When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world shuddering to a halt in March 2020, it forced virtually every film set on the planet to shut down, leaving many filmmakers across the globe twiddling their thumbs. In the weeks and months that followed, directors have responded to this enforced downtime the only way they know how: creating.
From Mati Diop’s In My Room and Spike Lee’s New York New York to Martin Scorsese’s quarantine film and the seventeen shorts that make up the anthology collection Homemade, seeing how directors are parsing this unique period is now virtually an entire genre within itself.
Most of these projects have benefitted from the usual post-production processes: sound teams, for example, were able to work on the aforementioned films remotely, a fact that has prevented their credit sequences from running as short as they might have been. But with nearly all of these projects being self-shot, a tacit question lies at the heart of the pandemic-response genre: what about cinematographers?
With Eremita (Anthologies), director and project curator Sam Abbas seeks to answer that very question via the medium of film itself and, in doing so, invert a staple of this new genre: directors flexing their cinematographic skills. An eclectic collection of (mostly) documentary shorts that takes its somewhat esoteric name from the Latin for “hermit,” the movie spotlights the directorial visions of the cinematographers behind such visual stunners as The Florida Project, Madeline’s Madeline, and Siberia: namely, Alexis Zabé, Antoine Heberlé, Ashley Connor, Soledad Rodriguez, and Stefano Falivene.
The most immediate comparison to be made is to Homemade, Netflix’s compilation of shorts directed by the likes of Kristen Stewart, Pablo Larraín and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, but Eremita’s concept also calls to mind a project from the ‘90s: French artist Michel Zumpf’s Le Geographe Manuel, which granted directorial responsibilities to seventeen DPs including the legendary Raoul Coutard and Agnes Godard. Linked only by the fact that they were shot on the same amount of film using the same camera (the 35mm Cameflex, a favorite of the French New Wave), 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 collaborators discretion to shoot whatever they liked, but he applied ascetic limits to production: contributors could use only their cell phone cameras, and they were barred from spending any money on equipment. After giving the directors final cut, Abbas then assembled their shorts in a manner that took loose inspiration from Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, presumably selected because it’s a paean to solitude — the chief theme of the pandemic-response genre.
That connection feels under-explained, however — strained, even. An initial title card briefly declares the book’s enigmatic concept, and some chapter cards borrowed from the book are inserted throughout, but these don’t provide enough information to really establish a correlation, especially for viewers not versed in Nietzsche’s rather esoteric writing. It’s hard to understand why this particular association is forced on the movie, or even why it needs such a cerebral analogy in the first place. That kind of contrived framework might work in an art gallery installation like Zumpf’s film, but to a VOD release seeking a more general audience like Eremita, it just adds an awkward, superfluous layer. It might’ve been wiser to opt for Homemade’s unabashedly grab-bag approach to structure instead.
Thankfully, this framework isn’t exerted too forcefully over the shorts, which are largely allowed to speak for themselves. Eremita remains a compelling watch thanks to its open-ended brief, which lays the groundwork for a sweeping range of responses, both in style and content. Its chapters run the gamut, ranging from the introspective to the voyeuristic and the everyday to the surreal.