Documentary Review

'Totally Under Control' shows what happens when science is politicised

A film on the US government’s failed handling of the Covid crisis has been released just in time for next month’s election

25 October 2020 - 00:01
'Totally Under Control' compares the successes of the South Korean government’s handling of the pandemic to the gaping failures of its American counterparts.
'Totally Under Control' compares the successes of the South Korean government’s handling of the pandemic to the gaping failures of its American counterparts.
Image: Supplied

In April this year, while the Trump administration assured US citizens that the “Wuhan virus” was nothing to worry about and that the president was on top of the situation and had everything “totally under control”, Oscar-winning documentary director Alex Gibney became angry, perplexed and rightfully dubious about how his government was responding to the pandemic.

Gibney had already lost a close friend to the coronavirus and another was in hospital fighting for his life on a ventilator. The director of films including Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room thought he should make a film dealing with the US response to the pandemic in the moment it was happening and complete it in time for release just ahead of this year's presidential election.

That was no easy task during the best of times, and was made more difficult by the conditions of a pandemic that was swiftly killing more US citizens than the Vietnam War. So Gibney called on the help of fellow documentarians Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, who jumped on board and helped to make the film a reality in time for its intended October release.

Released on Apple TV last week, Totally Under Control is the depressing story of what happens when science becomes politicised and what the consequences of bureaucratic rectum licking and profit-driven approaches to public health have been.

Focusing on the stories of public health officials and doctors, and offering a trenchant comparison between the successes of the South Korean government's handling of the pandemic and the gaping failures of its American counterparts, the film successfully takes us back to a recent time that wishful thinking would have us believe seems long ago.

Although the film doesn't offer interviews with Trump administrators or insiders and leaves out those faces familiar to anyone who's watched the US pandemic plan with a passing interest — there's no Dr Anthony Fauci or governor Andrew Cuomo here, for instance — the personal, in-the-belly-of-the-beast stories of its participants will make you thankful for the top-down, nationalist approach of Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC.

Speaking from New York, co-director Hillinger said she hopes international audiences will understand the importance of the dangers of politicising something that is not political.

“There are career scientists working hard all over the world to make sure that when these kind of outbreaks do happen, and they will happen again, that we are prepared and the public is getting the right messaging.”

WATCH | 'Totally Under Control' trailer.

As to whether the directors are seeking to intervene in the election, Hillinger said that while the timing of the release was decided with the election in mind, she and her co-directors see this film as a sort of report card of how their government has responded to the pandemic.

“We didn't go into it with a political bent, we were just trying to understand. Who made the decisions, what did they know when, how were those decisions executed, what could have been done differently? I think it's important for the American people to have all the facts when they go to vote so they know who is representing them.”

The respect for the science is demonstrated by the ways in which the filmmakers film and interact with their subjects — they developed a special protected camera for the self-filming of some interviews, set up a socially-distanced interview rig made out of a shower curtain for in-person interviews, and many of the interviews begin with masked participants sitting down before removing their masks.

Hillinger says these decisions were born out of practical necessity, but also out of a concern to make sure their subjects would feel safe and be safe when interviewed.

“Obviously we also wanted to show that this is how you act responsibly in a pandemic, these are the scientific guidelines that we're following.”

Ultimately Hiillinger hopes the film will show audiences that “if we've learnt anything over the last seven or eight months it's this: the virus is unpredictable and our administration's response is unpredictable too. I think we need leadership that listens to scientists but also allows scientists to lead the response.”

• 'Totally Under Control' is on Apple TV.

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