When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill in March 2020, virtually every movie on the planet had to close, leaving many filmmakers around the world thumbs up. In the weeks and months that followed, directors responded to this enforced downtime only the way they knew it to be: Create.
From Mati Diops In My Room and Spike Lee’s New York New York to Martin Scorsese’s quarantine film and the seventeen short films that make up the Homemade anthology collection, seeing directors analyze this unique time is practically a whole genre in itself.
Most of these projects benefited from the usual post-production processes: for example, sound teams were able to work remotely on the above films, a fact that prevented their credit sequences from being as short as possible. However, with almost all of these projects filmed in-house, one tacit question lies at the center of the pandemic response genre: what about cameramen?
With Eremita (anthologies), Director and project curator Sam Abbas tries to answer precisely this question through the medium of film itself and thus to reverse a staple of this new genre: directors who develop their cinematic skills. The film is an eclectic collection of (mostly) documentaries, which gets its somewhat esoteric name from the Latin for “hermit”. He illuminates the directing visions of the cameramen behind visual stunners like The Florida Project, Madeline’s Madeline and Siberia: namely Alexis Zabe, Antoine Heberle, Ashley Connor, Soledad Rodriguez, and Stefano Falivene.
The most direct comparison is with Homemade, Netflix’s compilation of short films directed by Kristen Stewart, Pablo Larraín and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, but Eremita’s concept is also reminiscent of a project from the 90s: Le Geographe by French artist Michel Zumpf Manuel, the seventeen DPs, including the legendary Raoul Coutard and Agnes Godard, who took responsibility for directing it. Joined only by the fact that they were shot with the same camera (the 35mm Cameflex, a favorite of the French New Wave) on the same set of film, Zumpf organized the resulting collage of responses under one overarching theme: the signs of the zodiac.
Eremita uses a similar framework. Project curator Abbas gave his staff the discretion to shoot anything they wanted, but he set ascetic limits on production: contributors could only use their cell phone cameras and were not allowed to spend money on equipment. After Abbas gave the directors the final cut, he put their shorts together in a way that was loosely inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, presumably chosen because it is a hymn of praise to loneliness – the main theme of the Pandemic Response Genres.
However, that connection feels underexplained – even strained. A first title card briefly explains the enigmatic concept of the book, and some chapter cards borrowed from the book are inserted throughout, but these do not provide enough information to really establish a correlation, especially for viewers who are unfamiliar with Nietzsche’s more esoteric writing. It’s hard to understand why this particular association is being forced upon the film, or why it needs such a cerebral analogy in the first place. This kind of made up framework might work in an art gallery installation like Zumpf’s film, but to a VOD release that seeks a more general audience like Eremita it just adds an awkward, redundant layer. Perhaps it would have been smarter to go for Homemade’s more brazen approach to structuring instead.
Thankfully, this frame isn’t put too much on the shorts, which for the most part are allowed to speak for themselves. Eremita remains a compelling watch thanks to its open briefing which forms the basis for a wide range of responses in style and content. The chapters range from introspective to voyeuristic and everyday to surreal.
Zabé’s vignette, for example, begins with a crawl along the Venice Beach boardwalk, which is mostly deserted except for the homeless camps on the roadside. Images of LED street signs with official instructions – “PLEASE STAY 6FT APART!” – are ironically spliced against survey recordings of cramped tents and open interviews with their residents, a comparison that is dryly reflected in the title of the short film: Protection in place.
Other chapters go into the house to create the claustrophobia of this regime. Heberlé’s short, the only screenplay in the series, is an early cinematic-inspired piece that shows the blossoming of a relationship within the confines of an apartment building. Falivene’s Slice of Life short, on the other hand, documents some of the radical changes that have been made in daily life over the past year. Housed in the same Roman apartment, he and his family deal with the Zoom school, deal with the extent of the pandemic and, with colleagues on Skype, complain about the impossible new guidelines for film sets.
Rodriguez’s contribution, Winter solstice (Winter solstice) evokes a sense of home-bound voyeurism reminiscent of the rear window. Partly taken from the inside through a binocular perspective, her camera restlessly combs the outside world until she finds something worth seeing. Rodriguez’s film is Eremita’s opener, and there is an immediate pause from Abbas, who exercises his static lens on crumpled sheets for a few minutes while music plays in the background.
The placement of these short films at the beginning of Eremita is intended to create a decidedly meditative mood about the anthology and encourage the patience of viewers, but not every film requires this. Ashley Connors A well-watered woman is a sharply processed energy boost: It turns everyday life into a scary thrill and throws familiar sights like its own body in a fresh, amazed way. Her cinematic work often tended to be intimate; She has a strong instinct for physicality, as evidenced by her work on films such as Flames and The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Here, that eye is on herself as she shoots her own body with keen sensual awareness, taking into account how steam in the bathroom rises from her skin or how distorting water and reflections have on the body. Extreme close-ups transform her skin into a landscape, a surreal distortion that, in addition to the experimental end of the film and the threatening electronic score, is reminiscent of the most recent repetitions of body horror such as annihilation.
Every short film in Eremita gives us valuable insight into areas of the editor’s and director’s creativity that we may not yet know. valuable because for once it is not filtered through someone else’s vision. For at least one of the cameramen involved, this was the attraction of the project: the opportunity to have “complete personal responsibility” for their work. For us as an audience, Eremita’s role change opens up countless new ways to understand these cameramen and the images they produce. For example, the damned sense of paradox and the amplification of marginalized voices in Shelter in Place suggest that its director is driven by a humanistic impulse: a connection that, once made, can help enhance Zabé’s work in Fistful of Dirt and The Florida project that similarly explores life in the shadows of a fairytale city with noticeable empathy.
It is this fascinating lens that extends Eremita’s value beyond that of a pandemic curiosity. Few projects give us the opportunity to see what some of the most exciting cinematographers working in film today would do if they had a completely free hand: no script from someone else, no director dictating over their shoulder. Cinematographers are usually viewed as mediators of someone else’s art: necessary but secondary elements in the filmmaking process. Eremita encourages us to view them as creative in their own right – a worthy endeavor when even the institutions that want to recognize any contribution to the filmmaking process threaten to refer cameramen to commercial breaks. Eremita provides a compelling fix for this type of setting, making it a notable film for cinema buffs at anytime, pandemic or non-pandemic.