Not quite 20 years ago, notable filmmakers from around the globe were invited to contribute short films to an omnibus feature about September 11th. The result, with only a couple of exceptions, was flat-out terrible, serving primarily as a reminder that it takes time to process something so momentous and turn it into compelling, meaningful art. So there was reason to be skeptical about The Year Of The Everlasting Storm, a similar project in which seven directors from four countries tackle the pandemic that we’re still very much in the middle of; while the film assembles an impressive roster of talent, that didn’t rescue September 11. This time, however, there are no outright disasters and two superlative shorts, one of which may well turn out to be this year’s single greatest cinematic achievement. Even if the rest are mostly forgettable, that batting average still qualifies as success in this notoriously erratic mini-genre.
By far the least interesting segments are those that merely depict the locked-down world we’ve all inhabited for the past year and a half. “The Break Away,” from Anthony Chen (Wet Season), kicks off with an ominous “Day 1,” Contagion-style, then proceeds to chronicle the gradual strain on a Chinese couple’s marriage as the man (Zhang Yu) loses his job—nobody’s driving, so auto salesmen have little to do—and the woman (Zhou Dongyu) struggles to work from home while being constantly pestered by their rambunctious small child. A bit more narrowly focused is Dominga Sotomayor’s “Sin Título, 2020,” from Chile, in which a new grandmother (Francisca Castillo, the director’s own mom) must see the baby from a distance, standing masked on the street several stories below her child’s apartment. Neither film is bad, but both traffic in exactly the details and emotions that one would expect from a COVID-19 drama.
That’s not an issue for the three documentary shorts included here, two of which are only tangentially related to the pandemic (and would likely have been much the same had it never happened). “Little Measures,” directed by Malik Vitthal (Imperial Dreams), talks with a dad struggling to see his kids, who’ve all been in foster care for many years; it’s inherently poignant, but omits virtually any context about why the state intervened and continues to deny custody, making the film feel sanitized for its subjects’ protection. Laura Poitras’ “Terror Contagion” plays like a companion piece to her acclaimed Citizenfour, investigating abuses of government surveillance (exacerbated by COVID contact tracing). The longest of the seven shorts, at about 25 minutes, it consists largely of Zoom conferences with Poitras and members of a research group called Forensic Architecture, and plays like an excerpt from a feature that would have provided much more context. The best of this bunch is “Life,” a sequel of sorts to Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film, which briefly made an arthouse star of the family’s pet iguana, Iggy. The lizard’s back and now terrorizing Panahi’s elderly mother, who’s equally afraid of getting sick and shows up to visit in a full-body hazmat suit. The way that these anxieties resolve, if temporarily, is downright heartwarming.
Shrewdly, The Year Of The Everlasting Storm reserves its two strongest segments for the home stretch. David Lowery (whose latest solo feature, The Green Knight, is currently in theaters) puts an imaginative spin on the concept with “Dig Up My Darling,” which seems to be set in the present but concerns an unspecified outbreak of disease that happened roughly a century ago (albeit a bit too late for it to be the Spanish flu; the virus might be Lowery’s invention). Anchored by a silent, almost Clint Eastwood-esque central performance by Catherine Machovsky—who doesn’t seem to be a professional actor, as she has no other IMDb credits—it starts out as the fairly straightforward tale of an epistolary request very belatedly fulfilled, but there’s an unexpected, quasi-supernatural development at the end that genuinely provokes thought, while also reminding us that Lowery’s other films include A Ghost Story. Productively vague and allusive, and gorgeously evocative (not least when Bill Callahan reads some ancient letters in his inimitable voiceover), “Dig Up My Darling” proves that filmmakers can think outside the box about recent (or current) tragedy.
And then there’s Thailand’s avant-garde genius Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), who arguably ignored the assignment altogether yet still produced a masterpiece that speaks—however elliptically—to this era. “Night Colonies,” the feature’s closing short, couldn’t be more simple: “Joe” (as the director is commonly known by English speakers) set up an array of hot, bright lights overlooking an empty bed fitted with bone-white sheets, presumably left one of the building’s windows open, and filmed the multitudinous insect life attracted by the glow. That’s it—but no nature documentary has ever looked or sounded remotely like this. The first shot alone astounds, not so much due to what happens (though it’s grotesquely fascinating) as by virtue of the disjunction between the violence of nature and the otherwise pristine context. Various other critters crawl, fly, buzz, and hop around, captured in unmistakably and hypnotically synchronous sound. (Joe recorded it himself.) Precious few films ever made have achieved this level of concentrated visual and aural… “splendor” seems like an odd word to describe totally uninflected bug footage, but that’s nonetheless le mot juste.
What’s this arthropod fest got to do with the pandemic? Maybe nothing—it’s not hard to imagine Joe, who regularly makes short films, shooting it years ago. But given that the setting closely resembles Cemetery Of Splendor’s school converted to a hospital, and that film’s portrait of comatose people stricken by a virus, some mighty grim interpretations spring to mind. In any case, great is great, whether or not the greatness belongs where it was filed. Two directors creatively rising to a topical challenge is two more than we ordinarily get.