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Film review: Big directors, small films in 'Homemade'

A stimulating Netflix anthology with 17 short films by directors around the world sharing their impressions of life under lockdown

Amalia Kassai in Sebastián Lelio's 'Algoritmo'
Amalia Kassai in Sebastián Lelio's 'Algoritmo'

Directors, even arthouse directors, live in nice houses. This wouldn’t normally be a surprise or interfere in our enjoyment of their work. But Homemade—a Netflix anthology of 17 short films made during lockdown—invites us into their living quarters, and the succession of sleek apartments and villas tells its own story. The starting point is comfort: not something to hold against the makers but a clue to the general milieu on offer. Sebastián Lelio (Gloria) even alludes to it in his “Algoritmo", actor Amalia Kassai singing: “There’s also the issue/ Of speaking from privilege/ Of thinking of this pandemic/ From this sumptuous place."

Even within their seemingly comfortable worlds, these films offer a multiplicity of techniques and approaches. Pablo Larraín (No, Neruda), who also produced this anthology, makes a ribald comedy from video conversations, only 11 minutes long but with a delightful twist. Rungano Nyoni (I Am Not a Witch) constructs “Couple Splits Up While In Lockdown LOL" out of text messages. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s "Penelope" is both pandemic sci-fi and a gently absurdist look at loss. Ladj Ly (Les Misérables) sends a drone out to look at his working-class, immigrant neighbourhood of Montfermeil, Paris. Antonio Campos (Christine) opts for psychological thriller, Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) for tiny talking figurines, Lelio for a musical.

You might notice motifs and tics carried over from the film work of these directors and actors. Sorrentino, even when doing little else but placing tiny figurines of Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth II around his house, can’t seem to compose an ugly frame or resist a silly joke. Kristen Stewart’s mercurial, sleep-deprived performance in her own “Crickets" is reminiscent of her work on Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. Naomi Kawase’s poetic "No Border"—the most visually striking of the anthology—is easily recognisable as hers. There are also departures: Ana Lily Amirpour, maker of the singular genre films A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and The Bad Bunch, directs and appears in the serene, straightforward "Ride It Out", a bicycle ride through a locked-down Los Angeles narrated by Cate Blanchett.

In many of the shorts, the director’s family is enlisted, either behind or in front of the camera. David Mackenzie, the Scottish director of Hell or High Water, turns the camera on his teenage daughter, who frets about turning 16 and being able to hug her grandmother again. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s Malick-esque “The Lucky Ones" is a letter to her 5-year-old son. Nadine Labaki and Khaled Mouzanar (Capernaum) shoot their precocious daughter as she chatters nonstop in Mouzanar’s Beirut office and ends up singing Bella Ciao. Through these glimpses of their lives in lockdown, we see our own fears and boredoms reflected: funerals we can’t be part of, rituals of handwashing and distancing, haircuts by family members, spells of introspection and horniness and despair.

Ana Lily Amirpour in 'Ride It Out'
Ana Lily Amirpour in 'Ride It Out'

As you make your way through Homemade, you’ll find echoes of one film in another. Both Morrison and Gurinder Chadha pay tribute to their deceased mothers, while Johnny Ma, in a simple and affecting short, cooks his mother’s dumplings (and includes the recipe) for his family in Mexico. There’s another, less obvious rhyme, one which speaks to the uniquely disorienting nature of this time. In Schipper’s dryly comic “Casino", he’s kept company by three other versions of himself. And in Compos’ “Annex", a strange man taken in by a couple for the night turns out to have a doppelganger, or maybe two.

Several of these films were shot on phones, using whatever equipment was at hand. The results look tantalisingly achievable—you might find yourself thinking after some of them, that was nice but I could have done it. Indeed, some of the amateur short films on Twitter and Instagram in the past few months are no less inventive or revealing of the times than the films in Homemade. What we seem to be witnessing, perhaps for the first time in cinema’s history, is a comprehensive democratisation of the filmmaking process. Phone cameras set this in motion years ago, but the pandemic has added the restrictions of access to money and materials. Things will likely go back to what how they were, but for this brief moment in time all that matters is your idea and your eye.

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