The Corona Diaries: lock ’em up – but give them a camera first!

During the weeks and months of quasi-lockdown and working from home, one of the things that I’ve very much enjoyed (and I’m aware of how privileged I am in that regard) is lunch breaks with my wife, where we sit down, have a bite and watch something short. For a while, we mainly watched the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, as its 20-minute episodes were perfect for a quick break before we’d go back to our computers and resume work.

Alas, Normal People only had twelve episodes, which is not nearly enough to cover an entire pandemic, even if we spread them out and watched other things inbetween. Find good fare for short lunch breaks, however, isn’t altogether easy, especially if – like us – you have, what should we call it, an ambivalent relationship to most TV comedy. But ho, what’s that in the distance? A TV channel? A streaming service? It’s the media behemoth called Netflix, come to the rescue – with their anthology series Homemade.

Homemade is exactly what it sounds like: a series of 17 short films made during the pandemic by filmmakers either in lockdown or practicing social distancing. While a handful of the episodes suggest that their makers had managed to squirrel away pro-level filming equipment on their last shoot, most of the films were made with limited resources, shot with mobile phones. The actors that appear are largely family members.

The directors though? The list is quite something to behold: from Ladj Ly (of Les Misérables fame – the 2019 drama about social unrest in present-day Paris, not the revolutionary song’n’dance) and Rungano Nyoni, who directed I Am Not a Witch, via Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kristen Stewart to Paolo Sorrentino (La Grande Bellezza), Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) and Pablo Larraín (Jackie and Ema), who also co-produced the series.

As is to be expected with a series of 17 short films, they’re not all equally good. Some felt like little more than literal home videos or simple video collages. One or two overburdened the visuals with voice-overs that didn’t add much. But most had something unique, a fascinating idea, a deadpan conceit, a strange or vulnerable quality, and they reflected our own experiences with the pandemic back at us. Homemade finds intriguing, sometimes uncanny and sometimes funny ways of transforming the anxieties we’ve felt as well. And the mix of styles and tones makes the whole endeavour work better than individual films may have worked on their own: in isolation, a short film may have felt sentimental and twee, but juxtaposed with a snarky comedy about an old lech sitting in a nursing home in Chile and trying to sweet-talk his former conquests via Zoom both of the shorts gain something. Similar ideas are given different treatments by the directors, so that the red thread of COVID-19, lockdown and isolation form these short films into something more cohesive than your usual collection of shorts has.

My own favourite moments? German actor-director Sebastian Schipper (of Veronica fame) sitting in the kitchen with several other versions of himself, each with longer hair and a somewhat more deranged look in his eyes; Sebastián Lelio’s goofy short musical that could easily have been unbearable if it hadn’t come with a wonderfully strange self-deprecation; David Mackenzie’s low-key mini-doc (done as literal kitchen-sink realism) about his daughter Ferosa’s experience of living through the pandemic in Glasgow; and Natalia Beristáin’s almost magic-realist tale of a little girl named Jacinta keeping herself alive and well while quarantined on her own. (There is a similarly-themed short by Nadine Labaki and Khaled Mouzanar that I liked a lot less, and the two shouldn’t be confused with each other.) And, of course, Pablo Larraín’s epic putdown of an ageing Don Juan via video chat. (A quick shout-out to Paolo Sorrentino’s sweet, funny short about Queen Elizabeth being stuck at the Vatican while visiting Pope Francis due to the lockdown – it’s perhaps too long for its own good, but you get a feel for how much fun Sorrentino must have had playing with those royal and papal dolls.)

It has to be said that these are films by, and about, the people who – probably like many of the viewers – were reasonably safe and privileged, those who didn’t have to travel to a place of work on public transport in order to keep themselves afloat, who aren’t at the mercy of toxic politicians using the pandemic to further their populist goals at the expense of those who have no choice. The shorts make for reasonably comfortable pandemic viewing, but they’re mood pieces and flights of fancy. I can imagine a different series of short films that is angrier, more cutting, directed by the likes of Boots Riley and Ken Loach, perhaps. The Homemade we got is somewhat solipsistic – understandably, certainly, but intent on being entertaining and diverting first and foremost. Arguably, there’s a place for this, but increasingly, there’s also a need to tell stories that are more political.

Nonetheless, if you accept Homemade for what it is and, equally, accept what it isn’t, there are pleasures to be had here. If you’ve got an interest in short films, you’re willing to put up with the handful of shorts that you like a bit less – and you’re looking for something to entertain you during a quick break, lunch- or otherwise? Open Netflix, look for Homemade and visit with a bunch of directors trying to keep themselves, their partners and families busy and sane during strange, worrying times. Who knows? It might even inspire you to do a pandemic short of your own!

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