JULY 14, 2021
While the world reeled from the pandemic, Neon invited seven art-house helmers to share the view from where they were sequestered.
What did you do during the coronavirus lockdown of 2020? Grow a beard? Make bread? Write the Great American Novel? For creative types cooped up during the pandemic, the pressures to adapt to the moment felt enormous, but so did the limitations.
Premiering at Cannes 2021, “The Year of the Everlasting Storm” springs from those competing and seemingly contradictory reactions — to express oneself, or to retreat inward and wait it out — empowering seven filmmakers from different corners of the globe to do what they do best — to make films — during the historic tsunami of uncertainty and fear that was 2020. While the world was in lockdown, this portmanteau project achieved something remarkable, giving artists ranging from Jafar Panahi to Apichatpong Weerasethakul the opportunity to unlock their imaginations.
Panahi, who came aboard early and also served as an executive producer, is no stranger to shooting in restrictive conditions, having directed a film — 2012’s Cannes-selected “This Is Not a Movie” — while under house arrest in Iran. His entry here, “Life,” is likewise bound to his flat in Tehran, where he can identify with his pet iguana, Iggy, who presses its face to the window and licks its lips (do iguanas have lips?) at the pigeon eggs on the other side.
The project originated with a handful of American producers, who proposed a Dogme 95-like series of restrictions (e.g., “Shooting will be confined to the location of filmmaker quarantine. Filmmakers may not shoot in public spaces” and “Props, costumes, and production equipment will be limited to those onsite”). Creativity often thrives within such constraints, and Panahi’s entry reflects the most literal adherence to those rules, incorporating FaceTime sessions with his daughter and a visit from his hilarious, hyper-cautious mother, who arrives armed with disinfectant and dressed in full protective gear.
Audiences accept the grubby digital results from Panahi, as consumer-grade cameras have made it possible for him to continue working during a period of political persecution, but it’s a relief that the five other contributors bend the rules somewhat. Quarantined in Tongzhou, China, Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen (“Wet Season”) offers a time-capsule portrait of how families coped during the pandemic, observing a married couple with a young son during the early days of quarantine.
Shutting herself in the bedroom, the wife (Dongyu Zhou) tries to focus on her job as a telemarketer, while her newly unemployed husband (Yu Zhang) — a car salesman whose clients no longer need transportation — struggles to be useful around the home. As in his Camera d’Or-winning debut feature, “Ilo Ilo,” Chen nimbly alternates between the perspectives of various family members, including adorable son Xiahao, who doesn’t understand why he can’t go outside.
Running only 10 minutes, the segment from Los Angeles-based filmmaker Malik Vitthal, “Little Measures,” responds to a different crisis altogether — a reminder that COVID-19 wasn’t the only challenge the world contended with last year. A natural extension of the Black Lives Matter movement in which an African American father can’t visit his kids — on account of the law, not COVID-19 — this lo-fi multimedia collage combines elements from various sources, mixing camera-phone footage with animation, music and voiceover recordings.
Stuck in her New York apartment but hardly idle during the pandemic, Oscar-winning doc maker Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”) serves up “Terror Contagion,” a sophisticated show-your-work look at her latest investigative project. Technically, it’s a collaboration with a group called Forensic Architecture, who contact her with concerns about the use (and misuse) of surveillance tools countries such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico have licensed from Israel-based NSO Group, which the short identifies as “a private company selling nation-state-level cyberweapons.”
As if audiences needed something other than COVID-19 to worry about, Poitras and company see a far more insidious “virus” in governments’ capacity for enacting “digital violence.” While Poitras’ contribution demonstrates that diligent folks are doing important work during the pandemic, it has a much darker tone than the other shorts (nearly all of which end abruptly, demanding a bit of time to digest, which the format doesn’t necessarily allow).
It’s a relief, therefore, that Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor’s “Sin Titulo, 2020” comes next. Shrouded in a deliberate dull brown haze — the visual equivalent of how 2020 looks in retrospect for so many — this relatively casual entry demonstrates another way that artists adapted to confinement, concluding with a Zoom-style musical performance in which several singers recorded in isolation manage to harmonize when combined into a virtual choir. Earlier in the segment, Sotomayor bends the rules (“public spaces” are forbidden by the film’s producers), sending a mother and daughter out into a near deserted city to throw a spontaneous, socially distanced baby shower.
Contrast that with the long-delayed burial depicted in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery’s “Dig Up, My Darling,” which functions as an evocative companion piece to his 2017 feature “Ghost Story.” Somewhere in Texas, a woman (Catherine Machovsky) in a face mask retrieves a box of letters from storage. As she drives, a man with a deep Southern drawl reads the old pages, describing a family tragedy she sets out to rectify — which involves locating a makeshift grave from another crisis altogether. Who will tend to the corpses of the coronavirus, we may well wonder, and how long will it take to do right by the many lives it claims?
You’ve read this far to find out what Palme d’Or winner Weerasethakul opted to do with such a challenge. Best to leave that discovery to audiences, if only because the “Uncle Boonmee” cine-poet’s “Night Colonies” — which combines fragments of verse with an empty room (or is it?) — would inevitably be reduced by description. One might well ask: How do you visualize a virus? Change the scale, and what we can’t (or choose not to) see becomes apparent.
More art installation than short, the Thai helmer’s segment is modest yet mesmerizing, and could be read as a metaphor for isolation or contagion. Or maybe it’s just a brief reprieve from the exhaustion of being cut off and trapped in our own heads for this long year. In a way, that’s what any movie watched during the shutdown offered, and here we have seven escape routes, each one reconnecting us to a world inevitably transformed by the pandemic — a world where art lives on.