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In LA EDAD MEDIA, the new feature by Argentinian duo Alejo Moguillansky and Luciana Acuña, time captions flash up on screen, punctuating the action. “Some weeks later”, “Some time after”, “The next day”, “During these days”… There are so many of them, some specific, others vague, that they become almost meaningless in accumulation. But the film is about the experience of a family in lockdown, and the captions convey an oddly accurate impression of our experience of time in the Covid-19 era. When the world looks back at the lockdown days of 2020 and 2021 from a distance, perhaps the strangest aspect of this period will be the effect on our perception of time: the way we have become used to time passing, flowing forward inexorably if not purposefully, yet paradoxically also appearing to stand still. 

Lockdown-era cinema has tended to function like a clock or a calendar. Particular films will tell us where we were when certain things happened: some will remind us where we were when we first realised that Covid was a global crisis (for many of us, it was during the 2020 Berlinale) or when we became wearily aware that, despite predictions, it would not be releasing its grip just yet (again, for many of us, while experiencing the virtual Berlinale of 2021 on our sofas). 

“If I am what I do and I don’t do it any more, who am I?” 

In some films, this recording of time is a primary purpose. But for many filmmakers working during lockdown, their essential goal was simply to carry on one way or another, despite the isolation, despite the abrupt closure of familiar resources and channels. Moving images had to be created regardless, even if it was only for the sake of proving that they could still be created. In LA EDAD MEDIA, a performer and director (Luciana Acuña, effectively playing herself) asks, “If I am what I do and I don’t do it any more, who am I?” For many filmmakers, the challenge was indeed to “do it”, under whatever restrictions—to make those restrictions at once the means of working and the subject. Lockdown spawned personal testimonies of domestic isolation, like comedian Bo Burnham’s TV feature INSIDE, or Mati Diop’s short IN MY ROOM, shot in her Paris high-rise apartment. The Zoom call—suddenly the universal means by which people could communicate, free from isolation while imprisoned in a grid of digital cage—offered a format for a new cinema povera, whether for genre purposes (online séance horror HOST) or as a way to reimagine theatre in the absence of live audiences (END MEETING FOR ALL by UK company Forced Entertainment).

Films shot during the lockdown era haven’t only used different methods, but have also shown a world altered in significant, sometimes seemingly absurd ways—ways we begin to fear might be irreversible. People on screen have started wearing masks; we can no longer always expect to see the whole of an actor’s face. Few films flaunted their mask-wearing as proudly as Radu Jude’s 2021 Golden Bear winner BAD LUCK BANGING, OR LOONY PORN, in which masks were worn throughout, undermining our reliance on the human face as a source of information or emotion. Ironically, Jude’s ‘comedy of inexpression’—in which half-seen faces nonetheless proved surprisingly expressive—was obliged to cover up its actors’ faces during the pandemic while telling a story about a woman persecuted for exposing too much, in the form of a domestic sex tape. 

In a period when time has seemed at once to expand and contract indeterminately, it’s strange to think that we’re already a year on from Jude’s film, and from 2021 Forum premiere A RIVER RUNS, TURNS, ERASES, REPLACES. Shengze Zhu’s documentary is a portrait of the city of Wuhan, where Covid first broke out; it shows a population already looking back on a year of loss, damage and regret. Letters from the bereaved to those they have lost (“My heart shattered to a thousand pieces…”, “Pa, I have no idea how I got through these 211 days”) are superimposed in captions over images of the city’s bridges and riverbanks as the Yangtze rolls past, a poignantly concrete image of time’s indifference to human experience. 

It’s in documentaries that we can most accurately pinpoint the moments at which critical details of daily life were seen to change - with filmmakers suddenly caught by surprise, thinking they were filming a world that would stay the same. For its first hour, Constantin Wulff’s FÜR DIE VIELEN – DIE ARBEITERKAMMER WIEN is a straightforward observational account of the workings of Vienna’s Chamber of Labour and the institution’s interactions with members of the public, who consult its officials in the hope of resolving employment disputes. The film’s opening stages illustrate the importance of human visibility: we meet the Chamber’s prospective clients one by one as they explain their case to its agents. Looking back at the pre-mask world as if at a distant civilization, we see how vital face-to-face contact is in establishing connections—not just among the people on screen but between them and us, the viewers. Then, one hour and 12 minutes in, the faces disappear and the world empties out; the corridors of the Chamber building are deserted, all but silent. When work in the building resumes, everything is different: everyone is masked, and in a telling image, individuals ride elevators separately, going from floor to floor in parallel, each one alone. 

Elsewhere, lockdown feels as if it has been in place forever, an impression conveyed by JET LAG, a diary film by Chinese director Zheng Lu Xinyuan. As well as alluding to the filmmaker’s real-life long-haul flights over the course of the film, the title evokes the lockdown experience of elastic time, in which we seem to be living somehow at a delay, out of synch with our own experience, too fully immersed in the day-to-day to feel as if we were fully living in the present in any customary sense. At the start of the film, the director and her girlfriend seem always to have been prisoners in their apartment in Graz, Austria, gazing out at the world through their window (or at least, at the flat opposite, which they speculate is a brothel). Then Zheng Lu explores the outside world through her computer screen and replays videoed memories of a family visit to Myanmar. Later, her laptop conversation with a young woman involved in that country’s protests remind us that Covid has been only one of many long-term crises tearing societies apart and testing individuals’ resilience around the world. 

“Can you moan a little quieter?”

Lockdown cinema has also shown us that the suspension of life’s entrenched routines can be salutary: the experience of claustrophobic enclosure has engendered comic new imaginings of the ways people rub up against each other. In Brazilian film TRÊS TIGRES TRISTES by Gustavo Vinagre, a young gay man works at home as a cam boy, simulating orgasms for online clients. The protest of his flatmate, who’s trying to study—“Can you moan a little quieter?”—is a magnificent reductio ad absurdum of the lockdown experience of forced proximity. In this LGBT fantasy, which transforms dystopia into improvised utopia, claustrophobia is set in opposition to the liberatingly labyrinthine: the corridors of a bookshop that becomes a cabaret in which all possibilities and identities reign free. 

TRÊS TIGRES TRISTES is set in a Sao Paolo that has endured multiple phases of a pandemic, one that has not only birthed a new, already widespread strain that causes amnesia, but also effectively killed culture, closing theatres for good. In this instance, Covid is not only a real-world reality but also an analogy for the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, with his contemptuous mismanagement of the country’s Covid crisis and his hostility to diversity in Brazilian culture. But as the real world shuts down, Vinagre transforms São Paolo into a playground of the imagination, the stage for a neo-Happening in which new utopian possibilities can be acted out—including the defiance of cultural amnesia (especially that surrounding the AIDS generation of the 80s and 90s) and the defiance of death itself.

Conjuring possibility out of restriction is also the theme of LA EDAD MEDIA, which Moguillansky and Acuña shot during lockdown. In this self-reflexive comedy, the filmmakers essentially play themselves, at home with their 10-year-old daughter Cleo; she narrates the film, a domestic farce about enclosure, stasis, artistic blockage and making the best out of the worst. While her mother teaches dance classes on Zoom and her father tries to direct Beckett remotely, Cleo confronts the problem of boredom (a drag for adults, but experienced by children as an outright existential catastrophe that can afflict them daily). Her parents may worry about their artistic life reaching a sterile impasse, but Cleo forges ahead independently of them, pursuing her own plans with ruthless canniness. On the side of stasis is Beckett’s refrain from “Rockaby”, “Time she stopped”; countering it are Tom Waits’ song “Hold On” and the film’s piano leitmotif, “Le Tourbillon“ (“The Whirlwind“), Serge Rezvani’s hymn to repetition, renewal and return from François Truffaut’s JULES ET JIM. As time and the Berlinale come round again, two years on from the start of the pandemic, we’ll watch these films and wonder whether we’re still seeing them “During these days”, even as the hope persists that it might already be “Some time after”.

Jonathan Romney is a critic based in London. He writes for The Observer, Sight & Sound, Screen Daily and others and teaches at the National Film and Television School. 


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