If you were not one of the lucky ones who still had a job and were able to work from home or were considered a front-line worker, how did you spend your time during last year’s enforced worldwide lockdowns? Did you make and bake bread? Did you spend oodles of money watching streaming content? Did you catch up with your reading? Did you obsessively watch the news hoping against hope that this would end soon? Did you hone your skills or learned new ones?
For the many performing and visual artists who suddenly found themselves unemployed after countless arts and entertainment venues shut their doors down for an entire year, and whose projects came to a standstill and for a good long while did not receive any support from foundations or the government, the lockdown provided them with a new opportunity to keep those creative juices flowing as they figured out how to make a living. They found new ways to present their work, through dozens of virtual platforms, to a worldwide audience hungry for a connection, for some semblance of humanity even if they couldn’t applaud the artist and the artist couldn’t tell if their work was connecting with them. In most cases these artists created work that spoke to our sense of isolation and addressed the social inequities that bubbled to the top. And thus, The Year of the Everlasting Storm, an anthology film that brings together seven filmmakers from across the globe, each contributing a meditation on what life meant during Year One of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The parameters proposed by the film’s producers were pretty straightforward: shooting would be confined to the location where the filmmaker was quarantined; props, costumes and equipment would be limited to what’s available onsite; and no outdoor shooting would be allowed. Of course, rules were meant to be broken and two of the film’s contributors, Dominga Sotomayor and David Lowery, venture out into the world.
Co-executive produced by Iranian director Jafar Panahi, the film starts with a quote from French director Robert Bresson, a master of doing and saying more with less: “One does not create by adding, but by taking away.” Panahi is the living embodiment of this ethos. Ever since he was convicted in December 2010 for “making propaganda against the system” by Iran’s Islamist government, placed under house arrest and banned from making films for 20 years, Panahi has directed—and smuggled out of his country—what many consider his best films, all shot and edited during his confinement: This Is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013) and Taxi (2015). So it should come as no surprise that Panahi kicks off this anthology with his own contribution: “Life.”
The action of Panahi’s latest auto-fictional work properly begins with a ring of his apartment’s buzzer. It’s his elderly mother, fully dressed in a PPE suit. As soon as she walks through the door of his Tehran apartment, she begins to recriminate him for dropping the groceries off at her apartment door and then disappearing. “I’m old and I cannot go on without seeing you guys,” she laments.
Panahi’s mother feels uncomfortable sharing the same room with his pet iguana, Izzy, who spends most of the day staring out the window at a pair of rather yummy pigeon eggs and hiding underneath a dresser. Panahi’s mother chats with her granddaughter in Paris through Facetime and talks to Panahi about her inheritance while she catalogs the jewelry she brought with her—simple acts, warmly recorded by Panahi’s and his wife’s smartphones and his own digital camera. “Life” reminds us of what we missed most during the first stage of the pandemic: to be physically together with our loved ones, particularly our elderly, the first tragic victims of COVID-19.
“The Break Away,” Anthony Chen’s portrait of a family hunkering down in Tongzhou, China during the first 40-plus days of the pandemic may come too close for comfort for some. It is, in a way, about how some of us may have driven each other insane during lockdown, about how those tiny things that we ignored in our relationships were magnified.
Let go by the car dealership he worked for because no one is driving, a husband tries to care for his only child while his wife works a call center from home. He only wants to have sex with her and disregards all health and safety protocols. The child can’t understand why he’s no longer allowed to play outside and the wife is trying to keep her cool. It’s a pressure cooker. Chen shows, with this simple tale, how similar our experiences were to those living in other parts of the world during this time, especially in a country demonized for a certain former president.
Marik Vitthal’s documentary-animation hybrid, “Little Measures,” focuses on an African-American father’s attempts to keep his family together after his three children were sent to separate foster homes, an effort derailed by the pandemic. Instead of adding to the story, the animation distracts and detracts from it, especially when the use of multiple images from different sources and distorted sound were more than enough to convey the sense of disruption experienced by the father.
Zoom meetings, computer graphics and a camera positioned in her apartment window pointing at the police officers right outside are Laura Poitras’ (Citizen Four) weapons of choice for her contribution, “Terror Contagion.” Produced with research group Forensic Architecture, “Terror Contagion” reveals how governments around the world used Pegasus, a spyware developed by an Israeli company, against journalists—including Mexico’s Carmen Aristegui—political opponents and human rights activists. This very same company is now using this technology to develop contact-tracing tools. The Pegasus spyware may not be a biological virus but Poitras and Forensic Architecture argue that it does have the same lethal power. Eye-opening, insightful and chilling, Poitras’ contribution deserves to be expanded into a feature-length film. I hope it happens soon.
Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor’s “Sin título, 2020” feels more like a proof-of-concept for a far longer, more observational feature than a short film. A mother is recording her contribution to a choir on her tablet when she receives a call and drives off to pick up her daughter who has decided to camp outdoors in violation of the lockdown. Later, after downloading a permit, they both set off to throw a physically distanced baby shower for the other daughter. It ends in a rousing, virtual chorus, but other than that there’s not much here.
David Lowery’s (A Ghost Story, The Green Knight) “Dig UP MY Darling” looks at a past pandemic as a woman rummages through a garage, finds a stash of old letters written in 1926 and sets off to find the anonymous roadside grave of a boy who died during a pandemic. As she drives to her destination, we hear the letter writer’s voice as he reads what he’s written to his estranged son about his brother’s death, his voice soon overtaken by the reminiscences of that dead boy. One line stands out for me, especially after a recent COVID-related family tragedy: “All the people I thought were good turned out to be bad.” It hits you like a ton of bricks, particularly now given the bad faith actions of so many of our fellow humans in this ongoing pandemic.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s art installation film, “Night Colonies,” is an appropriate, peaceful coda to this anthology. Several white neon lights hanging from tripods and pedestals shine bright over an empty, fully clothed bed, attracting myriad of flying insects. The camera zooms in on them and on the black and white photos on the walls as a new world order seems to come to life and replace the old one. The insects’ buzzing overpowers the soundtrack and the distant human voices from the August 20 anti-government protests in Bangkok woven into it. The images and sound hint at an apocalypse that is already here.
Featured image: Anthony Chen’s “The Break Away”