‘Eremita (Anthologies)’ Harbors Appeal Beyond the Average Pandemic Response Movie

This anthology of shorts offers a precious peek at the directorial visions of five leading cinematographers.
Eremita Anthologies Ashley Connor

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.

Zabé’s vignette, for instance, opens with a crawl along the Venice Beach boardwalk, mostly deserted except for the homeless encampments that occupy the curb. Images of LED street signs flashing official advice – “PLEASE STAY 6FT APART!” – are ironically spliced against survey shots of cramped tents and candid interviews with their residents, a juxtaposition that’s drily reflected in the short’s title: Shelter in Place.

Other chapters go indoors to evoke the claustrophobia of that government order. Heberlé’s short, the only scripted film of the bunch, is an early cinema-inspired piece that depicts 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 made to daily life in the past year. Cooped up in the same Roman apartment, he and his family Zoom-school, process the enormity of the pandemic, and commiserate with colleagues over Skype about movie sets’ impossible new guidelines.

Rodriguez’s contribution, Solsticio de Invierno (Winter Solstice), evokes a Rear Window-esque sense of housebound voyeurism. Partly shot through a binocular perspective from indoors, her camera restlessly combs the outside world until it finds something worth watching. Rodriguez’s film is Eremita’s opener, and it’s immediately followed by an interlude shot by Abbas, who trains his static lens on rumpled bed sheets for several minutes as music plays in the background.

The placement of these shorts at the outset of Eremita feels designed to establish a decidedly meditative mood over the anthology and encourage viewer patience, but not every contributed film requires it. Ashley Connor’s A Well Watered Woman is a sharply edited blast of energy: she makes eerie thrills out of the everyday, casting familiar sights like her own body in fresh, wonderstruck ways. Her cinematographic work has often tended towards the intimate; she has a strong instinct for physicality, as demonstrated by her work on movies like Flames and The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Here, that eye is turned on herself, as she shoots her own body with keen sensual awareness, paying close consideration to the way steam rises from her skin in the bath, or to the distorting effects of water and reflections on the body. Extreme close-ups turn her skin into landscape, a surreal contortion that, alongside the film’s experimental ending and ominous electronic score, brings to mind recent iterations of body horror like Annihilation.

Each short in Eremita grants us a precious peek into areas of its editor-director’s creativity that we may not yet be aware of; precious because, for once, it isn’t filtered through the directorial vision of someone else. For at least one of the cinematographers involved, that was the project’s attraction: being able to have “complete ownership” over their work. For us as audiences, Eremita’s role-switching opens up myriad new routes through which to understand these cinematographers and the images they produce. The damning sense of paradox and amplification of marginalized voices in Shelter in Place, for example, suggest its director is driven by a humanistic impulse: a connection that, once made, can help to shed light on Zabé’s work in Fistful of Dirt and The Florida Project, which similarly explores life in the shadows of a fairy-tale city with palpable empathy.

It’s this fascinating lens that extends Eremita’s value beyond that of a pandemic curio. Few projects grant us opportunities like this, to see what some of the most exciting image-makers working in film today would choose to shoot if they were given entirely free rein: no one else’s script to follow, no director dictating over their shoulder. Cinematographers are usually viewed as facilitators of someone else’s art: necessary, but secondary, elements in the filmmaking process. Eremita encourages us to see them as fully-fledged creatives in their own right – a worthy undertaking when even the institutions designed to recognize every contribution to the filmmaking process threaten to relegate cinematographers to commercial breaks. Eremita offers a persuasive corrective to this kind of attitude, making it a film of note for fans of cinema at any time, pandemic or no pandemic.

Eremita (Anthologies) releases on VOD on February 26th, with all profits to be donated to Amnesty International.
Farah Cheded: Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here and reviewing Columbo episodes here.