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“The Year of the Everlasting Storm”: Tales of Pandemic Life

A love letter to cinema, shot across the US, Iran, Chile, China and Thailand by seven of today’s most vital filmmakers, The Year of the Everlasting Storm is a timely anthology about the impact of the global pandemic on various countries and cultures. The anthology, which is world-premiered here in the Special Screenings sidebar will be released domestically by A24.

It was only a matter of time for filmmakers to reflect on the multi-layered influence of COVID-19 on our daily lives. Moreover, what makes this assemblage even more relevant is the fact that the original virus (and its variants) is still very much a clear and present danger.

As is well known, as a result of the pandemic, film production (and all other sectors of culture) came to an abrupt halt in March of 2020. Filmmakers around the world, like other citizens, were confined not only to their geographical regions but also to their own homes.

In a few short weeks, familiar modes of socializing, working, and consuming were radically altered. More specifically, filmmaking, as we knew it, had reached a standstill and was deemed unsafe.

Like other film anthologies, The Year of the Everlasting Storm is uneven in terms of narrative interest and artistic quality of the seven comprising panels. The executives of this project, epic in scale and production conditions, have made a smart decision to begin the anthology with the tale of Iranian director Jafar Panâhi and to conclude it with the story by Thailand’s auteur, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The other directors are David Lowery, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, Anthony Chen and Malik Vitthal, all of whom have made human interest stories that are both quirky and offbeat.

Panahi represents a particularly interesting case, as for years he had been under a state-imposed stay-at-home order, forbidden from writing or directing films. However, an innovative artist, Panâhi found bold ways to comment on his situation and absurd confinement. Set inside his Tehran apartment, and co-directed with Mojtaba Mirtahma, This Is Not A Film offered a self-reflexive statement about artists’ enduring spirit.

In this anthology, Panahi’s segment relies on his domestic lockdown story, in which a giant pet iguana (called Iggy) plays a crucial role. The tale revolves around his family’s reactions to their inevitable separation from each other. At one point, Panahi’s mother shows up at their door fully dressed in PPE. After his wife sprays her outerwear with disinfectant, the old woman talks to her granddaughter on a video call, with both exchanging vows of love and sacrifice for each other, even if it means death.

Vitthal’s tale (one of the briefest entries) centers on a Black father’s unconditional love for his three kids, all of whom had been placed in foster homes. Bobby Yay Yay Jones instructs his son about how to act and react when there are gunshots outside. He mentions in passing how he himself was a homeless, neglected child, and how he was forced to deal with PTSD while fighting to regain custody of his kids.

Poitras, who has made the acclaimed political documentary, Citizenfour, about whistleblower Edward Snowden, and Risk, about WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, has directed the anthology’s most urgent (and best) tale. Her futuristic mini-documentary highlights the imminent threat of coronavirus tracing apps, used and abused to increase government and police surveillance of citizens without their knowledge. The film relies on interviews with experts who discuss the “digital infection” of our phones, computers and cameras by malware. The Israeli NSO Group is singled out as prone to intimidate and sue anyone calling them out. It might not be a surprise to learn that NSO is both a cyberweapons manufacturer and a producer of coronavirus tracing apps.

David Lowery, perhaps best known for his indie Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, relates a tale about an eccentric Texas woman (once called Clyde). She sets out to dig up the body of her brother, based on old letters from her father. Years earlier, her father stole his son’s corpse from the hospital and, unable to get it to Texas, he buried him in the remote countryside.

Singapore director Anthony Chen (Ilo Ilo) depicts the stressful anxiety of a family that shares close quarters during 45 days of lockdown. Though set in China, the situation should be recognizable and relevant to many other individuals. The breakdown in the marriage of a couple played by Dongyu Zhou (Better Days) and her husband Yu Zhang (An Elephant Sitting Still) unfolds as they struggle to take care of their young child with practically no income. In one scene, her nerves are frayed as he wants to have sex and she refuses. The story, however, ends in a liberating tone, with Chen offering some relief from the claustrophobia with outdoor shots of streets and a huge banner, stamped by the word Wuhan (where the virus began).

Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor, who became the first woman to win Locarno’s top award with her 2018 feature Too Late to Die Young, examines the separation of loved ones under restrictions. A mother and one of her daughters keep up a farmhouse, while another, city daughter is having her first baby born. The family is briefly “reunited” under a balcony, suggesting that perhaps the child would help repopulate the empty pandemic landscape.

The least conventional and most bizarre is Weerasethakul’s non-linear closing story, which relies on striking images and sounds. The main character is a naked bed surrounded by neon tube lights. Insects of all sizes gather in the room and hover on the sheets. The big insects are seen eating the smaller ones, and disembodied human voices are heard from a record offscreen.

Drawing on their personal sensibilities, the seven directors have delivered distinct takes on the ripple effect of the pandemic, some humorous, others serious, and still others gloomy.

It may be a sign of the times that the anthology, aptly named The Year of the Everlasting Storm, ends abruptly with a sort of pause, a quiet before the storm. The variable tone of the stories is suitably fitting for a post-pandemic future that’s both unknown and unknowable.