The Fire This Time

The Fire This Time film still: an assemblage of headlines and images from the Red Summer of 1919 and third wave of influenza pandemic, ghosted through by red flames
Still from The Fire This Time (2022, 4K DCP, 5.1 ch sound, color, 26:08 TRT)

In the course of my research for Dis-Ease (feature in progress), I became particularly interested in how the histories of settler-colonial migration, resource extraction, land exploitation, and violent suppression of independence movements were deeply entangled with the emergence and spread of the first global pandemics. And as my work on the feature intersected with living through a pandemic myself, I kept seeing think-pieces observe that historically, epidemics and pandemics tend to usher in sweeping social changes. To me, this observation seemed to omit the messy middle of that process: the social unrest, often in the form of riots and mass destruction of property, actually required to transform an outbreak into a revolution. From my research it was clear that pandemics both expose and exacerbate the fault lines of society. In the past, this phenomenon produced singular catastrophes as well as lasting changes. The Fire This Time looks back at three historical episodes, each of which has different parallels to the present day: the cholera pandemic of the 19th century, which was triggered by disturbance of a previously pristine ecosystem; the third plague pandemic at the turn of the 20th century, which set off a wave of anti-Asian American violence; and the 1918 influenza pandemic, whose third wave in 1919 spilled into a summer of white riots that reached Washington, DC. The intent of this film is to make those connections across time, and to ask, following James Baldwin, what will we learn from the fire this time?

The Fire This Time film still: a Grim Reaper rows a boat through a polluted river, juxtaposed with a map and headline on 19th-century cholera outbreaks
Still from The Fire This Time (2022, 4K DCP, 5.1 ch sound, color, 26:08 TRT)

Structurally, each historical episode constitutes a chapter of the film, prefaced by an introduction, connected by short bridges, and followed by a coda. The text of the film is constructed from interviews: with science journalist Sonia Shah and literary scholar Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb for the cholera chapter; historian Nayan Shah and medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris for the plague chapter; historian Kellie Carter Jackson, epidemiologist Keiji Fukuda, historian Nancy Tomes, and economist William A. Darity Jr. for the influenza chapter; and literary scholar Priscilla Wald and legal scholar Patricia J. Williams for the coda. The visuals are primarily archival, from a wide range of sources. In the intro and bridges they are conventionally edited, but in the chapters they appear as frames within the frame, borrowing a sort of computer desktop logic where they first appear in the center of the screen and then minimize, stack, blend, and sometimes loop or reshuffle before disappearing. In each chapter, non-archival footage ghosts through, producing the effect of an archive hallucinating its own obsolescence or subversion. This is all footage that I shot in natural settings and then colorized and blended for a more abstract effect. In the cholera chapter, it’s water and reeds with blue-green tints; in the plague chapter, swaying plants with yellow flowers and insects, with yellow-sepia tints; in the influenza chapter, the weathered siding of a red barn, and the leaping flames of a fire, with red-orange tints. In the coda, images from previous chapters reappear at full size and blend together with more of my footage, including images of leaves shaking in a strong wind and ice melting on a glass window. The formal choices made throughout are intended to emphasize the cyclical patterns in the histories in question, and to reinforce the connections between the ecological, social, and political.



The Fire This Time
Directed & produced by Mariam Ghani
Executive producer: Charlotte Cook
Written by Mariam Ghani & Emily Eberhart
Edited by Emily Eberhart
FX camera and editing: Mariam Ghani

Featuring the voices of (in order of appearance):
Sonia Shah
Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb
Nayan Shah
Christos Lynteris
Kellie Carter Jackson
Keiji Fukuda
Nancy Tomes
William A. Darity Jr.
Priscilla Wald
Patricia J. Williams

“We Return Fighting” by W. E. B. DuBois, read by Maurice Decaul, courtesy of Library of America & Maurice Decaul
Archival audio of Claude McKay reading his poem “If We Must Die,” from the album Anthology of Negro Poetry, courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Music by Qasim Naqvi
Published by Erased Tapes Ltd

Researcher: Juliana Broad
Consulting producer: Alysa Nahmias
Assistant producer: Lou Wang-Holborn
Sound design: Mariam Ghani, Emily Eberhart, Stephen McLaughlin
Sound engineering and mix: Stephen McLaughlin
Interview sound recordists: Adam Hogan, Edwin Lee, Vero Lopez, Juan Martinez
Assistant editor: Hai-Li Kong
Production assistant: Li-Ming Hu
Production accountant: A to Zanna Bookkeeping
Production legal: Focus Media Law
Archival clearance: Alana Schwartz
Archival coordinator: Eileen Clancy
Archival intern: Mira Maxwell

Archival sources:
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Bain News Service/Library of Congress, Bibliothèque Nationale de France/Gallica, British Library, British Museum, California Historical Society, California Digital Newspaper Collection, Cambridge University, Cambridge South Asia Archive, Cancer Research UK, Chicago History Museum/Jun Fujita Collection, Coronet Instructional Films, Critical Past, Crown Copyright/British Film Institute, Encyclopædia Britannica, Federal Laboratories Inc., F.I.L.M. Archives, Getty Images/British Film Institute, Getty Images/Film Images Sarl, Getty Images/Mainichi Productions, Getty Images/Sky News, Getty Images/Vimeo Stock/MaYcaL, Hawaii State Archive, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Hong Kong University Faculty of Medicine, Institut Pasteur, Jon Farina/Storyful, Journal of Bombay Natural History Society, Journal of Translational Medicine (open access article), Library of Congress, NAACP/Modernist Journals Project at University of Oklahoma at Tulsa, National Archives and Records Administration, National Library of Medicine, National Library of Wales, NBC News, Needham Research Institute, Newberry Library, New York Public Library, PLoS Pathogens, Prelinger Archive, Red Summer Headline Archive, Robert Lee, Rochester Public Library, Screenocean/Reuters, Screenocean/Reuters/Adnan Adibi, Screenocean/Reuters/Danish Siddiqui, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Sherman Grinberg Film Library, Smithsonian National Museum of American History Division of Medicine & Science, Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, UK Fire Protection Association, United Nations Film Board, University of Delaware, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library, University of Melbourne/Peter Doherty Institute for Infection & Immunity, Wellcome Collection

Thanks to:
CUNY Advanced Science Research Center, Duke University, Hong Kong University Faculty of Medicine, Northwestern School of Law, University of St. Andrews, University of Southern California, Visualizing the Red Summer (Karen Sieber), Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic (Universities of Cambridge & St Andrews/ERC), David Bralow, Chitra Ganesh, Marisa Mazria Katz, Jen Liu, Victoria Noble, Danielle Olsen, Svati Shah, Keith Wilson

For Field of Vision
Kristen Fitzpatrick, Managing Director
June Jennings, Engagement and Partnerships Manager
Shakira Evans, Post Production Manager
Sarah Choi, Development & Artist Support Associate

Commissioned by Field of Vision
Initial research supported by the Wellcome Trust
Additional support from the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism and the Bennington College Provost & Dean’s Faculty Research Grants

Post-production supported by EMPAC, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic University