Single-location stories have long held an attraction for filmmakers. For independent productions and television shows, the concept provides an appealing low-budget opportunity. For auteurs, they pose a challenge to invoke a variety of techniques to enliven their one set. Alfred Hitchcock did this multiple times, most famously in 1954’s Rear Window. That film is most pertinent for considering these kinds of films in the current moment, in which millions are practicing social distancing to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the thriller, Jimmy Stewart’s character is similarly confined to his apartment by a physical impairment — in his case a broken leg. Thanks to an unusually hot summer, all his neighbors in Greenwich Village have their windows and curtains wide open, allowing him (and the audience) to indulge their voyeuristic side as a way to alleviate loneliness and boredom. Nowadays, people are much better (perhaps too much) at keeping to themselves, and blazing hot summers are no longer so unusual.
A one-location movie also tills fertile thematic ground, in which artists can explore different facets of being alone — the subtle distinctions between solitude, loneliness, isolation, confinement, paranoia, and sanctuary. In Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Catherine Deneuve’s pathological aversion to sex and men degrades her mind as she’s left alone in her apartment. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), the eponymous self-obsessed designer forces “friends” and employees alike to abide by her beck and call within her bedroom.
In other cases, a confined environment sets the stage for studies in the interactions of small groups. In Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (2009), we meet a couple who have raised their three children to adulthood within a compound without any knowledge of the outside world, leading them to believe that passing planes are toys which they can knock out of the air. In John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), workers at an Antarctic research base must fight to figure out who among them is real and who has been assimilated by a malevolent shapeshifting alien. In Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964), villagers trap a visiting man in a sand pit with a young widow, forcing him to stay and marry her.
Is it significant that nearly all the work of this niche genre (certainly all of its well-known and respected works) have been directed by men? Is this merely a reflection of how male dominated filmmaking has historically been, or does the prospect of forced loneliness hold some special, morbid fascination for the auteur? That’s a topic perhaps best left to it’s own essay, but it’s worth acknowledging here.
Right now, of course, many of us are filmmakers in isolation. Around the world, people stuck at home have kept themselves busy with social media, evolving a new kind of posting. Call it “Quarantine Chic” or “Social Distance Cinema.” After just a few months (less than two weeks in the US), it already has its own canon, with celebrities and ordinary people alike contributing. Aesthetically, these videos are mostly the same brand of absurdity that we’re used to seeing on TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, etc. — just now with a strong tinge of desperation and cabin fever.
There’s an obvious ontological separation between these videos and the classic films I listed before. For the latter, the one location was a voluntary element, born of material need, aesthetic choices, or both. For the former, the confinement is forced upon them. That’s a distinction without much precedent in cinema. Until very recently, obtaining the tools needed for making films under the circumstances of confinement were all but impossible. We have seen glimpses of what this kind of film looks like before now.
There was the documentary made in secret in a Florida prison last year. One unnervingly relevant older example is the series of vlogs Australian Christiaan Van Vuuren made as “the Fully Sick Rapper” in 2010, when he was quarantined for six months for tuberculosis. But there have also been more fully formed forbears within this genre. When Syrian photographer Issa Touma found Aleppo breaking out into chaos around him in August 2012, he filmed the entire thing from his apartment, and subsequently turned his footage into a documentary short.
But right now, the world’s greatest auteur of isolation is unquestionably Iranian director Jafar Panahi. A thorn in the side of the authorities in his home country for nearly as long as he’s been a filmmaker, in 2010 he was apprehended, kept for a time under house arrest, and eventually sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on filmmaking. (He was later released from prison, though he is still prohibited from leaving Iran.) Despite the ban, in the time since that arrest, Panahi has made four more films, each one operating under the unique constraints of his situation. Where earlier directors imposed such limits on themselves, he’s had no other choice.
The first of the four was 2011’s This Is Not a Film, co-directed with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, which was shot both on digital and with an iPhone (making it one of the earliest examples of “legitimate” smartphone cinema). Made while Panahi was under house arrest, he meditates on his situation by documenting his everyday life while kept in his apartment, at times coping by planning a film he could make solely within that space. This effort proves fruitless, however. As both the limitations of the space and the enormity of his situation weigh on him, Panahi breaks down in frustration, dissatisfied at how paltry a substitute speculating on making a film is compared to actually doing it. In a moment that has haunted me for nearly ten years, he asks the camera, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?”
This is the dark endpoint of isolated cinema, and may foreshadow how bleak our current trend of quarantine videos will get if more people are kept alone for too long. The tools of filmmaking, the tools of social media, and the tools of the internet were only ever supposed to supplement our reality, not become it. For all the talk of how new technology has isolated us, now we can see what true isolation looks like. And it’s come about from fully physical, biological means. Now we have tools to help ourselves maintain some semblance of human connection, but it falls far short as a substitute. A few weekends ago, some friends and I had a “virtual brunch” in Google Hangouts. A few days after that I went on my first Tinder date on the same platform. (Yes, I’m using Tinder during a pandemic. Yes, I am practicing all safety precautions. Do not judge me.) Both experiences were pleasant, but a pale facsimile of interpersonal warmth.
Panahi’s situation is not fully comparable, of course. Save for the most stringent lockdowns, people still have freedom of movement (as demonstrated by all those blithely ignoring proper quarantining procedures). There’s a wide gulf between having to stay home to avoid getting seriously ill and suffering political persecution from your own government. But the similarities in the end between what Panahi has created and what people on social media have made are too vivid to ignore.
The next film Panahi made under his ban, 2013’s Closed Curtain, co-directed by Kambuzia Partovi, digs even deeper into metatextuality. Shot at his home on the Caspian Sea, the first half, in which two people fleeing a party busted by police take refuge at the house of a screenwriter who’s also hiding from the authorities, is ultimately revealed to be a fictional work. It is apparently imagined by Panahi, who is in fact the house’s sole inhabitant. For the second half, we again see the filmmaker in isolation, but with the first half’s characters literally haunting him. With a stronger aesthetic polish (no smartphone shots here), there’s less of a parallel between this vision of solitary living and our current social distance cinema, but it’s still a potent work of art.
Panahi’s next two films, though, venture to a realm where we under quarantine cannot go (or at least, aren’t supposed to). Both are road movies, shot guerrilla style — meanwhile, those of us under quarantine are strongly discouraged from travel in any form. In 2015’s Taxi, Panahi “plays” a taxi driver as a pretext to set up a series of scenes in cars, during which different subjects/characters discuss social issues. In 2018’s 3 Faces, Panahi and actress Behnaz Jafari play themselves as they journey to Iran’s northwest, in search of a young woman who reached out to Jafari for help.
Now, of course, Iran has been hit hard by COVID-19, a situation exacerbated by the US’s brutal, longstanding sanctions. The future of social distance cinema is in constant flux, heavily dependent on how various countries enforce (or elect not to enforce) quarantine measures as the pandemic continues. As this crisis exposes the many weaknesses within our systems, online videos are a poor alternative to whatever action may actually improve said systems. But they can at least provide some temporary amusement, or even get us to reflect on what we take for granted with our freedom of movement.