In a world so vast and varied, sometimes it takes a tragedy to remind us how connected we are. A once-in-a-century pandemic fits that bill. Even as cultures remain divergent, lifestyles vary, and customs clash around the world, the sudden onset and rapid spread of COVID-19 brought us together even as it, quite contradictorily, forced each of us into isolation. Our shared humanity was laid bare by a virus that didn’t care one bit about class, creed, or political affiliation. And there is no more primal element of this shared humanity than the act of reckoning.
The Year of the Everlasting Storm is about that shared human reckoning – how we react, respond, and ultimately cope with the sort of unprecedented tragedy for which there is no recent template. Without a cheat sheet to reference, we’re left to base instinct, which is varying degrees of frightening no matter what corner of the globe we inhabit. True to that human connectivity across the diverse global spectrum, this film is an anthology from seven esteemed filmmakers across three continents that aims to bridge the cultural divide and highlight what links us – both the good and the bad.
Befitting the broad spectrum of forms, styles, and perspectives presented in this omnibus format, there is a somewhat-experimental organizing principal to the film. It opens with a quote from Robert Bresson: “One does not create by adding, but by taking away,” intimating that one faint positive amid the tragedy of this pandemic is the creativity sparked by involuntary limitation. These filmmakers shot their individual segments amid the quarantine of early-to-mid 2020, so their works are not merely portraits but also products of the specific moment in time. As might be expected, the results are divergent in both concept and quality, but the collective reckoning on display is undeniably compelling.
A handful of the segments deal directly with life in lockdown, staring directly in the face of the pandemic to capture its immediacy. Jafar Panahi’s Life opens the film, a first-person perspective of early-stage quarantine in Tehran that falls right in line with the filmmaker’s self-reflexive documentary style of observation-as-essay. At the center of the frame is the Panahi family iguana, aging and finnicky, whose apparent fascination with the nesting birds outside is mirrored by Panahi’s mother, rigorous about pandemic protocols but more acutely concerned with the survival of her grandchildren. Anthony Chen’s The Break Away extends that close-up examination of life in quarantine to a narrative lens. Opening on the turn of the new year and ending nearly two months into quarantine, the film tracks a young Wuhan family’s turbulent adjustment to the new normal, with a furloughed husband unable to function at home and a wife whose frustration threatens to grow into resentment. Sin Tutolo, 2020, by Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor, focuses on the struggle to connect when in total isolation, from the basic inability to hug our closest loved ones to the base human desire to seek any stray connection, even if it’s over Zoom.
Other segments feel like incomplete teases for what should be feature-length stories. Malik Vitthal’s Little Measures blends iPhone imagery with bold animation to tell the story of a California man whose children are currently in the California foster care system, and how the pandemic only further complicates his visitation rights. Terror Contagion, by Oscar winner Laura Poitras, exposes an insidious Israeli cyberweapons manufacturer whose surveillance technology is likely responsible for the targeting and eventual murder of several journalists and freedom fighters, most notably Jamal Khashoggi. These stories, so intriguing and vital, are blunted by their truncated state within the anthology framework.
The film closes with two more nebulous meditations on life’s fleeting connectivity. Dig Up My Darling, by David Lowery, imagines a dystopia in which COVID never pacifies, wherein a drifter happens upon a collection of century-old letters that leads her on a journey to find connection, even if that connection is to those long-dead. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Night Colonies keys on a disheveled bed occupied only by insects, opening the door to all manner of audience assumption. Was the bed previously occupied by a COVID patient? The old photos on the background walls indicate that’s possible. It appears life has exited the space, except for the insects, most of whom are attempting to consume one another. No more coldly symbolic closing image could be conjured.
That final segment also conveys the poem that invokes the film’s title, a galvanizing piece about a storm so ceaseless and constant that it causes the trees to grow at an exponential rate, its branches reaching back into the past and touching our distant memories. So it goes with COVID-19, the storm that has now spanned well over a year, touching us all in one way or another, prompting us to ponder the Before Times and reckon with an uncertain future, evoking memories of those we’ve lost and yearning for those we still can’t see. It rages on. As the poem concludes, “Its roar has become my nocturnal companion.”