Q&A: Mostafa Keshvari, Creator of the World’s First Coronavirus Movie

There’s no denying it—we’re living through a major historical event, folks. As news outlets race to keep up with new developments and to document evolving stories, timing is everything. Persian-Canadian filmmaker and Vancouverite Mostafa Keshvari got the idea to create a film about COVID-19 in January, and happened to finish writing, shooting and editing before the current distancing measures were put in place (and before all local film sets were put on hiatus). The result? The world’s first coronavirus film.

Corona tackles the xenophobia that surrounded the pandemic earlier this year—xenophobia that has unfortunately only increased as the virus spreads. We got a moment to chat with Keshvari about the film, which was originally a Cannes hopeful, but will now be streaming online in late April. 

What inspired you to create this film?

The film’s inspiration came to me in early January, when I heard the term “Wuhan virus” or “the Chinese virus.” I was in the elevator reading news about Chinese tourists being attacked globally. As an independent filmmaker, I have to think outside the box—so I literally decided to make the film in the box.

What is the film about?

The film takes place in a building elevator, and there is a rumour of coronavirus in the building. It’s a symbolic film that uses coronavirus as a symbol of fear and xenophobia, and the elevator represents the society we live in where we all share the ride. People from different walks of life get on the elevator—people in a higher class of society live on the higher floors, people from a lower class of society live on the lower floors—but they are all sharing this elevator.

And then a group of people get stuck in the elevator. They spend the next hour in the elevator, and the fear spreads faster than the virus. The people’s true colours come out, and the characters have to make very difficult moral choices. 

I also understand that the film was shot in a unique way, and that parts of it were improvised. Can you tell me about that? 

There are two things that make the film unique. One is that It was shot in one take. We had to shoot it almost 70 times to get it right, but it gives it a sense of reality. And second, with the time and budget we had, we needed to have it partly improvised. It was scripted, but I gave the actors the freedom to say what they wanted to say and to feel what they want to feel in order to have more of a sense of reality. There are parts where the characters talk over each other or they fight; there are things that even surprised me as a filmmaker. It makes the characters more relatable, and the audience feels as if they are also stuck in the elevator with the characters.

Corona is the first feature-length film about this pandemic—how did you put it together so quickly?

The idea came to me in mid-January, and I finished the film shooting in mid-February, so from conception to finishing production was one month. Because it was all one take, the editing didn’t take two long—about two to three weeks. The actual film was completed at the beginning of March. The turnaround was quite fast because it was all shot in one take. And most of my films have been about relevant social issues and injustice, so I’m used to working this way.

What should audiences keep in mind when they are watching this film?

I want audiences to understand when the film was made and the intention behind it—because at the time, nobody could have imagined how big it would get. It wasn’t something we knew would come to other countries, so the intention of the film was to fight xenophobia.

The other thing to know is that this film is not a traditional Hollywood film but a social study of characters and how they behave in extreme situations. In a way, it’s for us to reflect on the moral choices we make during this difficult time.

Keshvari also wanted to share the following poem:

In times when friends can no longer hold each other hands in peace
In times where medical masks build walls between every lovers’ kiss
Be more kind than cautious, they could be the next one you’ll forever miss.

Corona will be streaming online in late April 2020, check back in on this page for updates. For now, here’s the trailer.