Milos Mitrovic, Wasting Time at the End of the World, 2020.
STILL Greetings from Isolation.
In Fabian Velasco’s 2020 short film How to Make Traditional Pesto, Italian Style, the Winnipeg filmmaker is shown killing time. He stares out at the park from his balcony, he cuts his toenails into the toilet, makes pesto with a mortar and pestle, and then eats it while slumped on a couch.
Shot in both colour and black and white, the film cuts between the mundane activities that take place within the apartment and those in park across the street, all against the crackling sound of Schubert’s Ave Maria. The film captures how Velasco worked to keep himself entertained while living in his Winnipeg apartment in the early months of the pandemic.
The temporal properties of film and digital media, along with their realist effects and documentary roots, allow movies to capture the time of our present in intricate and convincing ways, and to preserve it for future viewers as evidence of our lived experience. A prime example of film’s mirror-like abilities is found in the recent project, Greeting from Isolation: A Capsule Collection of Short Canadian Isolation Movies. Conceived by film programmer Stacey Donen, who invited Canadian filmmakers to create short movies “in the hopes of finding inspiration and enlightenment from our shared experience of isolation under Covid-19”,1 the roughly 100 films in this capsule provide a plethora of views that document and reflect our simultaneously collective and individual experiences of life under lockdown.
These short films have been released online since May 2020 and, for the most part, were produced during the early stages of the pandemic. They capture the feelings of the early months when we were all learning about the global impact of the COVID-19 virus and becoming better acquainted with the intimate enclosures of our homes. According to Donen’s instructions, the participating filmmakers could only use their phones and personal cameras, and the spaces and people available in their living spaces, to make their movies. These film making procedures are echoed throughout the narratives and formal qualities of the films themselves. There is a great mix of styles, narratives and methods to this collection of shorts that run between 2 and 10 minutes long: documentaries, dramas, abstracted experimental vignettes. animated films, comedies, intense personal testimonials, picturesque visual explorations, and films with little or no refence to Covid-19. Many of the filmmakers play with space and temporality, focusing on the past, present and/or future.
"Our act of isolating, be it on our own or with our household, and distancing from others, is in fact a collective, communal act: we are alone – we isolate – for the greater good."
Despite their varied tones, imagery, and modes of storytelling, the majority of the Greetings from Isolation films nonetheless cumulatively present a shared experience of life in isolation, primarily through many of the films’ engagement with the recurring themes of self, memory, family, time, and home. Viewers will be able to identify with most of the scenes and protagonists found in the Greeting from Isolation films: everyone will be able to see their experiences – or that of a friend or relative – reflected back at them while watching.
“Alone Together” is a phrase that keeps returning in popular pandemic parlance and is captured in the films. The phrase encourages us to see the ways in which our experiences of solitude are shared and not simply unique or idiosyncratic. It also points to how our act of isolating, be it on our own or with our household, and distancing from others, is in fact a collective, communal act: we are alone – we isolate – for the greater good. These tensions between togetherness and apartness, and loneliness and community, are embodied in many of the Greetings from Isolation shorts.
Toronto-based Sophy Romvari’s Oh, to Realize (2020) is an experimental film that also explores the self under lockdown. To examine how an individual can be completely lost to technology, she filmed a video of herself on a laptop, providing closer and closer close-ups until her image is completed abstracted into a pixilated field of fuzzy, moving colours. In this film, the body in isolation becomes an abstracted screen image, devoid of substance and agency.
Yet these films of solitude do not always simply invoke feelings of existential gloom. Winnipeg-based Milos Mitrovic’s Wasting Time at the End of the World (2020) is a wonderful example of a pandemic cringe comedy. In this film, a lonely comedian is captured entertaining herself before performing a virtual stand-up routine over Zoom. We watch her awkwardly order a pizza over the phone and then eat it slowly, the sounds of her chewing emphasized – and made more nauseating – by the uncomfortable silence. After eating, she talks to herself while putting on makeup, and then her Zoom performance begins. The stand-up itself is dry and funny, and the actress captures the role perfectly. We feel for her as she works hard to incite a laugh from her muted audience, and even more so towards the end of the film, when her exaggerated facial expressions and gestures are juxtaposed against the blank, detached faces of her Zoom audience.
In contrast to these films that explore isolation as solitary, the strength of community is emphasized in Ann Marie Fleming’s documentary short that focuses on her own front porch and those of her surrounding neighbours. Titled Vancouver April 2020 18:59:30 PT, the film captures Fleming taking part in the nightly communal thank you to essential and frontline workers that took place across Canada at seven o’clock each evening. Each night, people stood on their front porches and balconies, banging on pots and pans with wooden spoons and playing instruments to show their appreciation. While the camera is focused on Fleming and her neighbour, the sense of community is emphasized through the car horns honking along to her pot banging and her bell-wielding neighbour who whistles and waves to those outside of the shot. The bright blue of Fleming’s porch, the flow of her striped wide-legged overalls and the hippy-vide of her neighbour, who sways to the sound of clanging pots and bells with cheerful abandon, captures the bohemian vibe of East Van.
There are many films in the capsule that explore family life including the joys, sorrows, and challenges. Janine Windolph’s 2020 Ayapiyâhk ôma nayanân (Only us, we are here at home) begins with the arrival of a luscious box of gorgeous ripe apricots. “My isolation story is about food and family”, Windolph’s voiceover tells us. We see close-ups of her hands baking in the kitchen, moving from her mixing batter to placing halved apricots in a baking pan to removing the delicious upside-down cake from the oven, and serving it to her sons with a side of syrup. She describes the rush of people stocking up on food and toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic and then recounts the stress of grocery shopping. To avoid shopping anxiety, Windolph had local groceries delivered to the home she shares with her sons in Banff. “Food brings community together; this teaching is true for a family in isolation”, she explains.
Montreal-based Terryll Loffler also created a film about intimate family life. In I can see the future (2020), the camera slowly pans across a family home, capturing the discussions taking place between parents and young children while not filming them directly. The first scene focuses on a mother teaching her young son math in French as the camera circulates around the kitchen, providing close-ups of everyday life: dish towels hanging from an oven handle, a kids’ activity schedule, family pictures. In the following scene, toys are scattered on a wood floor with the bare knees of crossed-legged kids lost in an imaginary game. The final scene, like that in Windolph’s work, focuses on sharing food with family.
While the camera scans the table to create slow-moving still lifes of hot dogs, lentils, broccoli, and wine, we are reminded of the everyday oddness of last-minute meals cobbled together while awaiting the next grocery delivery. We are welcomed into this dinner through the family’s cute but commonplace conversation in English about the 1982 movie E.T. The brother and sister quickly bombard their parents with questions about the film, often speaking over one another, the young sister struggling to be heard. The boy wants further explanation of Elliot’s relationship with the alien. “How are they connected?”, he asks.
"The films, when watched together, produce a sense of Canada and Canadian-ness"
Connection and community are also explored in Dana Inkster’s poignant work Breakdown #29 (2020). Over a screen showing pop-art portraits of masked, semi-recognizable Black activist leaders, Inkster overlays a Skype conversation she had with curators Pam Edwards and Sally Frater in 2012 about their exhibition 28 Days: Reimagining Black History Month.2 Played alongside a funky track by Myles Inkster, we hear the artist’s conversation start and stop because of technological problems. Familiar phrases are shared amongst people hoping for a better connection: “I’ve lost you”; “I hear you”; “Are you still there?”
The short ends with Inkster removing an eery, expressionless mask from her face. Her eyes are wide open and, at the end, fixed on the viewer. A text reads: “I have been warned, my homemade face-masks are effecting my meetings. I’m not feeling safe or healthy. Thank you for asking. All the very best, Dana.” This work is one of the few in the Greeting From Isolation capsule that connects the Covid pandemic with social justice and Black Lives Matter movements. Uploaded to the capsule on June 5, Inskster’s film, and frightened look, prophetically point to the further traumas to come in summer 2020.
In contrast to the complexity of Inskter’s film, Winnipeg-based Curis L. Wiebe takes an absurdist approach to capture the technological hurdles to communication in his 2020 comedic puppet show Squiggleface Lumpybear and Beatrice the Dog Try Video Chat, which he performs with Ben Dyck. In this film, odd-couple puppet friends (a dog and a bear) take part in a stream-of-consciousness conversation which includes videos of a humping dog and a discussion of whether dogs must wear masks when they go outside to poop. This film is ridiculous yet entertaining.
Perhaps one of the most personal film about connection in the capsule is Peter Lynch’s My Pandemonia (2020). While the film starts with various images and videos of his life with a first-person narrative voiceover, Lynch quickly moves from the first days of the pandemic in Canada, when there was a sense of camaraderie and novelty, to the reality of the pandemic and its life-altering effects. This change is brought about by his sorrowful recounting of his 90-year-old mother’s death; while she did not catch the coronavirus, she was unable to recover from a severe case of pneumonia and died in palliative care in a Toronto hospital. Lynch’s haunting stills of holding his mother’s aged-spotted hand, her thin wrist circled by a plastic hospital ID bracelet, are followed by his heartbreaking account of being told that he needed to have her body removed within one hour of her death. The intimate tone of Lynch’s report juxtaposed against images of empty hospital corridors captures the brutal reality of the ways in which hospitals’ pandemic protocols clash with the human necessity to grieve.
Peter Rowe’s animated film Dying to Tell You also explores hospital life. This fictional short, made up of a series of colourful and sketchy line drawings, provides a first-person account of a Covid-19 patient on a ventilator in an ICU. The patient’s raspy voice describes the atmosphere of the space, including its beeping machines, dying patients, and hospital staff in bright PPE. The quick pace of the hospital workers and steady rhythm of vital signs monitors create a sense of speed and productivity that counters the confinement of the bed-ridden patient who waits – and hopes – to get better. This film serves as a cautionary tale as the patient recounts how he caught the coronavirus from a maskless man “shouting dumb jokes at me over the music” at a summer barbeque.
As evinced by the films described thus far, there is great diversity to the project but, by virtue of the works being made by filmmakers – rather than, say, everyday people using their phone cameras to record their lives – there is an artfulness and contemplative nature to the films.
This is particularly evident in Alberta-based Aaron Monson’s stunning film A Time Out (2020). Shot in black and white, it provides skillfully composed scenes of, in his words, “a family on pause”. Intricate shots of freshly-cut lilacs, striking close-ups of freckled faces, and exquisitely composed images of family members caught unaware all work together to create a stunningly beautiful film.
Much beauty is found in many of the movies that explore nature, such as Robin McKenna’s slow scenes of cottage life, rain, and sleeping cats in Weather (2020). The meditative sounds of raindrops and voices reading poems create a sense of calm. The tone of the film is set from the beginning with a quotation by American Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön: “If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.”
Daniel Cross’s Tire(d) (2020) is also artistic, slow and introspective. As he writes about the film, “Here I am sitting at the river, staring at this tire – buried in time, and wondering when I’ll get to move around again.” The first few minutes of this documentary focus on an old smooth tire nestled amongst pebbles and driftwood. The sound of birds and wind against the filmmaker’s iPhone 6’s microphone, along with Cross’s deep voice, welcome us into this intimate encounter with nature. Slowly, a black striped snack emerges from the debris, and the film begins to move from the contemplative to the upbeat as the bluesy guitar of John Lee Hooker’s Crawling King Snake begins. The integration of this music turns the snake into a type of cowboy protagonist who is discovering new land as his slithering body sheds its trepidatious slither for a confident swagger as he sways perfectly to the beat. The slow time of the pandemic – the moments where we pause and watch the world – are captured in this charming and subtly humorous short.
During one of my sessions of browsing these films, I was surprised by the feeling of traveling across Canada that the movies evoke as the filmmakers bring us from the Pacific to the Atlantic, from urban and to rural, and from cottages to cramped apartments. We also hear various Canadian accents and languages, the sounds of nature and cities and everything in between. I found that each film had a real familiarity even when it depicted places I’ve never been or people I didn’t know or presented narratives I’ve never lived. Maybe it is because the films, when watched together, produce a sense of Canada and Canadian-ness – as broadly defined as possible – that made me nostalgic for cross-country travel.
Yet our big country is made small and intimate in these films. The borders of our own homes, families, and selves are highlighted through the limitations of the Greetings from Isolation rules that restricted the filmmakers to their own spaces, neighborhoods, and experiences. The filmmakers, like us, either focus on the here-and-now of immediate surroundings or move to the limitless realm of imagination – sometimes moving back and forth from one realm to the other.
A cheerful example of this imaginary approach is Toronto-based Celeste Koon’s An Isolated Day Full of Strange Isolated Events (2020). The film’s saturated colours, upbeat music, and storyline, reminiscent of a magical children’s tale, create a joyful escape. Koon’s playful outfit and dancing certainly add to the spirited vibe. As Koon’s wrote, “I made a film that made me happy as I worked on it, something fun that does not dwell on the state of the world outside but on the infinite worlds within our own heads.”
How do these films capture our pandemic present and how will they be understood in the future? Will we watch them years from now and get this same sense of familiarity and community? Will the sense of the slow time of the pandemic come back to us, that feeling of the early days of deep isolation? Will they serve as a journal that we want to return to or will we leave them for future historians to study? Certainly, these films are a product of filling time; they allowed filmmakers to be productive, to create art out of the lost time of lockdown. The films also help us pass the time as we watch them and browse through the capsule’s website that thoughtfully provides us with each filmmaker’s bio, an interview, and a synopsis of the film.
These movies speak for a multitude of Canadian experiences while remaining the outcome of individual voices. They do what films do well: mirror our experiences back at us. And in this way, the Greetings from Isolation capsule brilliantly shows how we and the filmmakers experienced the early months of the pandemic, together and alone, fast and slow.