Created in COVID-19 Quarantine, Atlanta Filmmaker Aaron Strand’s ‘Here With Me’ Spreads a Message of Hope
In his powerful new short film, “Here With Me,” shot entirely in COVID-19 quarantine, Atlanta filmmaker and actor Aaron Stand somehow manages to expertly capture the fears and the hopes of the entire planet right now, all in less than seven minutes.
On Tuesday, Strand shared the film with his friends on Facebook. By Thursday, “Here With Me” had been shared hundreds of times across social media platforms and had generated thousands of inspiring comments (many theatre-going Atlantans may recall Strand in the riveting role of Macheath in the 7 Stages’ reimagining of “Threepenny Opera” in 2016).
During the first week of Georgia’s new shelter in place reality, like millions of other creatives, Strand, a commercial filmmaker, who specializes in creating content for small businesses, saw his work evaporate overnight.
As he writes in the poem that serves as the film’s voiceover: “I saw orders from leaders who didn’t have answers. I saw markets crash on assumptions of sand. I saw my job become nonessential. And the wide world shrunk down to a screen in my hand.”
At home alone one morning (Strand’s wife, Shub Agrawal, is working on the front lines of battling the novel coronavirus as a medical resident at Emory University), the East Atlanta dweller instinctively grabbed his Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and headed out to shoot random b-roll of his deserted, dew-covered neighborhood.
“I was sitting at home trying to work on a film script but the words weren’t coming and the whole thing felt irrelevant,” says Strand in an interview with Eldredge ATL. “I kept obsessively looking at the news, checking Twitter and getting more and more scared. Picking up the camera was my way of coping.”
As “Here With Me’s” narrative started to take shape in his head, Strand called his neighbor, Atlanta actor Cooper Bucha and asked him if he’d be up for acting in an experimental film. A few hours later, maintaining recommended social distancing, Strand and Bucha were in Brownwood Park shooting exteriors. Later, Bucha found himself surrounded by cable news chyrons, disinfecting wipes and a few rolls of strategically placed bath tissue, sitting on the filmmaker’s couch and recreating Strand’s actions of the past few days inside his house.
During the film’s three-week creative process, Strand also ventured out to downtown Atlanta to shoot some footage of the city’s abandoned main artery, Peachtree Street, an eerie Underground Atlanta and Georgia’s empty state capital.
“I was really shocked by the ghostly quality I encountered downtown,” says Strand. “All of those empty official state parking spaces felt like a metaphor for an absence of leadership. It felt like the life force of the city had been drained.”
Driving up I-75, Strand shot some footage of the empty interiors at Cumberland Mall but discovered a surge of life next door, at the neighboring Costco. Says Strand: “It looked like an apocalyptic refugee camp. There were lines of people wearing masks all around the parking lot.”
In the film’s emotional closing minutes, Strand trains his camera on capturing the power of human connection that is sustaining us all right now. Featuring real footage of friends, he weaves together a tapestry of people sharing daily quarantine self-care tips, online exercise classes and even a live stream of his friend, Grammy-winning New York jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant and duet partner Sullivan Fortner performing McLorin Salvant’s new composition “Ghost Song.”
“I wanted to honor the digital communication we’re all relying on with each other,” says Strand. “It’s a kind of ghost of our old life that is now glowing in this new reality. I wanted to juxtapose the news clips we’re all seeing with the personal messages people are sharing with each other. I wanted to capture that essence of hope.”
Ironically, Strand says his professional goal for 2020 was to transition his commercial filmmaking business, Strand Entertainment, to producing more dramatic content. Strand may have overachieved the biggest New Year’s resolution of 2020 by chronicling the dramatic power of the human spirit during a global pandemic.
Says Strand: “I needed to do something that felt appropriate and necessary, just for my own sanity. I’ve been humbled and a little overwhelmed by the response to the film. It was a little nerve-wracking and it felt a bit vulnerable to put this piece out there. I’m grateful people have connected to it and the film’s message of hope.”
Between shifts in her residency program, Strand’s wife, Agrawal, served as an invaluable set of editorial eyes as the filmmaker shot and edited “Here With Me” in their home. “She saw some of the first patients with COVID at Grady Hospital when this all started,” says Strand. “She’s a hero. The fact that she takes the time to give me notes on my little videos between saving lives? I get emotional just talking about it. I’m honored to call her my partner.”
As an out-of-work artist currently, the irony isn’t lost on Strand that while his entire industry remains at a standstill, the arts remain more important than ever as we all stream hundreds of thousands of hours of entertainment on digital platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Spotify.
“It’s really strange,” says Strand, “millions of artists across this country are being told that you’re not essential and yet for billions of people all over the world who are sitting at home waiting for this crisis to abate, art is paramount. It’s keeping everybody sane.”
Strand’s message to other quarantined artists is simple — keep creating. “It’s really easy to get discouraged when the money and the opportunities stop coming in,” says the filmmaker. “During this shelter in place, I lost a friend to suicide. I know many people who are struggling with this imposed isolation. Art is keeping us all connected and keeping the fabric of society together. As artists, it’s important that we continue to produce in any possible shape or form. Despite the government’s mandates, we are essential.”
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.