It’s been nearly a year since the COVID-19 pandemic plunged the world into a “new normal” and we’ve entered 2021 with the virus still a dark presence in our lives. Masks and social distancing have become routine, and the daily news sadly features an updated death toll reminiscent of wartime. The pandemic has infiltrated the entertainment industry via movies, network or streaming series and even music. On the screen, the location for a COVID-19 related plot is usually a metropolitan area (think Chicago Med and This Is Us). But one West Virginia filmmaker, Afsheen Misaghi, breaks away from that mold with his four-part anthology series Normal for Now.
The series is actually four short films that tell four stories, all occurring on a single day in lockdown. The episodes are titled “Why Am I Awake,” “Time Off,” “We Are Live,” and “Limited Options.” Each is a glimpse into the bedroom and life of someone doing their best to navigate the challenge of living and working within four walls.
Afsheen is the son of a Pakistani mother and Indian father, but he was born and raised in West Virginia. His parents attended West Virginia University and the family lived in various locations such as Logan, Huntington, Morgantown and currently Charleston. Although his appearance defies the stereotype, Afsheen identifies as an Appalachian and proudly claims the title.
“I love it here; it’s my home and the only home I know,” he explained. An artist with a Master of Fine Arts Degree, Afsheen’s work utilizes his experiences not only as an Appalachian but also a person of color.
Rather than create a film to provide an escape from the virus, Afsheen and his team deliberately chose to tell their story against the backdrop of the pandemic. He says one of the main reasons was that they wanted to portray the emotional side of the pandemic.
“I had seen some content that treated the pandemic superficially or made light of certain aspects such as the whipped coffee craze and Zoom Happy Hours,” he said. “But I didn’t see anything addressing the emotions that are coupled with long periods of being in isolation.”
Thus the team set out to create a work that would reflect the reality of the situation and the feelings that many were experiencing in this unprecedented time. For example, one episode was written not just about the Zoom Happy Hour, but the feeling of isolation when the happy hour ends and we’re alone with our phone, our thoughts, and hours to fill. Afsheen feels it’s important that the viewer relate to the situation and know that we are not alone, that we often share the same struggles.
One of the striking aspects of the series is the diversity of the Appalachian people featured. This diverse and inclusive representation of Appalachians onscreen is very important to the project. Afsheen explained, “For too long, media has represented Appalachians as a homogenous group of hillbilly, backward, uneducated bigots. The Appalachia that I know is filled with diverse, loving, caring, and fearless people who deal with the same issues and emotions as everyone else during this crazy time.” Viewers will meet main characters that are persons of color or LGBQT in each episode, but the situations are universal and relatable regardless of race or gender.
Producing a film during a pandemic had its challenges, including the challenge of keeping everyone safe and healthy with COVID-19 tests, masks and lots of hand sanitizer. Each episode was filmed with just five people, an incredibly small cast and crew. There was a total cast of 25 actors, but 20 of them performed virtually. Despite the challenges, Afsheen said it was a joy to work toward a common goal with an amazing group of talented people.
One such cast member is Barry Westmoreland, performing his first credited work in a film. Barry’s background includes stage work with both large and small casts and crews and he explained one difference between the stage and this film project: “I didn’t have the audience’s energy to feed off of or have a scene partner to play off of. It was just me and the crew.”
But watching the finished product, Barry felt that each episode exposed the inner thoughts, funny quirks and raw emotion of the characters. “Having a smaller crew provided a certain intimacy and trust between everyone on set which in turn produced true and honest moments we all love to see,” he added.
It is Afsheen’s hope that viewers will take away three things from the series, and first on the list is to be entertained. “That is always the goal of whatever I produce!” He also hopes that people will relate to at least one episode or character and recognize something they have experienced during the pandemic, whether it be the challenges, heartbreak, humor or joy. Lastly but certainly not least, Afsheen and his team want people to appreciate the diversity of the characters and actors playing them on the screen. Those actors are proud residents of Appalachia and an impressive example of the talent this region has to offer. Through his film Normal for Now, Afsheen Misaghi shines a light on a region that is so often left in the shadows.
Normal for Now is available on Amazon Prime, and can be streamed through any device that supports it, such as Firestick, Roku, GoogleTV and more.