Orlando von Einseidel and Hassan Akkad on Rising to the Global Challenge of “Convergence”

If I needed to know even the smallest of challenges that Orlando von Einseidel and the team making “Convergence: Courage in a Crisis” was up against, I experienced it firsthand when a Zoom call for our interview kept freezing up, cutting off the director and co-director Hassan Akkad time and again and creating a conversation of half-thoughts as the two spoke about the perils of making a film about a pandemic during the pandemic in virtual isolation.

“The collaboration on the film for me was very impressive, the fact that during lockdown when there are no international flights and you can’t fly crews around, to be able to pull this together…,” Akkad said before trailing off into a flurry of digital dust.

Von Einseidel added, “It was only possible by this incredible collaboration. On top of all the creativity that was shared by our co-directors and our producing teams, there was also this enormous amount of support. Everyone was living this pandemic in their normal life and despite the material at times being very difficult, I think all of us were inspired and given enormous amounts of rejuventive energy by witnessing everyday people stepping up to the plate…”

Unfazed by the vagaries of technology that could get in the way of a connection — surely there had been a hundred other annoying calls like this for the duo over the past year, it spoke volumes about the two in looking towards their better angels in the midst of COVID-19 and found them on earth as well for their moving documentary. If anyone could be expected to rise to the occasion of properly putting the pandemic in context, it would have to be von Einseidel, the Oscar-winning director of “The White Helmets” who dodged bullets evading poachers attempting to strip elephants of their tusks in “Virunga” and dug deep inside the pain of his own family had experienced in the wake of his brother’s premature death in “Evelyn.” But naturally travel restrictions and the threat of the virus spreading made it impossible to film in a way he had been accustomed to, leaving him to draw on a global community of filmmakers for whom he’s become a leading light and organizing a production that could glimpses of what lockdown was like around the globe.

While emptied out streets and the fear that followed make their way into the frame, von Einsedel and his collaborators turn their cameras towards more unexpected stories of compassion as filming in Brazil sees Renata Alves, an events organizer tending to the logistics of coordinating ambulances in the country’s largest favela, and Akkad, in England after migrating from Syria, volunteer his help to the National Health Service and finds fellow workers sacrificing so much of themselves for the greater good. However, for as many heartwarming stories as the film uncovers, “Convergence” doesn’t shy away from considering the societal failings that have made their extraordinary efforts necessary as essential workers are appreciated by those immediately in their care, but often emerging from generally marginalized communities and not compensated anywhere near commensurate to their labor. Although you come to believe the human spirit can conquer just about anything as people around the world are shown putting their best foot forward as a vaccine is developed, “Convergence” may celebrate what can be achieved together yet leaves the room to think about how much work there is left to do, even after COVID finally passes.

With the film naturally connecting with audiences across the globe as it streams on Netflix, von Einseidel and Akkad graciously put up with some tech issues and a few questions about pulling off this improbable project, the themes that emerged while looking at all the footage collected from abroad and noting the commonalities that cut across borders.

How did this come about?

Orlando von Einseidel: It began in April 2020, and it definitely didn’t begin fully-formed. This was a really difficult time for all of us with a lot of uncertainty as the virus was spreading around the world at the same time there were difficult politics. There were crackdowns on freedom, government failures and ineptitudes, there was greed, all sorts of really difficult stuff. I’m a Londoner, and in London, people don’t always know all of their neighbors. It’s just part of living in a big city, and on my own street, people were helping each other. There were people cooking each other food and shopping for more vulnerable people, like old, elderly people on my street, all these incredible examples of altruism, and sacrifice for purposes that were bigger than the individual doing it, so the film really began from that — an ambition to document ordinary people around the world and what they were doing to help their communities, as sort of a love letter to humans, especially against all of the really difficult stuff that was happening. At the same time, there were commentators talking about that this moment could be an opportunity for change and we had no idea what that change could look like at this point, but we wanted to be open to see what might happen. It obviously became something quite different in the end, but those were the two principles that we started with.

Hassan, what’s it like when Orlando comes to you and says, “Would you start filming?”

Hassan Akkad: On this one, I actually came to him [because] I took that job to work in the hospital, and I started documenting in that COVID ward what I was seeing, and filming with my colleagues — the porters and the cleaners and the ward hosts. Essentially I wanted to clean, but after I took the job, I tweeted something about working in the hospital and it went absolutely viral, and I just wanted to put a positive message out because everyone was depressed. It was a really tough time on everyone, so I wanted to put a message of unity, of support, having come from Syria to Britain, to say we’re fighting the same fight. Then when I shared my story and it gave me a bigger platform, I started sharing stories of my colleagues, but it was not in my intention, I didn’t take that job to be an activist, I wasn’t there to campaign. What happened basically is that it was the government’s decision to exclude these foreign workers from the bereavement scheme, which I found to be very unfair — and quite absurd — to be honest. So, in the spirit of basically lending my platform to my colleagues, or platforming their stories so they can get some protection during that tough time, I put that video out on Twitter, which pushed the government to U-turn on their policy. And it’s amazing that it worked, but it tells you a lot about the power of social media because it’s got this positive element of driving change, basically.

A few weeks down the line, I felt I have a film here, there’s a story that needs to be told, so I reached out to Orlando and I wasn’t aware that he was making this film. But we had a chat and he told me he’s making “Convergence.” I really liked his angle in the film, so I said, “Let’s collaborate, let’s do this together. And we started working on it from that time. It was great.

Orlando, did you know fairly early that how this pandemic would expose inequities was going to be a theme of the film or did it come to the fore?

Orlando von Einseidel: We had absolutely no idea. I think that’s going to be one of the legacies of this whole situation is the fact that COVID has basically exposed the flaws which have always been there in our societies. Everyone was effectively fighting COVID in some form, and as all of the stories and all the co-directors work continued, really everyone wasn’t fighting COVID after a while, they were fighting social flaws, inequities, injustice, so we didn’t know. That’s just a natural journey that it took.

And to take one step back, right from the very beginning, it felt like the only way to tell this global story was this incredible collaboration between filmmakers across the world, documenting their own stories or the stories of communities they were from. That felt like it was a key principle that we started with. There was about 500 hours in total for this film, so it was the most enormous amount of material, and our edit team, led by Karen Sim in New York and Raphael Pereira in London, did an extraordinary job of working through that material, so the themes didn’t emerge immediately. It was as we were ongoing, we just started to see the same thing happening in different stories and that just shows what a pattern this was across the entire world. It wasn’t just unique to America. It wasn’t just unique to the UK. This was happening in Brazil, this was happening in Peru. We were seeing that this pattern of the social flaws being exposed and magnified by COVID, to the point where people across the world ended up on the streets. Now, obviously a large part of that was on the back of George Floyd’s murder, but people were taking to the streets for lots of different reasons, but all tied to the fact that everyone had had enough. This got to a point where people felt they had to go on the streets, and say something, and show this displeasure to the governments that were failing them.

Hassan Akkad: Orlando was sharing cuts of the film with me, and from watching that, I was genuinely amazed, because I was like, “Wow, so it wasn’t just me then.” I saw my story echoing through the other contributors and the co-directors in the film. And I really liked that. Most of the co-directors and the contributors in the film, it starts with fighting the pandemic, but then it’s like this twist that happens in the narrative, where we realize that actually we’re fighting a much bigger problem here, which the pandemic has exposed and magnified, so I was very, very pleased with the result of the film.

“Convergence” is now streaming on Netflix.