Homemade sees 17 acclaimed and upcoming filmmakers from around the world respond to the pandemic and quarantine experience during the first few months of lockdown.
As Covid-19 hit the world, our individual worlds suddenly became smaller. And if we weren’t already too reliant on our screens, now they became lifelines. We watched television, lots of it. I watched people do all the things I could not anymore: going out, going to work, going to parties, meeting friends, meeting strangers, hugging friends and family, kissing strangers (oh the horror!), traveling…
Scenes in crowded public spaces seemed so alien. There was a widening gulf between what I saw on the screen and what was happening in my own life that solidified our brave new dystopia.
“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”
As I wondered how Covid-19 would change the landscape of storytelling in literature, television, theatre and the movies, Homemade on Netflix emerged as the resounding answer.
Homemade is an eclectic anthology of seventeen short films made during the first two months when the world officially went into lockdown in March 2020. The shorts come from both some of the most inquisitive and ground-breaking directors of our generation and some unexpected new-comers. True to the anthology form, the shorts are stand-alone pieces of art that together showcase a well-rounded overview of the way the human condition is in constant flux. Besides a few outliers, the length of each film ranges from four to eleven minutes. Though each film maintains an intimate tone, since subjects are cloistered alone, Homemade still manages to make the weight of these private moments during a global pandemic known, thus capturing this exceptional moment in history.
Although there is no thematic demarcation, as a viewer, I could not help but make connections and comparisons between films that seemed to float on similar waves of storytelling. For me, being able to draw these connections was one of the most satisfying parts of watching Homemade. Never before had I so truly been able to relate to cinema. It was cathartic.
Technology as a Literal Storytelling Device
Almost all the shorts were shot through either a single or multiple mobile phone, something that speaks volumes to the increased utility of the smartphone during this pandemic. I am not a film-maker but knowing that these veteran and novice filmmakers alike could make such high quality and effective films on their mobile phones gave me a sense of empowerment. I felt that I too could perhaps capture my unique perspective and experiences during this shared human moment. I probably won’t, let’s be honest, but in the moment, I felt I could. I felt an added level of connectivity with the stories and storytellers as I shared something with them, a concrete object – a smartphone. We may all live on different continents, and come from wildly different socio-economic strata and cultures that are poles apart but the various filmmakers and I had one thing in common, on and off-screen: the smart phone.
The smartphone also features prominently as a story-telling tool in one simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking short. Rungano Nyoni’s ‘Couple Splits Up While In Lockdown LOL’ deliciously chronicles a couple’s lockdown breakup through text message exchanges between the couple and their friends. Haven’t we all wondered how our significant other may truly feel about arguments and how and what they tell their friends? Nyoni’s short certainly divulges all the nitty gritty nuances of a breakup as told by text message dialogue peppered with a healthy amount of emojis and GIFs. How the couple relays the breakup to their friends differs by gender creating a comical effect on both sides. The insight into how men and women react so differently to a breakup is not new. Rom-coms are littered with scenes of post-breakup stag party debauchery and tearful post-breakup wallowing with best friends and an ice-cream pint. Given that neither option is available during a global lock-down, this short moves away from this dichotomy. Instead, hilarity ensues when the ex-boyfriend quickly joins Tinder (the next best thing to partying) only to feel lonelier as he swipes through the cold interface. The couple try to extend olive branches but the text-messaging medium means those branches are soon set on fire, affirming the universal knowledge that text message fights escalate very, very quickly. There is something therapeutic seeing a story unfold over text messages during a lockdown when so many of our lives and interactions are contingent on those blue ticks.
Pablo Larraín’s ‘Last Call’ employs Skype as its set. A Covid-infected Italian man in a nursing home sets up a video conference with a former girlfriend and confesses his never-ending love to her. As he professes his longing, his stoic ex-lover oscillates between looking skeptical and moved and uncomfortable. To be honest, this is probably the first time I heard the sexual yearnings of an old man, so that was uncomfortable for me but it made me wonder about how ageism in cinema conceals the sexualities of the elderly. The climax (no pun intended) comes when it is finally revealed that the old man has been chain-calling his ex-lovers on Skype in hopes that one of them will bite and pay this “dying man” a conjugal visit of sorts. As the scoffing nurse helps him call each woman, I reflect on how the connectedness offered by technology isn’t always the best thing. While the man is searching for a (sexual) connection, Skype offers the women a cathartic moment. As a woman yells, “Long live the virus, the virus was made for people like you”, I can’t help but chuckle at the thought of being able to say that to a toxic ex.
Magical Realism and the Suspension of Disbelief
Magical realism is one of the most suitable and apt story-telling devices for a pandemic, since to places it suddenly places us in the midst of a reality that we had previously cordoned off to the realm of fantasy and science fiction. We are all in fact in an extended period of suspended disbelief but even so, the one thing I never expected to see was a tumultuous love story between a plastic Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth II. This is the subject of Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Voyage Au Bout De La Nuit’ which demonstrates how weird, wonderful art often emerges out of scarcity, confinement and change. When the world gets smaller, the possibilities to delve into the absurd and unreal are ripe.
Queen Elizabeth II can’t return to London because of the lockdown in Italy. While in quarantine, she begins a romance with the plastic Pope. There is dancing, courting, even skinny-dipping. Just like in the lockdown break-up short, the romance goes sour as they acknowledge their lacking life-skills. The British Queen can’t make tea. “You and I are symbols, which is why we don’t know how to do anything,” the Queen suggests. The unlikely couple acknowledge how their entire existences are a lockdown of sorts though they are seen as privileged.
Sebastian Schipper’s ‘Casino’ features a form of magical realism that is less fantastical. His lonely protagonist is entrenched in a life of mundanity when he starts to make copies of himself, like the virus. His versions become his friends and his quarantine starts becoming more enjoyable. This begs the question, what are the coping mechanisms we have all used during this time and where is the line between sanity and insanity?
Another lonely male protagonist is seen in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ‘Penelope’. Sequestered in a cabin, the man is trying his best to maintain daily routines amidst a pandemic that has killed half a billion people and is causing the moon to orbit closer to the Earth. This is Corona 2.0 (or the virus of our nightmares). The moon’s fluctuations cause fish to fly out from the lake and viewers see the flailing fish gasp for air. We feel the duality of nature: as nurturing and destructive all at once.
Perhaps Gyllenhaal is trying to extrapolate that once humans are one with nature, nature is more giving than menacing. This possibility appears at the end when the protagonist literally becomes “one” with nature in a very “intimate way” (via a tree humping scene – yes, that happens). The next day he is rewarded with a mysterious toaster that comes to him much like the fish.
Children of Covid-19
Childhood during Covid-19 has not been easy for children or parents. Whereas child-care during lockdown has been an uphill battle for many, it has also provided an opportunity for families to spend more time together. Gurinder Chadha’s ‘Unexpected Gift’ explores the gift of time and togetherness during lockdown and navigates loss and grief as well. While Chadha loses many loved ones, including her mother, the strong connection with her husband and children show a sort of continuation of familial bonds.
Rachel Morrison’s ‘The Lucky Ones’, a poetic letter to her 5-year-old son, speaks to the resilience of both her children and poses lockdown as a time to heal wounds. Morrison recalls her own childhood when her mother, who was dying of cancer, nevertheless created a happy environment for her. Morrison speaks about the safe, fun worlds parents try to construct for their children in times of crisis and within that construction, often heal themselves too.
Letter-writing is a recurrent theme and storytelling device in the anthology also. Johnny Ma’s self-titled short explores immigrant identity and the loss of family as he pens a letter to his mother that she will never read. There is an uncrossable chasm between his Chinese inherited family and the one he has chosen in Mexico. Ma tries to forge a connection to his mother with the letter reflecting on his relationship with her as well as his current life. He negotiates his dual identities through the act of making dumplings, which combine his Chinese tradition learned from his mother and now serve to strengthen his connection to his chosen family. Immigrant literature and art often use food as a symbol and tangible expression of cultural identity. Its preparation, consumption and sharing become both an act of that cultural expression and an echo of individuality. While Ma prepares the dumplings with what is available to him, he reminisces how his mother was rebuked by her mother for not following the family recipe precisely. Generation by generation, the recipe transforms. The flow of the cooking is juxtaposed by the rigidity of the dumpling recipe shared at the end. The recipe does not matter but the act of cooking and creating; it is these processes that form memories and bonds. A bitter sweet soliloquy just like the cabbage dumplings in the short.
If Natalia Beristáin’s ‘Espacios’, which ostensibly follows a little girl named Jacinta trying to keep herself entertained at home during quarantine, re-imagines adults as children, “Mayroun and the Unicorn” goes a step further to show how the frenzy of children’s play can quickly lead to burn-out. Nadine Labaki & Khaled Mouzanar film their daughter at play imagining her father’s office as an imaginary prison world that she and her unicorn cannot escape. The fun quickly turns torturous as Mayroun begs to be freed, yelling, “Let me out!”. Her play runs parallel to how many adults felt during lockdown: that they were playing office in their house. Work-from-home might have come as a relief to many initially, but eventually, it turned homes into gilded cages.
Homemade demonstrates how great stories can be created out of cages. A century ago, Tolstoy wrote, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Our Covid stories exist outside of this binary of coming or going, our adventures and journeys are changing. We find ourselves traveling through time and re-kindling familiar relationships rather than seeking out new ones. No longer lost in the anonymity of city streets, we become found objects in our own homes, repurposed, resilient.
Homemade is available to watch on Netflix now.
Feature image is of Grinder Chadha’s ‘Unexpected Gift’ from Homemade on Netflix, 2020. Image courtesy of Netflix.