Published Nov 12, 2020After coronavirus lockdowns turned the entertainment industry on its head, musician and filmmaker (and former MuchMusic VJ) Sook-Yin Lee found a way to keep working. She quarantined in her Toronto home along with a new friend, musician Dylan Gamble of the psych band Hot Garbage, and set about making a DIY movie using the tools available to her at the time.
The result is Death and Sickness, a semi-fictional art film that explores the uncanny experience of being in quarantine — both the mundane (making masks, spraying down groceries) and the surreal (fever dreams, morbid fantasies).
"It was liberating to make Death and Sickness. It got me back to the basics of storytelling and I realized that with limited resources and tools, I could still make a rewarding movie," Lee tells Exclaim! "Dylan and I worked to serve the story and bring it to where it wanted to go, which is a lot different from a 'regular' film that involves many layers of vetting by other people, a lot more money, and years of development. Me and Dylan pretty much broke all the rules."
Gamble adds, "It also had a bit of a Shining vibe after doing a few 10-hour days in a row in her tiny house. It felt pretty immersive having no input from anyone else from beginning to end."
Throughout the 79-minute film, Lee delves into the grief of losing her longtime creative and romantic partner, Adam Litovitz, who died in 2019. Another psychedelic sequence has Lee conversing with her late sister Dede, who appears as an all-black figure with glowing eyes. These poignant scenes are contrasted with lighthearted moments showing the film's two stars getting to know one another against the backdrop of a pandemic: they dress up in Renaissance outfits, make up silly songs and watch a Punch and Judy-style puppet show, all while holed up in Lee's cramped Toronto home.
"Though we'd only recently met, we enjoyed each other's company. Deciding to lock down together meant we'd pool resources, keep each other company and make each other laugh," says Lee of the unique collaboration, which began after a chance meeting at a karaoke bar last winter. Lee had already begun brainstorming ideas for a movie about the eventful last couple years of her life, and she says that Gamble "brought a whole other freaky dimension to the story."
In a year filled with equal doses of boredom and fear, Death and Sickness represents a silver lining for two restless artists. Lee points out that tumultuous times often inspire great art, and that creative projects can be the perfect way to make sense of a confusing world.
And while it still remains to be seen how artists will interpret this particular moment in history, Death and Sickness seems to be resonating, having found a home on CBC Gem (where it will be streaming as of November 20). "I'm excited that an odd homemade movie like ours can find an audience," says Lee.