Jafar Panahi, Laura Poitras, and Other Filmmakers Reflect on the Pandemic Year

At its Cannes premiere, the anthology film The Year of the Everlasting Storm was introduced by a producer as “inspired by Jafar Panahi’s films in artistic confinement.” The COVID-19 lockdown introduced a shocking level of domestic captivity for people across the globe, but for the Iranian filmmaker, who has either been under house arrest or otherwise had his movement restricted for more than a decade, it was business as usual. American film company Neon invited Panahi and six other directors to make short films during the height of the pandemic. The results, unified by themes of family and digital connectivity, were otherwise impressively varied, given the constraints under which they were made.

Panahi’s short, Life, is camped in the same setting as his 2011 feature This Is Not a Film (which had to be smuggled out of Iran in a flash drive hidden in a cake), the Tehran home he shares with his wife and an elderly iguana named Iggy. Here Iggy is his muse; he films his reptilian companion lounging about or slowly entering his hidey-hole. Iggy gets his perfect comic adversary when Panahi’s mother, bored of isolation and desperate to see her family, pays a surprise visit, clad in full PPE and spraying sanitizer on everything. The film finds pathos in her longing to see her granddaughter and comedy in her grudge against Iggy, who slinks off with cold-blooded dignity to sunbathe elsewhere. 

Anthony Chen, whose debut feature Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’Or at Cannes 2013, sets his drama Wet Season in Tongzhou, China. Its diary structure draws on the increasing tension of a small family confined to an even smaller space. The wife is working from home as a telemarketer, while the husband is a car salesman whose job became pointless when the pandemic hit. She is so brittle that she snaps, he is so loose that he unravels, and both struggle to present a sense of normalcy to their young son, who doesn’t understand why he can’t go outside.

Poster for The Year of the Everlasting Storm

In Little Measures, Malik Vitthal uses a combination of camera phone footage and animation to illustrate the predicament of Black man in California who is legally prohibited from seeing his kids. A court date to renegotiate his visitation rights has been pushed back due to the lockdown, so he tries to express his love for them through the phone. Vitthal sensualizes his mundane inquiries like what the kids are eating, epitomizing the idea of “so near, yet so far.”

The most bracing chapter is the nonfiction short Terror Contagion by Laura Poitras, a peek at an investigation into the Israeli cyberweapons company NSO Group Technologies, whose spyware Pegasus is used in the remote surveillance of smartphones. Poitras builds the film around recordings of video calls with her fellow investigators from Forensic Architecture. The techniques of data journalism illustrate how Pegasus works like a virus within networks of connected people, and her personal testimony drives home the devastating psychological impact of being surveilled. Poitras links cyber violence to physical violence, using as a case study the Saudi assasination of dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

The most dramatic tonal shift comes when that segment is followed by Dominga Sotomayor’s Sin Titulo, 2020, a hangout film set in Santiago, Chile. The colors are sensational, but the plotting feels slight. A portrait of a mother’s relationship with her two daughters, its subtle observational storytelling might have come alive if it were placed elsewhere in the anthology. Unlike in Sotomayer’s masterful 2018 feature Too Late to Die Young, this vignette doesn’t have a chance to blossom into something bigger. 

Dig Up, My Darling by David Lowery is the most narratively adventurous of the bunch. Set in Texas, it follows a woman named Clyde as she discovers a bundle of letters while searching her garage. The scarcity of food suggests a world in the midst of an even more dire crisis than our own. Reading the letters sets her on a path to commune with the dead. The result is beautiful and eerie.

The best is saved for last. Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul also had a feature in competition at Cannes this year (the Tilda Swinton-starring Memoria, which ultimately won the Jury Prize), but Night Colonies is by no means an afterthought. The stage is a strip light over a bed that draws insects in droves. Weerasethakul records their sounds, an orchestra of chirps, and follows individual creepy-crawlies according to personal whim. The effect is hypnotizing. When a small lizard paws at the light, it is ineffably moving. The overall impact of The Year of the Everlasting Storm is to illustrate its filmmakers as alone together in a remote community. Wherever we are in the world — isolated or not — we can bet that there are others out there driven to snatch moments of connection from humdrum life under strain.


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Author: Sophie Monks Kaufman