Friday, September 03, 2021

The Year of the Everlasting Storm, from Jafar Panahi and Others

Good news Jafar Panahi’s pet iguana Iggy is still living happily in his Tehran flat. We last saw Iggy in Panahi’s This is Not a Film, the banned Iranian filmmaker’s secretly produced film documenting his life under house arrest. Since then, Panahi’s digital minimalist approach to filmmaking became a model for filmmakers stuck inside during Covid lock-downs, so he was naturally recruited as an executive producer and a contributor to the quarantine-themed anthology, The Year of the Everlasting Storm, which opens today in New York.

To a large extent, Panahi’s “Life” effectively functions as a sequel to
This is Not a Film, since it shares the same setting and straight-forward documentary approach. Arguably, it is the lightest-weight of Panahi’s films, but the appealing personalities of the Panahi family make it a pleasant viewing experience. More than anything, it is about the family’s efforts to keep in touch during the CCP pandemic. He also rather remarkably ends it on an upbeat note, which radically distinguishes it from the rest of the anthology’s constituent films.

In contrast, Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen’s “The Break Away” dramatizes the tensions and frictions that develop when families are confined with each other. Zhou Dongyu and Zhang Yu portray parents locked-down in Tongzhou, China, who are quickly beset by financial pressures and regular couples’ issues. By now, it represents a familiar looking pandemic drama, but it is well played and executed.

Malik Vittal’s “Little Measures” is essentially an extended news report documenting a family separated during the Covid era, for non-Covid reasons, dressed up with some hip graphics. It is well-intentioned, but not very substantial.

For better or worse, Laura Poitras’s “Terror Contagion” certainly sticks out from the rest of the film, like a sore-thumb. The helmer of
Citizenfour spent a good deal of her lockdown trying to dig up dirt on the Israeli spyware firm NSO, with her colleagues in the muckraking collective, Forensic Architecture.

They claim to trace NSO’s fingerprints over all sorts of hacking and surveillance, but strictly speaking, they do not present any proof. Perhaps most notably, they claim NSO is complicit in the Saudi assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. If that is true, think about the implications: Saudi government elements working in concert with an Israeli company. Maybe there’s hope for peace in the Middle East after all.

Yet, Poitras and her colleagues make some points a lot of viewers might not want to hear. They discovered NSO has repurposed their software and pitched it to local governments for the purpose of contact tracing. The truth is the pandemic’s potential to erode civil liberties is truly terrifying. Perversely, the ACLU just endorsed vaccine mandates, as “a justifiable intrusion on autonomy and bodily integrity.” At this point, how likely are they to object if state and local government starts contracting NSO’s contact-tracing services? Hopefully, Poitras and company would, which makes “Terror Contagion” valuable just for raising such issues. They just should have made a real case, instead of assuming viewers would take their word for it.

Switching gears, Dominga Sotomayor’s “Sin Titulo 2020” is another conventional (at this point) pandemic narrative, in which a mother and grown daughter walk around their provincial home before taking a drive to the city. Honestly, if you remember anything about this short film a week after watching it, email me and I’ll review the film of your choice the next weekend (contingent on my streaming access).

In contrast, David Lowery’s “Dig Up, My Darling” is sure to stick with viewers. It is sort of the Covid-version of Chloe Zhao’s
Nomadland, but it maintains an elegiac sense of mystery, while the voice-overs of the main character’s late father (preserved in the letters she still carries) drives the narrative. It really is a perfect example of the potency of short format filmmaking.

Then there’s Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s “Night Colonies,” which reflects the Thai auteur at his most abstract and experimental. It maybe super-super elliptically also addresses the Thai Milk Tea protests, but it is really more of an austere exercise in visual composition.

Despite the self-imposed limits of its conception and external limits imposed by the pandemic,
Everlasting Storm is a highly mixed and inconsistent collection of work. The contributions of Panahi and Lowery are very rewarding and those of Poitras and Chen have their merits, but the rest are more like filler. Still, that is not a terrible percentage for anthologies. Earning a qualified recommendation for admirers of those four filmmakers, The Year of the Everlasting Storm opens today (9/3) in New York, at the IFC Center.