Finding the Magic of Cinema in the Tedium of Quarantine

For weeks now, billions of people around the world have been quarantined at home, many confined to a routine of cleaning and scrubbing, checking the news and exercising to workout videos. It’s hardly the stuff of great cinema. And yet a group of filmmakers, including some prominent international names, has been making movies about the lockdown experience.

Eight directors from Greece and 14 others from the rest of the world have been commissioned by the Thessaloniki Film Festival in Greece to produce three-minute shorts, filmed entirely in lockdown. Participants include the award-winning directors Denis Côté, Albert Serra, and Jia Zhangke, who have presented movies at big international film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin and Toronto.

Some of the shorts are elaborately shot in black and white, and make poetic or literary references; others are deliberately humdrum and hastily filmed with a cellphone. Either way, the images are of messy interiors, masks and hand sanitizer, wet floors and dripping ceilings, toilet bowls and television screens.

The shorts aim to “show the victory of life: that no matter how difficult the situation, the human mind can still breathe freely through cinema,” Jia said in an email exchange from Beijing, where he spent weeks in quarantine. “At an extremely trying time, we need each other’s words and ideas through cinema, most importantly to emphasize the connections.”

Jia recalled that after World War II, it was said that there were two kinds of movie directors: those who had experienced the war, and those who had not. The same will be said of directors after this pandemic, he added. “This catastrophe will give us a lot to ponder for a long time to come, and it will reshape our cinema culture,” he said.

The Thessaloniki Film Festival was established in 1960 in Greece’s second-biggest city. The main festival event takes place in November, while a documentary festival is held in March. This year’s was postponed because of the pandemic, as were other film festivals, including Cannes and Tribeca.

The idea for the shorts came from the festival’s artistic director, Orestis Andreadakis. After chancing upon an essay he had at home by the French author Georges Perec, titled “Species of Spaces” — a description of the various spaces in the writer’s life, from the blank page, the bedroom and the staircase, to the street and the city — he invited a number of previous festival attendees to read the essay and make a three-minute film inspired by it. (The directors received a small fee for the project, which was funded by the Greek Ministry of Culture.)

To his surprise, all of the directors he reached out to said yes.

“The stricter the confinement, the wider the need for communication,” Andreadakis said. “No matter where someone comes from, where someone lives, we are sharing the same fears, the same confinement, the same choices, the same rays of hope.”

“It’s about seeing our similarities through our differences,” he added.

A first set of shorts by eight Greek filmmakers, packaged as “Spaces #1,” was released on YouTube this month. A second set of seven shorts by international directors (“Spaces #2”) was released on Tuesday. Six or seven more will be uploaded in the next few weeks, the organizers said.

Here are five of the entries.

Visually speaking, this is one of the most polished submissions, though Jia said it was filmed in one day on a cellphone. A masked man visits another (played by the director himself) to discuss a film project, all the while respecting strict coronavirus protocols: temperature checks, no handshakes, and ample use of hand sanitizer.

The Argentine filmmaker has submitted a “very short film,” as he describes it in the credits, which starts with an overflowing sink and ends with a flooded staircase. It’s a tapestry of confinement experiences: a sofa turned on its side, a hallway with peeling paint, a fly on the wall, the sound of hammering, and voices on television bemoaning the spread of the pandemic.

Lynch is an actor-director who played Norm Gunderson in “Fargo,” and more recently featured in “Gran Torino,” “Shutter Island,” and “Crazy Stupid Love.” For his three-minute Thessaloniki short, Lynch filmed himself delivering a Shakespearean monologue on the futility of life while performing a series of pedestrian actions: exercising on a mat, cleaning a toilet, climbing into bed in his pajamas.

Jones, an American-Israeli documentary maker known for her films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shot a short focusing, essentially, on a leaking ceiling. Besides dripping water, there are soaked towels on the floor and peeling plaster, as well as mopping and sweeping — sometimes on split screens. Like a visual artist, Jones then focuses on the stains and blotches on the ceiling as if they were abstract compositions.

Psillakis, a prominent Greek documentary maker, looks back on his life by filming the contents of his personal library. Sometimes, he lingers on a framed photograph of himself or of his parents and reminisces about his relationship with them. But he mainly focuses on the books, which he compares to past loves: They meant so much at the time, yet would be so hard to reconnect with now.

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