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Locked-down cinema: Films set in a single location

You don't need to move around to tell a great story. Here are films rooted to a single location—inspiration for when the film world restarts amid restrictions

A still from 'Rear Window'.
A still from 'Rear Window'.

Even as the lockdown begins to lift, it’ll take a while for the film industry to get back to business as usual. In the immediate aftermath, it will be difficult to stage elaborate productions involving hundreds of crew members. But it should be possible, even with restrictions, to make simpler films, with just a couple of actors and minimal scenery changes. Directors and writers looking for inspiration can find it in the scores of single-location films out there: comedies, thrillers, political dramas, adventure films. We’ve chosen seven as proof that magic can ensue when talented filmmakers are forced to reckon with limited space.

This is Not a Film (2011)

Most directors who make films that unfold in a single location do it to challenge themselves or because it suits the narrative. Jafar Panahi did it because he ran out of options. In 2010, an Iranian court sentenced the filmmaker to six years in prison for propaganda against the state; he was also disallowed from directing anything for 20 years. Under house arrest while appealing the decision, Panahi pulled off one of the slyest magic tricks in cinema. Over an hour and 14 minutes, he’s filmed in his home, talking with his lawyer, and with his friend, filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (credited as co-director). He talks about choices he made directing older films, reads aloud a screenplay for an unmade project, stages a scene from it. Slowly, it dawns on you that he’s directing, even though what’s being recorded can’t really be called a film. Panahi would make another film set entirely in a house, Closed Curtain, and a car-bound one in Taxi, but This Is Not a Film was the most distilled form of his wry brand of artistic rebellion.

Clash (2016)

There are some stellar documentaries on the Egypt protests of June 2013 against then-president Mohamed Morsi, and a fine fiction feature: Mohamed Diab’s Clash. The film is set entirely inside a police van during a chaotic rally, in which are held prisoners belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi supporters, as well as people with no particular political affiliation. The variety of clashing viewpoints are a great introduction to the protests in all their complexity, but this is also a marvellously tense film, with Diab and cinematographer Ahmed Gabr staging fiery but coherent scenes of conflict in that claustrophobic space.

Rear Window (1954)

In Alfred Hitchcock’s sly, stylish masterpiece, Jimmy Stewart plays a photographer confined to his room by a broken leg. With nothing to do, he starts to spy on his neighbours from his window. His voyeurism lands him in trouble when he glimpses something he isn’t meant to and becomes a witness to a possible crime. Many of us have been living a less exciting variation of this life these past few months, watching the world from our balconies and windows. Only we don’t have Grace Kelly dropping in to check on us.

Locke (2013)

One of Tom Hardy’s finest performances involved sitting in a car and talking on the phone. In Steven Knight’s film, Hardy's Ivan Locke is the only visible onscreen character, a construction foreman who’s driving at night to be with a colleague he had a fling with and who’s gone into premature labour. On the way, he talks to her, confesses to his wife, gives instructions to his sons and colleagues. A stellar cast (Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott) contribute the voices, and the film is anchored by Hardy’s intense turn as a family man struggling to keep his life from imploding in one night.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

This 1972 film by German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is proof that if you have enough imagination and facility with the tools of cinema, a single location can be endless intriguing. The action is mainly restricted to the bedroom of Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen), a designer who throws herself into games of sexual and psychological one-upmanship with Marlene (Irm Hermann) and Karina (Hanna Schygulla). It’s a one-of-a-kind film, the baroque sets and costuming matched by Fassbinder’s knack for arranging bodies and extracting full-tilt performances.

Shirin (2008)

One of Abbas Kiarostami’s formally experimental features, Shirin unfolds in a movie theatre, where an audience of women is watching a popular romantic film. Kiarostami, however, doesn’t show us this film, instead training his camera on the people watching it. We hear the film, though, as we see the viewers’ reactions to it, as the camera moves from one expressive face to another, catching them in a variety of moods.

My Dinner With Andre (1981)

The simplest of premises – a conversation over dinner between two friends – is the sum total of this delightful film by Louis Malle. Actor Wallace Shawn and stage director Andre Gregory play lightly fictionalised versions of themselves, as they talk about theatre and their differing life philosophies at a restaurant in Manhattan, New York. Both are such absorbing conversationalists – especially Gregory, who holds forth in long monologues – that it’s easy to forget that this was, in fact, a scripted film.

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