let go. I saw US government officials get into the boat in the colors of suits – well, OK, this does not match what I see here [back in the US]. “
Without ruining any of the amazing moments captured from multiple vantage points, suffice it to say that viewers are just joining the tour in The last cruise. While it would be easy to take in a lot of perspective after cruises or the wider world, Olson avoids sit-down interviews with U.S. and Japanese government officials or health experts. Or, more precisely, she did, but eventually decided to leave such details on the mantle floor: “I wanted the film to mimic the feeling of being on the ship, and no one on the ship spoke to experts. No one on the ship had information , she says. “Other movies are going to do that. We will not lack expert comments on COVID. I wanted this movie to be an experience. “
Because of this, The last cruise maintains an almost claustrophobic narrow view focused solely on this ship at this point. Passengers, crew members, local health authorities and many spectators agree with the horrors of COVID-19 in real time, some information and some information. Watching the film more than a year after the events, of course, gives viewers more perspective, but it only makes watching the total lack of information and urgency unfold even more anxious. The last cruise reminds us that concepts such as asymptomatic spread or maximum hospital capacity were not always universal knowledge.
“I wonder how interested people will be in watching a COVID documentary, as we are still living in it,” says Olson. “I started making this in February and March last year and thought, ‘Is it too early to make a movie about COVID?’ We do not know the end result. “But I knew I would be interested in the origin story and that the first outbreak outside China would remain relevant and have lessons to teach us.”
“It makes no sense”
Beyond being a captivating chronology, The last cruise also shows that many of the major societal challenges COVID-19 has emerged in the last 13 months existed long in advance. The unequal charge of this health crisis along class and race or ethnic lines is fast becoming literally on Diamond Princess as being “in quarantine” really only applied to guests. Crew members share footage and remind that they still live in close (unmasked) quarters and are required to perform many (and unmasked) tasks to keep the ship in operation while at berth. The hokey, HR-speaking ship motto – “One Team, One Dream” – becomes a driving force for many crew members.
“We could not just stay in our rooms; the crew had to keep the ship going,” says an American athlete named Luke in the film. “Answering phones, delivering medicine, cleaning for 12 hours a day … We delivered 3,000 meals, three times a day, to all the guests. We were injured, but at the moment that’s all we knew how to do.”
The lack of transparency regarding the handling of the virus on the ship The last cruise also mimics similar problems that will manifest themselves in organizations everywhere, from employers to governments to schools. It was not until day 23 on board that a crew member violated the ship’s policy that forbade talking publicly about work in order to bring out the precarious conditions that were imposed on the staff. Medical officials who appear in documentary material seem to convey almost no connection to the people they approach, whether these people show COVID-19 symptoms or whether they are spectators wondering about others or when they may return home.
“It’s the whole experience, but small,” Olson says. “You have the rich people living in their room and the crew become important workers, and no one has any information. All the news outlets reported early that the ship was in quarantine, but all the footage I saw on Facebook from the crew members showed them to continue living and working. in common quarters, not in quarantine. How can we talk about it as quarantine? It makes no sense. “
The last cruise will simply terrify the viewers with what is unfolding before their eyes, while at the same time making everyone think of the bigger problems this ongoing pandemic regularly forces society to contend with. It may be less gloomy than many of the other COVID-19 documentaries that take audiences into hospitals or keep the total number of deaths in front and in the center, but it’s no less a shake-to-the-core, sober view.
The last cruise will be available on HBO Max on Tuesday, March 30th.
Listing image of DAXA / HBO