In early 2020, filmmaker Arlet Guallpa was about to start working on a project at the Downtown Community Television (DCTV) Center in New York City. Then, COVID-19 started spreading, shutdowns began and the film was put on hold indefinitely.
DCTV, a media center that provides support for youth and underrepresented filmmakers, decided to pass out a few cameras to students, so they could document their personal experience living through the pandemic. One of those cameras ended up in Guallpa’s hands.
“I started filming my parents,” Guallpa, 23, told Remezcla during a recent interview. “I had lost both my jobs because of the pandemic, so I had the time to do it. I wanted to tell their story.”
Guallpa’s short film Frontline Family is one of five shorts that make up the documentary anthology COVID Diaries NYC. In her film, Guallpa, who was living with her mom and dad at the time, captured their daily lives as essential workers. Her father, originally from Ecuador, is a transit bus driver. Her mother, originally from the Dominican Republic, is a home care attendant.
“That whole time was really bad,” she said. “A lot of people were dying, and it was really tough for us as a family.”
As she recorded her father drive his bus routes each day and her mother taking care of seniors, Guallpa worried about their well-being. In the film, her father explains that they didn’t have a choice. Unless they continued to work, they wouldn’t be able to pay the rent.
“I got to see my parents in a different light,” she said. “I saw the sacrifice they were making for me. I saw the struggle they were going through and the danger they were putting themselves in.”
At one point in the film, Guallpa captures people boarding a bus not wearing face masks. Through a voice over, she expresses her frustration with the riders who she felt were putting her parents at risk. “Selfish. Selfish. Selfish,” she says.
“It was important for me to document that because some people still don’t think [COVID-19] is a serious thing, but it is serious,” she said. “People are dying and they’re still dying. There’s hope now with the vaccine, but this was last year.”
Since wrapping up filming, both Guallpa’s parents, unfortunately, ended up getting the virus. Luckily, they are both better now, although her father became very sick because of his underlying health conditions.
“It was very scary at the time,” she said. “I felt helpless. It was heartbreaking.”
Today, Guallpa encourages the Latino community to get the vaccine as soon as they can and not to be influenced by misinformation.
“Getting vaccinated is a big issue,” she said. “It’s scary for some people because they don’t understand it, but that’s why we have to educate our community. We have to have these hard conversations with our parents about why it’s important. It’s not just for us, it’s for everybody.”
COVID Diaries NYC premieres Tuesday (March 9) on HBO and HBO Max.