A few short minutes into “Contagion,” a camera pans to follow everyday people, their surroundings and the mundane items they touch and pass onto others. Illness, death and misinformation quickly follow.
The 2011 film, directed by Steven Soderberg, strings together the local, national and international responses to a global pandemic caused by a deadly virus. It was lauded by critics when it debuted and has gathered renewed attention as a work of fiction unnervingly close to the current reality of living through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The film is also one of 22 chosen for study in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s ENG 269 class, “How to Survive a Pandemic: Cinematic Visions of Resistance and Resilience in the Viral Apocalypse,” which is currently being taught during the second five-week summer session.
Robert Lipscomb, who is teaching the class, chose an international slate of films that depict humanity’s resolve — both good and bad — in the face of deadly pathogens and the destruction they wrought. The films cross many genres to explore how the human condition is shaped by public health crises and what the future may hold.
“I was asked by the Film Studies program if I had any ideas for a summer course that might help inform our current moment in ways that were productive and meaningful to students,” Lipscomb said. “We are living through a moment that that’s going to redefine us, and my experience with the pandemic I lived through, one from my own community — a community decimated by HIV/AIDS — is that we do have choices about what we will become. And that’s really what I want students to start thinking about for themselves.”
Lipscomb built the list of films, which includes classics like “The Andromeda Strain,” and lesser-known international films such as “Train to Busan,” to provide both a foundation to film studies as a discipline and to provoke discussion among the 56 students enrolled.
“I wanted to make sure we had a sampling that was global in reach,” Lipscomb said. “(I also wanted) to have a broadness in time periods and genres, but that could be grouped together — epic pandemic films, pandemic as horror, etc. — and we looked at Richard Matheson’s book ‘I Am Legend,’ which has three film versions.”
The course also covers the recent, real pandemic of HIV/AIDS, through the acclaimed HBO miniseries, “Angels in America,” the French film, “BPM,” and some documentaries covering the early years and the epidemic in America and Europe.
“I think that is important to look at the AIDS crisis because it’s a fixed, recent window of time where communities responded to a pandemic, and students will be able to see how people saw HIV in the moment and lived it in the ‘80s and up to the mid- ‘90s,” Lipscomb said. “That will also open discussion regarding documentary films, that they aren’t neutral news, …but there’s still some things to be unpacked there.”
All but one of the course films were curated and provided on Canvas for students by Zach Eden, access services staff member in University Libraries. Each day, the students watch a short lecture by Lipscomb, complete a reading related to the film, watch the assigned movie, and join in an online discussion prompted by questions given.
The students have engaged in frank, honest discussion on many topics beyond the prompts, Lipscomb said, including morality, government, misinformation, societal accountability and personal responsibility.
“There’s some lively discussion going on,” Lipscomb said. “Students have different perspectives, and that’s encouraged. They’re asking questions to decide for themselves how this plays out and who they are and who we are.
“The class is also part of the Husker Starter Pack, so there are many incoming freshmen enrolled, and they have been delightful.”
Emily DeGraff, a junior English and philosophy major, said it has been helpful to be in a class that reflects the current situation.
“I’ve just found it really grounding to actually have a frame to talk about these issues with others, instead of being led around by Facebook or clickbait or whatever,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been nice to have organized information and discussion, with another set of perspectives, in addition to all the media we’ve all been consuming.
“Even though we can’t be in a classroom together, we’re generating discussion around these things, and it’s been interesting to talk with people who aren’t in my usual circle or echo chamber. We have questions that are framed to spur discussion on real human issues.”