The Robert Bresson quote that opens the anthology film “Year of the Everlasting Storm” — “you don’t create by adding, but by taking away” — makes a tidy adage of the time-honored idea that deprivation breeds innovation. Just as the signees of the Dogme 95 Manifesto believed that restricting themselves along various formal guidelines would enforce a newfound authenticity in their work, the seven directors contributing to this omnibus operate under the premise that the obstructions of the COVID-19 era could be more boon than bane, compelling them to get crafty and dig deeper. For those in countries still in the throes of lockdown during production, that may just mean constraining the camera to the home; for those in areas that have turned a corner on the pandemic, the circumstances still lend themselves to small, stripped-down shoots. In either case, their output must necessarily reproduce the spirit of this unique moment in the respect that, all together now, every movie is a documentary of its own, making imbued with the ideology of its cultural context.
And so this collection of shorts ultimately has more utility as an artifact capturing a once-in-a-generation juncture of world history than art unto itself, not unlike the flash flood of documentaries tackling this same topic. Each filmmaker adds a decidedly minor entry to their catalog over the two-plus long hours making up this global survey of the tedium, paranoia, and mournfulness that’s defined the past fifteenish months. A measure of slightness can’t be avoided, considering the terms of the assignment at hand, but the standouts of the bunch work this limitation to their advantage while the thinner, duller sections struggle to overcome it.
Having spent nearly a decade under house arrest on the threat of imprisonment by the Iranian government, Jafar Panahi was perhaps better-suited than most to the unusual mental and physical strains of the quarantine. His simply titled “Life” fits snugly into his recent run of on-the-down-low housebound pictures, picking up in a world where everyone is now subject to the immobilization and anxiety he’s lived with for years. As such, he’s more zen about things than his colleagues to come, captivated by his beloved pet iguana Iggy and a pigeon hatchling just outside his window. The outer chaos intrudes on his isolated peace when Panahi’s mother, head-to-toe in PPV, flouts the distancing protocols and stops by for a visit. Though a video call with her granddaughter leaves the older woman in low spirits, she settles down and makes good with her former nemesis Iggy. There’s nothing that can’t be waited out, Panahi seems to say, knowing all too well what he’s talking about.
The two most straightforwardly narrative selections, “The Break Away” by Anthony Chen of “Wet Season” note and “Dig Up My Darling” from David Lowery, take opposed tacks in addressing the ruin of coronavirus. Where the former goes direct by chronicling a pair of cash-strapped young parents in urban China as they lose their patience with life and one another, the latter shrouds its commentary in metaphor and allegory, following an older woman with a letter from a plague one century ago. While joined in their focus on responsibility owed beyond yourself, whether to a child or the dead of the past, the lack of literalism in Lowery’s narrative renders it less redundant than Chen’s, which mostly reiterates experiences depicted and discussed to death over the past year.
The pursuit of a novel perspective on an occurrence already analyzed from so many angles lends itself more readily to the personal-essay structure, poised from its maker’s distinct POV. Only Bobby Yay Yay Jones could express how the pandemic exacerbates the pain of losing custody over his children, albeit through animated interludes making “Little Measures” look more like a student thesis than something meant to play in theaters. Laura Poitras comports herself with more focus and polish in “Terror Contagion,” shrinking her features’ trenchant investigation into the digital privacy war between the individual and state to bite-size. From the window of her office in downtown Manhattan, she watches police presence grow more pervasive and militarized; on one particularly eerie afternoon, she records the cops down on the street while they hold up their phones to record her back, a compact illustration of how authority takes even the mildest effort to cultivate accountability as a grave threat. This invasive tension runs parallel to her collaboration with research group Forensic Architecture as they look into Israeli cyberweapons manufacturer NSO, implicitly linked to local law enforcement in their opportunistic exploitation of disarray to seize power during crisis.
The sparse, enigmatic “Sín Titulo, 2020” from “Too Late to Die Young” director Dominga Sotomayor plays like a meditation on the timely theme of rebirth, its gentle hush, and faded, color-altered palette placing it adjacent to the avant-garde. In the final segment, the great Apichatpong Weerasethakul plunges headfirst into that experimental register, privileging noise and sensation over all else to soothing auto sensory effect. His “Night Colonies” observes the flutterings of insects attracted to a bed by a handful of tube lights, the patter of their wings heard in detail minute enough to resemble an intricate, percussive music. Its relevance to the film’s overarching COVID concern is anyone’s guess, though the absence of that relation may be a key aspect of the appeal. The bugs simply are elemental and eternal, unperturbed by our human doings.
The sui generis quality of Weerasethakul’s style underscores the variety of these seven snapshots, less eclectic than scattershot in their mosaic assessment. The lineup of talent appears to have been dictated more by the cards in producer-distributor NEON’s Rolodex than any guiding creative or aesthetic principle, which explains the disjointed fragmentation between the entries at least in part. The thread connecting the finest shorts — Panahi, Poitras, and Joe — is adaptation, the willingness to alter form to match the challenge at hand. Those able to refit their already-developed technique to a new set of standards don’t just get the best results. In their undaunted, humble determination to continue, they embody the present zeitgeist with more fidelity than a thousand post-mortems. [B]
“Life”: [A-]; “The Break Away”: [C+] ; “Little Measures”: [C+]; “Terror Contagion”: [A-]; “Sín Titulo, 2020”: [B]; “Dig Up My Darling”: [B]; “Night Colonies”: [B+]