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No Man is an Island, Even in a Pandemic

Finding Humanity in a Poem, Collaboration and a Short Film

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Above image credit: In this film still, Yuka Naito-Billen – the narrator – wears the surgical mask that director Robert Bingaman's father sent him. (Courtesy: Robert Bingaman)

No man is an island. So says John Donne’s Meditation 17 in “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.” 

The next stanza goes: “Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

That sentiment feels palpable during these days of pandemic-forced lockdown to Robert Bingaman, a Kansas City painter. He was inspired to make a short film that included this poem, one he had memorized 20 years ago as a senior in high school, thanks to his former teacher, Kevin Mykel. 

Kansas City artist Robert Bingamn.
Robert Bingaman, a Kansas City area artist, created a short film to connect with the arts community and area residents. (Contributed | Robert Bingaman)

“Just those lines (such as) ‘any man’s death diminishes me’…shaped me as a young person and my worldview and politics,” Bingaman says. “My feeling is we’re in it together whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. We are all just human beings.”

The original idea was an online film festival allowing creators in Kansas City to join forces and make a series of projects. He emailed a proposal to several folks, which read in part: 

When I was a full-time painter and instructor, one of my favorite group activities was the Exquisite Corpse. Maybe you’ve heard of it. A group of artists congregate. One draws a head. The next a neck. The next a torso. Soon you have a drawing you could have never made with more surprise, delight, and humor than you could imagine. They liberated my students from their overwrought identities as individual creators, bonded them to their peers, and demonstrated to them what creativity requires (constraint, variance, and a little faith).”

The festival idea generated interest, but not enough for Bingaman to pull it off on his own. But it gave him the impetus to produce his own film, with the “Exquisite Corpse” model.

So, he and videographer Andrew Thomas – adhering to the six-foot social distancing rule – shot video of the vacant streets of Kansas City, of baristas in empty cafes, of a person wearing a mask, of workers and some small, struggling businesses. 

Thomas had worked with Bingaman before and agreed to film the project because he wanted to collaborate again. This, he explained, was a chance to release any pent-up emotion.

A barista at Monarch.
A barista at Monarch takes a break from prepping curbside orders. She is one of the service industry workers represented in Robert Bingaman’s short film. (Courtesy | Robert Bingaman)

“It just felt right to go out, safely, and create something about the time we all found ourselves in,” Thomas said. “The idea was basically to show a city that had come to a crawl.”

Bingaman’s father, who is a surgeon, was also a main source of inspiration for this project. In one scene, a woman looks at the camera, her face covered by a lilac surgical mask, the one his father sent him. That scene is an “easter egg,” the artist explains, an homage to the man who raised him.

In his time of solitude, he sought to unite with others. 

“I hoped this would be a time of solidarity, common purpose, and love for one’s fellow man,” he wrote on Facebook, introducing the film. 

His hope became a reality.

As a shy director, Bingaman said he suddenly felt energized to collaborate with a few creative people he admired. People such as Thomas, as well as Justin Roberts, and Jonathan Horst. He didn’t have a budget, but they all volunteered their expertise.

Many of the collaborators who signed on had never worked with or even talked to him. Yet they agreed. 

Sam Billen of Primary Color Music was one. He and Bingaman had never worked together before, but six emails after their first introduction, the project was a go. Billen wrote the contemplative music that sets the tone for the short.

“Honestly it’s because I’m a fan of Robert’s art. His paintings have always been enthralling, so I was excited to see his film work as well,” Billen said. “There’s something especially enriching to collaborating on purely art-focused projects, especially in a time like this.”

He added: “Art is necessary. Reminders of simplicity and beauty in everyday life is necessary.”

Yuka Naito-Billen, who is married to Sam, and a native of Japan, narrated the piece. 

Using her voice was intentional. It adds to the universal feeling that Bingman wanted to underscore. His idea was not only to center on the pandemic’s impact on Kansas City and its people but also its global impact. 

There’s a universality to scenes of a city on pause, of empty streets and restaurants, and faces of everyday workers. 

“As a creative person, the way I want to respond is with a poetic of some kind,” he says. “Instead of more noise.”


Watch

Watch ‘Meditation 17’ here. (Courtesy | Robert Bingaman)

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