How Pandemics Shape Civilization and Humanity

July 3, 2020 Updated: July 24, 2020

Months into the pandemic, uncertainty reigns. The reality is, humanity has survived epidemic disease countless times, and of far deadlier magnitude. But we cannot survive this one if we lose our humanity, according to a new film by NTD Television.

The new documentary, “When the Plague Arrives,” looks at plagues in the context of the story of humanity, to see where it really stands. The documentary premieres online on July 12.

The Epoch Times interviewed producer Hyesoo Yoon about the documentary.

The Epoch Times: What inspired this documentary?

Hyesoo Yoon: It was really an idea our executives had, when they started looking into the history of pandemics and recognized a lot of similarities between different events. Honestly, as a global-minded millennial, “lessons from history” isn’t the most intriguing topic, and it was really a process of trying to figure out what could make antiquity not just interesting, but exciting. Plus, when we started discussing the documentary, the lockdowns were in effect, which was a whole different set of restraints when you’re trying to film a documentary. But it was really all these restraints that forced us to take a step back and look at the pandemic with fresh eyes.

Epoch Times Photo
Evan Mantyk, the president of the Society of Classical Poets, appears in the documentary “When the Plague Arrives.”

When the lockdowns began, a lot of people around me were frustrated and depressed. There was this environment of fear and frustration, and I had absolutely no wish to talk about the death toll and all the devastation we would face because of this crisis. That just wasn’t what I wanted to do at all.

I wanted for us to find a way to create something that would encourage people, and empower our souls amid this crisis, and because our scriptwriter Catherine Yang and I had just been working on a fine arts documentary, I knew art could be our way in to do that. We were also brainstorming with Evan Mantyk, the president of the Society of Classical Poets and a literature teacher, who narrates the film, about the role of plague in stories and history.

In paintings, poems, literature, you can find yourself there, just in different costumes and circumstances. The fundamental human emotions, the whole of the human condition can be found there—you see yourself there. That was how we wanted to use history in this story—not a recitation of facts and figures, but as a way to connect to people where they’re at right now.

Plague in an Ancient City by Sweerts
“Plague in an Ancient City,” circa 1652, by Michael Sweerts, is thought to represent the plague of Athens. Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

The Epoch Times: So it’s not just about the current pandemic?

Ms. Yoon: It’s not just about this pandemic, it’s about how this pandemic fits into the story of humanity. It’s not a historical documentary strictly speaking; and with the historical parts, we really try to put history in context, using quotes from people of the time and the art of the time to represent how people from that period saw their lives and faced these devastating events.

Most people—except those who survived the 1918 pandemic perhaps—have never experienced anything like this, but at the same time we know there’s been all these big plagues and pandemics in the past. And the more we read about these pandemics, the more we saw that the story wasn’t about disease back then either, it’s about crisis and a test of our humanity and things that are really quite universal. I’m not Chinese, I’m not Roman, but these stories are about the human experience and universal values, and we think all people—no matter your country or education or age or background—can connect to these universal things.

For instance, we talk a lot about justice today, but do we really have the courage to stand against evil? It’s hard. Our culture doesn’t have a strong moral standard, and the result is that human dignity suffers for it. Human dignity really is at the heart of it—this is what comes to the forefront when you really get into these stories of crisis.

Epoch Times Photo
“The Plague of Rome” by Jules Elie Delauney.

In this difficult time, and we really are going through difficult times, my hope is that people remember they can be good, choose good, no matter who you are or where you’re from. Every moment, every choice that we make will be part of human history and what we leave to this and the next generation. I want people to have strength through this crisis, instead of just being down and depressed. This is something we have to face, but it really depends on how you deal with it, how you think about it. You can have strength instead of just resentment and anger.

The Epoch Times: There’s a famous calligrapher featured in the teaser. What role does he play in the film?

Ms. Yoon: Actually we were already in post-production when I came up with this idea. I really wanted to create one strong, significant sequence and scene before the ending, and I got some inspiration when I happened upon a quote from a book about Chinese history and idioms. There was this quote in the classic Chinese text “Four Books” where Zhu Xi translated the “Analects of Confucius”: “When things are chaotic to the extreme, order must be restored.”

I thought it really spoke to a lot of the historical stories we explored in the documentary, and of today. Because it’s not just disease, the whole world really is thrown into chaos.

I thought it would be really strong if we could convey this through calligraphy. Mr. Liu, who appears in the documentary, was cast at the last minute. He was a really renowned calligrapher in mainland China, and had been featured in a lot of TV programs. What we wanted to do with the shoot was this big, large-scale writing of this four-word proverb, laid on the ground, with sort of this connection to the earth. He only works in the traditional style, and writing on the ground is indeed not a common way to write, and it’s very challenging for him. He didn’t want to do any modern performance art or anything like that—“order must be restored”—we wanted to have the sort of righteous energy that could capture that.

The setup took about five hours, so I ended up chatting a lot with him on set and he shared this incredible story and told me about his time in China. I didn’t know that he had been persecuted so badly, by the Chinese communist regime, all because of his faith, because he didn’t want to give up his belief.

Epoch Times Photo
Renowned calligrapher Mr. Liu appears in the documentary “When the Plague Arrives.”

People forget this, but spiritual believers from all orthodox religions face persecution in communist China. He was persecuted so brutally he was left for dead, he really almost died, and it was a miracle that he not only survived but managed to make it out of China. It was just such a dramatic story and after I heard that I knew he really was the perfect person for that scene.