From the moment this pandemic began, it’s been difficult to totally gauge its toll. It would be easy to say the daily ups and downs have played out like a film, but at least you can often see the end of a film coming before it arrives. It’s the way they follow easy, familiar tracks that makes them so inviting, so comforting.
“The Year of the Everlasting Storm,” an evocative anthology film capturing the human scale of the pandemic, in personal detail, offers a different kind of comfort. From all parts of the globe, seven filmmakers, ranging from David Lowery to Jafar Panahi, helm seven distinct stories, each grappling through their art with the unknowability of the past year-plus. They turn to hyperactive animation, personal and investigative documentary filmmaking, a meditative art installation, and some heartbreaking fictional storytelling to vocalize every facet of this worldwide crisis.
The opening vignette by the subversive Iranian director Panahi (he’s also an executive producer on this project) leans into his proven talent for articulating the movements of the outside through the interiority of the domestic (he filmed “This is Not a Movie” while on house arrest). His documentary section, in this film, sees his mother visiting him and his wife at their home. She arrives, humorously, with great caution, dressed head-to-toe in white PPE gear.
This first section moves at a glacial pace: The big climax is Panahi’s mother Facetiming with her granddaughter Solmaz. But the short’s quiet, emotional core resides in Izzy, Panahi’s pet iguana, who spends the better part of the film forlorn, starring outside at two pigeon eggs. By focusing on Izzy and the grandmother — she’s often uneasy around the iguana, yet soon comes to love him — Panahi doesn’t just hit the easy symbolism of isolation. He shows how the most desperate of situations can and should band together the unlikeliest of beings. And he does so on the barest of equipment.
For this anthology, the participating filmmakers were restricted by a number of boundaries: They could only shoot at the location of their quarantine. Their production equipment and crafts, including costumes and props, needed to be available onsite. Panahi took these directives to heart, and thrived. The other filmmakers, thankfully, were not as dogmatic.
The contribution from Singaporean director Anthony Chen (“The Wet Season”) takes place in Tongzhou, China during the nascent days of the pandemic. Unlike Panahi’s touching vignette, Chen’s movie isn’t about a family coming together. Rather they’re breaking part, revealing the cracks in their familial foundation. It follows a husband (Yu Zhang) and wife (Dongyu Zhou) caring for their young delightful son Xiahao, who doesn’t know why he can’t go outside. The mother works her telemarketing job from home, while her recently unemployed, selfish husband gives away their money and barely takes the contagious perils of the pandemic seriously.
Director Malik Vitthal (“Imperial Dreams”), in his film, offers a barrage of static distorted sounds, low-res Facetime videos, and gold-colored animation, as a Los Angeles father struggling with PTSD tries to remain connected with his three foster-care-placed children. For her vignette, Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”) teams with Forensic Architecture in New York City, USA to investigate a shadow cyber terrorist group named NSO. The group is using a spyware known as Pegasus to virtually threaten journalists and activists, plus their friends and families, by accessing their emails and personal information, intel that will later lead to physical violence being levied. Poitras conducts her interviews via Zoom, revealing this other crisis that occurred during the pandemic.
On their face, Vitthal and Poitras’ shorts have little to do with the scourge of COVID-19. But the LA father, currently fighting to regain custody of his children, is stuck in a holding pattern because the pandemic has forced closure of the family courts. And Pegasus is being shopped to American police forces during a summer where Black Lives Matter have taken to the streets, making both feel plenty relevant.
It would not be fair to say that this sprawling anthology has a weak link. Though the brief short by Chilean filmmaker Dominga Sotomayor (“Thursday Till Sunday”), wherein an estranged mother and daughter venture outside to deliver food to a newborn relative, is slight, it does eventually give way to a choir performing over Zoom that’s acutely soul-stirring.
On the other hand, the quasi-period piece and present-day road movie by David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”), is fleeting yet haunting. Here, a mask-wearing scavenging older woman (Catherine Machovsky) traveling in a beat-up pickup truck comes across a storage unit filled with letters dating back to 1926 from New Orleans, Louisiana. The perspective is often shifting: a grave voiceover of the father who wrote these epistolaries to a distant son, informing him of his brother’s death from a contagious virus, streams while this present-day woman drives across the desolate Texas landscape. Lowery’s often concerned with existential dread and how the dead speak to us from beyond the grave. That ability is used to heartbreaking, sob-inducing effect, here, as we learn more and more about a deceased child, the subject of the letter.
Every segment, barring one, in “The Year of the Everlasting Storm” has a direct aim. It’s fitting then, that the concluding film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Tropical Malady”) is seemingly opaque in its significance. A formless narrative, Weerasethakul fixes his lens on an empty bed surrounded by blinding lights. Bugs such as flies, grasshoppers, and wasps crawl across the bed sheet. Super-zoomed shots film them in rich detail while a poem scrawls over the mundane action.
It’s a quiet conclusion, sometimes punctuated by a static voice explaining a barely connected story concerning anger and mistaken identity. Our present reality feels as equally indecipherable: When will this all end? That comfort cannot be given. But the seven filmmakers at the center of “The Year of the Everlasting Storm” do give a slash of cathartic release, a dash of humor and a large batch of necessary pathos to make the world feel a little less lonely, a little less small.
Neon will release “The Year of the Everlasting Storm” in theaters on Friday, September 3.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.