The pandemic movies have begun. That is, documentaries started arriving nearly a year ago; now it’s fiction films. “Together,” about a British COVID-cooped-up couple, opened last month. This week there’s the anthology film “The Year of the Everlasting Storm.”
“Storm,” which comprises seven shorts, does include one nonfiction film. Laura Poitras, who won an Oscar for the Edward Snowden documentary “Citzenfour” (2014), directed it. One month into the pandemic, the human rights research group Forensic Architecture asked Poitras to join its investigation of NSO Group, an Israeli technology firm specializing in “nation-state-level cyberweapons.”
Poitras includes screenshots, Zoom sessions, surveillance footage, even voicemails. The overall effect is both hypnotic and deeply unsettling, like watching a real-life William Gibson novel. What’s it doing in an anthology about the pandemic? Its title is “Terror Contagion.” COVID-19 hasn’t been the only destructive viral force at work over the past year.
Of the six remaining films, all but one center on family. Most feature lots of smartphone use. That’s about it for similarities. Oh, and they’re all a reminder that brevity is hard to pull off. A short that’s too short feels incomplete. A short that’s too long doesn’t feel like a short. Where’s Goldilocks when you need her?
Jafar Panahi’s “Life” is slyly deadpan, eccentric, and unexpected, as most of the Iranian director’s films are. It features Panahi, his wife, his 90-year-old mother (who arrives at the front door all PPE’d up), a Skype call with his daughter, a large pet lizard named Iggy, and two pigeons on the balcony who’ve laid eggs. All this takes place in the Panahi apartment. The unspoken twist is that Iranian authorities have had him under some version of house arrest for the past decade. Lockdown is no unfamiliar experience for him.
The twist in Anthony Chen’s “The Break Away” is that the film was shot in China, but Chen (”Ilo, Ilo”) directed via Zoom from London. A couple and their young son live in an urban apartment. “This virus should blow over soon,” a grandparent says in a phone call. It’s January 2020. Confinement over the course of the next few months takes a domestic toll.
The briefest film, Malik Vitthal’s “Little Measures,” is also in some ways the busiest. Visually, it’s a salad: car-camera footage, phone footage, split screens, even some animation. A father is separated by court order from his three children, who are living with a foster family. “I dream of things as simple as having a meal together,” he says. That it’s a sentiment shared by countless others makes the words all the more affecting.
The handsomest-looking film is the Chilean director Dominga Santomayor’s “Sin Título, 2020” (in English, “No Title, 2020″). It has the understated, dark-hued look of Flemish painting. A middle-aged woman works in her greenhouse and practices for her choral group. She reunites with one grown daughter and learns that her other has just given birth. The new grandmother and aunt go to visit, but the baby can only be brought out on a balcony to be seen. It’s another version of the separation wrought by the pandemic, as is the eerie emptiness of the Santiago streets they drive through.
Set in Texas during what appears to be a dystopian near future, “Dig Up My Darling” is directed by David Lowery (”The Green Knight”). Catherine Machovsky plays a woman who seems to be living out of her pickup truck. Reading some old letters she has rescued from a trailer or storage pod, she learns of the death of a young man and his sudden burial. She sets off to make amends. Machovsky speaks no dialogue (we hear the letters read in voice-over), but the way her expression can blend tenderness and grimness has an eloquence beyond speech.
The Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (”Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”) concludes “Storm” with “Night Colonies.” It’s easily the most distinctive-looking and cryptic of the films. The only people seen are in photographs. Instead, the focus is on insects of various sorts — a mantis, flies, numerous others; no designations are given — moving and buzzing against a white cloth background under harsh artificial light. They’re a part of nature, just as are we; and, ultimately, there’s not much difference between the two. Yes, we’re the ones with the movie equipment. But we’re also the ones who’ve been devastated by a pandemic.
THE YEAR OF THE EVERLASTING STORM
Written and directed by Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. At Kendall Square, 121 minutes. Unrated. In English, Farsi, Mandarin, Spanish, and Thai, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.