Seeing the Pandemic Through a Different Lens

Once upon a time in March—a time that feels like a very, very long time ago indeed—Sidwell Friends announced that due to COVID-19, students would leave campus and not return until April 13. That got Elson Bankoff ’23 thinking.

“We were planning on being out for about a month,” she says “It was exciting, like a break from School—we had all been working hard.” But just before School ended, Bankoff’s history class began talking about how they might use that time away from Sidwell Friends. “And it just came to me,” she says. “What if we got kids from all over to document the pandemic and film themselves and submit it?”

That’s how the Covideo Project was born.

“I originally wanted it to be just a documentary,” she says. “We would hold all of the footage and not touch it until it was all over and then compile it.” Of course, the pandemic had other plans—a month turned into a semester, which turned into the summer, which turned into the fall. “It just kept expanding,” Bankoff says. “I realized, we can’t just store this away because I don’t know how long the pandemic is going to last.”

Seven months later and counting, the project has adapted. Over 100 teens from 30 different countries have submitted—and continue to submit—video footage. Some of them are general tours of their neighborhoods, shots of empty toilet-paper aisles, and families playing UNO. Some are focused on one topic, such as this summer’s protests over systemic racism or the art teens have made during quarantine. One video, “Pets of the Pandemic,” features enthusiastic dogs and indifferent cats. Covideo contributors have also used the platform to fundraise for Produce Alliance, which gives boxes of fresh produce to healthcare workers, and they are currently working on a video to support STARS, a youth-led charity that supports seniors affected by COVID-19. Covideo also has a podcast, Distanced: By The Covideo Project. Recent topics of discussion on Distanced include COVID in indigenous communities and how the pandemic has changed activism.

When Bankoff and her fellow moviemakers—some from Sidwell Friends, some from outside the School—first started, they were flooded with submissions. “In March, we had footage coming in every two seconds,” she says. “Everyone was like, ‘I’m bored out of my mind, so let’s submit and meet new people.’ It gave people an activity that they knew would be significant at some point or another.”

It soon became clear, however, that the significance of the project wasn’t just about amassing and editing footage.

“I’ve met some really, really cool people,” Bankoff says. “We would have calls that weren’t even about the project, but just for fun, and it’s created this community. It almost made me tear up on my birthday, because kids were reaching out to me saying: ‘Happy birthday! Thank you so much for creating this community of people.’”

Of course, it comes to the Covideo Project, Bankoff always had big dreams.

“At the beginning, I was a peak visionary,” she says. “I was like, ‘We’re going to have a Netflix Original, we’re going to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Short, this is going to be amazing.’” It’s still possible. There may yet be an edited, finished project one day.

“I have this friend whose whole school is obsessed with the project, which is great,” Bankoff says. “And they’re like, ‘We want to watch a screening when there’s something finished.’” In the meantime, she recognizes that most people may have had enough of the pandemic for now. “But maybe in a couple of years,” she says, “we’ll have this finished product that we can show to people, like a documentary short.”

Or maybe a feature-length documentary. “The amount of footage we have is insane,” Bankoff says. “We have enough for a whole series. Netflix—or any other streaming service, for that matter—I am open to any calls! This is the chance of a lifetime.”

For now, Bankoff has created an archive for the ages. “The underlying idea was always that I wanted to be a primary source,” she says. “I want future generations to learn from it.” (Somewhere Bankoff’s history teacher is beaming.)

So the project, like the pandemic itself, continues in an open-ended fashion—a time capsule of one of the most unusual times to be a teen in recent memory.


Updated Friday, April 16: Elson was recently announced as one of the winners of a Gold Medal in the 2021 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, given to student-produced works that "exemplify the Awards’ core values: originality, technical skill, and the emergence of personal voice or vision."  Congratulations to Elson on her continued success!

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