NO SUCH THING AS NORMAL


COMING OF AGE IN PANDEMICLAND

The Feed followed four young Australians during the country’s multiple lockdowns. The documentary 'Pandemicland', shot over the course of 10 months, is a glimpse into the lives of the generation that will shape the post-COVID world.

Watch Pandemicland here.

Pressing Pause on a Generation

“We’re at the peak of trying to figure out what we want to do with our lives.” - Ciang 

For a generation already grappling with rising property prices, casualisation of the workforce and a climate crisis, the pandemic has further thrown into question the kind of world young people will inherit.

Research shows COVID-19 has disproportionately affected them in many ways; from job losses, to education disruption, to tolls on mental health. After following four people between the ages of 14 and 21 for almost a year, it was clear they’d been forced in and out of limbo at the launch point of their lives.

Enduring this, alongside everything else that goes hand-in-hand with coming of age, shouldn’t go overlooked or underestimated.

CIANG. 21. MELBOURNE, VIC. “[In 2020], I was trying to go hard with my stand up…I reckon the first few weeks of the second lockdown I was really depressed... So sad about how I couldn't do anything to achieve certain goals.”
COOPER. 18. GERRINGONG, NSW.  “There is a sense of ‘I’m 18 now, I need to know what I’m doing, where's money coming from?’ Those social pressures of needing to have my life set now I'm technically an adult.”
SAMANTHA. 16. SYDNEY, NSW. “My ultimate dream is to get hired by a ballet company. This time next year, hopefully I see myself in an overseas [dance] school.”
MERCEDES. 14. PORTLAND, VIC.  “At the start of the year, boxing was my life... During the lockdown I made a quite sudden decision on what's best for me and what's best for my future.”

CHAPTER ONE

Half My Year Taken

Going through a car wash is an oddly peaceful experience. No matter which window you look out, the view is more or less the same.

For Melbourne-based Ciang, it’s something of a birthday treat. 

At the beginning of 2020, he had his sights set on becoming a comedian, with plans to go to open mic nights every two weeks. 

But instead, he’d find himself locked down, doing his best to make comedy videos for his Instagram and YouTube channels from the confines of his bedroom. 

“I'm an extrovert… I need motivation from other people… And I had to learn how to do it by myself,”  Ciang says of his time in isolation. 

“The worst part is when everybody else started opening up, I got really jealous”.

Ciang’s contemporaries in Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane were becoming acquainted with QR codes and spread out seating capacities. Meanwhile, Ciang would spend 2,688 hours – or 112 days – of lockdown going to work, coming home, and doing not much else.

Ciang going through the carwash on his birthday

Ciang going through the carwash on his birthday

Touted as one of the world’s longest COVID-lockdowns, the height of Melbourne’s Stage 4 restrictions included an 8:00pm curfew and a one-hour limit on exercising outdoors. 

 "It kills the momentum… I feel like in a way it has made me question the future and my plans."

“Half of my year taken… More than half,” Ciang says.

The Ripple Effect

Warning: the following section discusses suicide. If this story raises any issues, you can give Lifeline a call on: 13 11 14

For Cooper, 2020 was supposed to be a year of final exams, schoolies and graduating in front of family. But nothing went to plan. 

The year started with Cooper stuck, while holidaying at Lake Conjola during the Black Summer Bushfires on the NSW South Coast. One of his HSC exams was evacuated in a spate of bomb threats, schoolies were cancelled and his parents weren’t allowed to attend his graduation ceremony.

But when you ask Cooper about the worst moment of his year, he mentions none of the above. 

In mid-2020, the local Kiama district saw at least four people take their own lives in a matter of months. Of those four, two were Cooper's mates.

Cooper reflects on his friend Sam

Cooper reflects on his friend Sam

LIFELINE: 13 11 14

It wasn’t long after Sam’s passing that Cooper had more bad news.

“There was a ripple effect after he passed you could tell something was wrong,” Cooper reflects. 

“I thought I was starting to get better from my reaction to Sam's passing, but after finding out about Darcy as well and thinking I've lost a mate I play Oztag with and a childhood mate in the matter of a month - it brought me back down,” he says. 

While Cooper grappled with his own loss, his home town of Gerringong came together to address its mental health crisis. A wave of yellow overtook the town as part of the Gezza Cares movement; a campaign to end stigma and encourage people to seek support. Locals tied yellow ribbons to everything from public parks to their mailboxes. 

Yellow ribbons tied around the posts of Gerringong Town Hall

Yellow ribbons tied around the posts of Gerringong Town Hall

“Seeing the town ... trying to take a stand and suffocate that stigma of mental health..It kind of fills your heart to know that everyone truly does care,” Cooper says. 

The Quiet Cost

One in three young Australians reported high or very high levels of psychological distress during the pandemic.

2020 HEADSPACE SURVEY

50 per cent of young people accessing Headspace services reported that Covid-19 had an impact on their confidence achieving future goals.

2020 HEADSPACE SURVEY

One iN five young people rated their mental health as poor.

- 2021 AUSTRALIA TALKS SURVEY

No Guarantees

Unlike a typical dance studio, there are no wall-to-wall mirrors at Alegria, one of Sydney’s selective ballet schools. Instead, the students' performance is reflected in the feedback of co-owners Hilary Kaplan and Archibald McKenzie, “known as Archie, in the business.”

During class, their voices permeate the white space.

"Lengthen those spines," Hilary shouts. 

"Samantha,” Archie calls out from the piano. “Are you breathing at all while you’re dancing? I suggest you breathe.”

Hilary describes herself and Archie as perfectionists. 

“We are striving for the ideal which is almost unattainable,” she says. 

“Yes, we're tough,” Archie adds. “But...we’re trying to develop them as artists.”

Archibald McKenzie and Hilary Kaplan, co-owners of Alegria

Archibald McKenzie and Hilary Kaplan, co-owners of Alegria

Alegria boasts an impressive success rate, with three of its past students in London’s prestigious Royal Ballet and countless others dancing across the world. Leaving Australia is a crucial part of moving Samantha’s ballet career forward. 

“There are a lot more schools on offer and a lot more jobs overseas,” Samantha says.

But Archie warns when it comes to being accepted abroad, nothing is a given. 

“You might have hundreds of people auditioning and you might end up with maybe one, maybe two positions, or maybe none,” he says.

“There’s no guarantee.”

Despite the odds, Samantha will audition for multiple schools. And she’s not prepared to let a global pandemic get in the way of her goals.

But COVID-19 isn't the only thing she has to worry about.

Samantha reconsiders wearing her pointe shoes after experiencing some foot pain

Samantha reconsiders wearing her pointe shoes after experiencing some foot pain

a Snap Decision

Driving through Portland, Victoria, about four hours west of Melbourne, Mercedes points out some of the small town’s landmarks; there’s the docks, the tram-line, the restaurant with the good garlic bread. 

Its economy relies on fishing and the local aluminium smelter. 

“I actually was not aware there was a Portland in the USA until I started looking up Portland and it started coming up with America,” Mercedes says.

“And then I realised… Wait, this isn't the only Portland in the world."

In the years prior to the pandemic, Mercedes had made a name for herself as a local boxer with a promising career ahead. She was splashed across the local newspaper after defeating an Australian title silver medallist. 

Mercedes would wake up at 6am to train before going to class, returning to the gym once the school day was over. For her, boxing was both meditative and a career dream. 

“Coming out of my last fight and going straight into lockdown was hard on the mind,” she says. 

It was then Mercedes made a “snap” decision to quit. 

“I didn't wanna just focus on what I'm good at, I wanna focus on what would make me more happy,” Mercedes explains. 

“So my plan is now to focus on my studies and hopefully get a job soon.”

Mercedes reflects on the difficulties of finding employment in a small town

Mercedes reflects on the difficulties of finding employment in a small town

Scapegoats of the Crisis

15 TO 19 YEAR OLDS ARE THE MOST LIKELY TO LOSE THEIR JOB DUE TO SHUTDOWNS OF NON-ESSENTIAL SERVICES AND PHYSICAL DISTANCING MEASURES.

THOSE AGED 20-29 ARE NEXT MOST AFFECTED.

- Grattan Institute

IN MAY OF 2020, 28 PER CENT OF YOUNG PEOPLE AGED 18-24 WERE NOT ABLE TO PAY THEIR RENT ON TIME IN THE PREVIOUS THREE MONTHS.

- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 



“THERE'S A REAL RISK THAT YOUNG PEOPLE WILL BE THE SCAPEGOATS OF THIS CRISIS AND HISTORY SHOWS AFTER THE GFC AND AFTER THE 90S RECESSION, YOUNG PEOPLE WERE HIT THE HARDEST.” 

- Katherine Ellis, Chief Executive Officer of YacVic

CHAPTER TWO

Lock Down, Stand Up

Timer on, hairbrush in hand, it’s a hot February 2021 evening in Melbourne and Ciang is in lockdown for the third time. 

He’s practicing his stand-up routine in his bedroom, for whenever crowds resume once more.

“It’s like a five-minute story that’s funny. That’s what stand up is to me,” Ciang explains in between rehearsals. 

“Storytelling is important because... I can show you… a different perspective of life.” 

Ciang works for a supermarket chain; he supervises the trucks that come into the depot to pick up and distribute food to grocery stores around Melbourne. 

But he has a different career path in mind.

“If I woke up one day and you had to give me my dream career, it would be hosting a radio show… I would love to have a chance with some acting agency, maybe do a piece with the Melbourne Comedy Festival.” 

Ciang practices his stand-up routine in his bedroom

Ciang practices his stand-up routine in his bedroom

Part of Ciang’s routine tells the story of his first few years in Australia; struggles with learning English and cultural misunderstandings which he now finds humour in. 

Ciang was born in North Sudan and at age three moved to Egypt with his family, a few years later they made the final move to Australia. 

“In Egypt, I had no opportunities. My Dad was working in a meat factory and my Mum was a cleaner,” Ciang says.

“I just feel like when you see that side of life… and you come to a country where you have so many opportunities to better yourself… You don't take it for granted.”

Learning From Loss

Sitting in the locker room of the Gerringong Lions Rugby League Club, Cooper says his whole life has revolved around sport.

As well as playing for his local club, Cooper plays with the St George Illawarra Dragons Under 21s, which could lead to a promising future with the professional NRL team. 

Cooper says some stereotypes around masculinity will always exist when it comes to footy.

“But when it comes to talking about our feelings and our general wellbeing, those stereotypes need to be cut down,” he says.

Cooper reflects on depression within professional football

Cooper reflects on depression within professional football

Before Cooper’s own experience with loss, he says he didn’t really understand how mental health worked. But that his own grief gave him insight into the illness he lost his friends to. 

“It was definitely an eye-opener in the last year,” he says. 

“Realising that you can have everything in the world and everything that you'd think makes you happy, but you can still be sad.”

If this story raises any issues for you, give Lifeline a call on: 13 11 14

The "Make or Break" Audition

It’s the day of Samantha’s video audition for international schools. Traffic is piling up on Sydney’s ANZAC Bridge and she is running late. 

“I’m just a bit stressed out,” she pants, rushing into the studio where the filming will take place.

Samantha films her audition for overseas ballet schools

Samantha films her audition for overseas ballet schools

The video will be sent to multiple schools where their directors will consider everything from technique to height to charisma. 

“It’s in a way the make or break,” Samantha says. 

Rejection could mean having to pick a new career. 

Samantha studies for the HSC at night by distance, after being at the studio weekdays from 9am to at least 3pm.

“My backup plan if ballet doesn't work out is to become a physiotherapist.”

Samantha's collection of trophies

Samantha's collection of trophies

Finding Focus

Mercedes and her mum Nga sit in the car at Portland’s docks, eating KFC. It’s become somewhat of an ongoing ritual, born out of lockdown.

There, they talk about everything from space, to the economy, to what it’s like to be old. 

“It’s just a vibe, eating your dinner in the car,” Mercedes says. 

Since giving up boxing and shifting her focus to searching for a job, Mercedes says she’s re-evaluated her relationship with food. 

“It taught me that being fighting-fit and skinny isn't the only type of beautiful,” she says.  

“I feel like I can eat KFC when I want. I feel a lot less stressed.” 

Nga describes her daughter as someone mature for her age, who always worries about the future.

Mercedes says Nga is someone who never got the chance to enjoy life, having escaped Cambodia in 1979 and spending four years in a Thai refugee camp before coming to Australia.

Mercedes speaks about how much her mother inspires her

Mercedes speaks about how much her mother inspires her

“Out of my heart I feel I want to give her as much as I can, so I pray for a good future for myself so that I can give to her,” Mercedes says.

Mercedes: “In ten years time I'd ask myself: are you happy? That's probably all I'd ask myself.”
Cooper : “I like to think I'd almost be settled down... Having a boy or two boys. I could teach them everything I know and be that role model and get them playing footy.”
Sam: “I would love to graduate Elmhurst Ballet School and then be offered a contract into a company and then be able to perform to a live audience.”
Ciang “I just hope I'm doing what I love doing, which is entertainment...You should watch me, keep your eyes on me, don’t blink.”

CHAPTER THREE

Open City, Open Mic

Club Voltaire is a small, 50-seat theatre, tucked away in a North Melbourne laneway. It’s Friday and the open mic night is sold out; most of the ticket holders are Ciang’s friends. 

He prepares himself for his first time back on stage since the pandemic began. Nervous, he heads to the bar.

“A straight shot of vodka for my show tonight… You should watch it!” Ciang tells the bartender. 

Ciang back on stage for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic

Ciang back on stage for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic

After the show, Ciang is buzzing with energy. 

“Some of the jokes were really hitting,” he says excitedly. 

“I didn't get paid, but next time, next time I will get paid!”