Progress Through Purgatory

By: Jonathan Champagne '13, 
Mon, 07/06/2020

Around this time last year, I decided that my next film would be loosely based on Dante’s famous Purgatorio. And it would’ve been—had the COVID-19 pandemic not brought my production to a fierce halt. Now, it looks like the “purgatory” theme is much better suited to the current state of the world than it is to my most recent screenplay, as society is caught between worlds, trapped in a mist of uncertainty, and struggling to return to an unknown reality that will someday be called “normal.”

And in the midst of it all, there’s you: an unsuspecting passenger, wandering through the wilderness as you exit a year of relative normalcy and enter a future like none you’ve ever experienced. In your wake, stories tell of your sacrifices: internships revoked, classes moved online, and toughest of all, friendships and relationships stretched thin.

In short, the treadmill of predictability that’s been turning for so long has come to a complete stop, and whether we like it or not, our usual bastions of progress have been replaced with idle, anxious time.  How can we move forward when the world seems so stuck?

I found myself asking the same question not long ago before I decided to become an independent filmmaker. After trying my hand at multiple careers, I decided to take some much-needed time away from job-hunting to explore my own ambitions instead. For nearly a month I lay idle, turning my thoughts inward as I waited for the knowledge I knew had to find the ideas I knew I was having.

It was a strange and surreal time. Days went by without anything to show. But soon, I drew closer.

“I wonder what it’s like to live like this all the time?” I thought. “That would make a pretty interesting film.”

A film?

“How much would that cost to produce? Wait a minute—I bet I could do this with some research and what I already know.”

So I did.

Two months later it was finished, and a year later it screened at its first festivals. My brief journey through the unknown led to progress I never knew I’d find, and a sense of clarity that has only sharpened as time presses onward.

And so you, too, have been thrust into a similar environment. One where you are challenged by your innate desire to find progress in a world of uncertainty and changing opportunities. To that end I have only one world of advice: EXPLORE.

Far too often we neglect our personal ambitions in favor of more visible work experiences believing it’s the best way forward, when in reality our passions are equally as rich and valuable—if not more so—than what overtakes them. It’s in times like these that I’m reminded that my own decision to explore, which has now become my career, wasn’t made during a time of routine advancement and study, but rather a period of self-reflection and curiosity where expectations were minimal.

And guess what? Everybody is stuck right now, so you haven’t got a thing to lose by trying. The applications of your degree are BOUNDLESS, and film production is just one of the many ways in which the economics discipline stretches far beyond its usual opportunities.

Sure, Purgatory is a strange place to be, but just remember: with a little courage and determination, at the other end is Paradise.

Jonathan Champagne ’13 is a Cornell Economics alum and Film Producer at Silverside Productions. His short film, “The Pigeon,” will screen at the Manhattan Film Festival later this summer, while his latest project, “Company Retreat,” is scheduled to shoot in mid-August.

Jonathan Champagne ('13 standing next to two actors from his film "The Pigeon"