Stories from the frontline: Mexican healthcare workers and families inspire Juan Carlos Rulfo’s latest documentary on COVID-19

Rulfo aims to portray the different stories experienced by healthcare workers and families of patients with COVID-19

Stories from the frontline: Mexican healthcare workers and families inspire Juan Carlos Rulfo’s latest documentary on COVID-19
Mexican filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo has directed nine films - Photo: Israel Fuguemann/EL UNIVERSAL
English 02/09/2020 13:41 César Huerta Ortiz Mexico City Actualizada 13:50
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The day Juan Carlos Rulfo visited Hospital 27 in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, he was drawn to the letters dictated by patients with COVID-19 and that were put on a window so that their relatives could read them.

It was April and social media was becoming a channel for people to show their grief because they were not allowed to see their patients and some places even registered violent attacks against healthcare workers out of fear of them infecting others.

The director of In the Pit and Those Who Remain had detected communication, something basic for human beings, as the main issue.

“We’re going to do something,” said Rulfo to Jorge, the nurse who put the texts in the window, “send video letters,” he said.

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“A message by the patient was recorded, it was sent to the family, and it began being a bridge, a kind of communication hinge, something that had not been taken care of and that is a basic human element,” said the filmmaker.

Thus he began constructing Cartas a la distancia a documentary which is currently in postproduction and that, far from statistics and officials or catastrophic versión, aims to explore humans in and out of the four hospital walls.

There is, for example, the couple who is at different hospital rooms and whose communication is through videos they share thanks to nurses; the man who is waiting for his partner to whom he has been married for 47 years, and the parents who ask their son to “keep up his spirits” through the video.

From the material included in the film, 80% was done by healthcare workers and families themselves.

“It’s recorded by heads of service, nurses, somehow recorded at a distance; I asked them to record amid the anguish and the sense of loneliness of the patients who we (as a society) do not listen; they are my filmmakers, they were made with cellphones.”

The Tlatelolco hospital became a hotbed of stories.

For a month, Rulfo stood in front of the hospital. There, he met a dozen of relatives of a patient and who waited for news day after day. Or the man that answered his wife’s video as though he was with her.

Jorge, the first nurse he met, is the main character of Cartas a la distancia. He tells his days amid the pandemic.

“Good morning: I’m already at the Covid area and I came to deliver a video for the patient at (bed) 160; they have just told me he passed away; the patient from the 174 who was also sent a video, also died, and the patient at the 110 too; we are losing them and this is exhausting,” he says in one of the videos.

In another one, a female nurse says that those soldiers in the frontlines against COVID-19 are fewer, alluding to his co-workers contracting the disease.

“I think it’s unfair that healthcare workers suffer the consequences of a population that thinks we are selling ourselves; I bet they could not even stand being at the emergency area.”

Rulfo knows that there will surely be several documentaries about the pandemic. And perhaps one showing how patients are intubated will gain popularity, but he has another idea in mind.

Recommended: A voice full of hope: Mexican nurse sings to patients infected with COVID-19

“This comes with an accumulation of all the films that have been done regarding the tremendismo that exists in Mexico in general, of sensationalism, but I think there must be another kind of cinematography which is reconsidering the emotion without refraining from saying hard things.”

The team
The film is currently in postproduction.

The documentary, which is now looking for resources for its conclusion, is produced by Península Films.

Martín Hernández, who was nominated twice for the Academy Awards for his work in Birdman and The Revenant, is participating in sound design.

The soundtrack is by Leonardo Heiblum (The Golden Dream and Carrière).

80% of the material was recorded by healthcare workers and families with their cellphones.

The director
The son of Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, Juan Carlos Rulfo studied at the Cinematographic Training Center (CCC).

His debut as a director was the short called Grandfather Cheno... and Other Stories (1995).

His filmography is comprised of nine films.

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