“Lean into loneliness,” Tanya Davis says in the animated short film of her poem about pandemic life, How To Be At Home. Of all the lines in the poem, it is this one that most resonates with director Andrea Dorfman, who also produced the animation for the film.
“To find solace in that, I just think that’s incredible,” Dorfman says over the phone from her home in Halifax.
The nearly five-minute film has become the breakout star of The Curve, a collection of short films commissioned by the National Film Board to capture life in Canada during COVID-19. It has been viewed more than 55,000 times since it was released in September. The topics of the 20 short films in the series so far span everything from cycling through the empty streets of Vancouver to a young man’s coming out to his family.
“Every artist had carte blanche to make a piece of art,” says Julie Roy, director-general of creation and innovation at the NFB. Filmmakers were given two directives: Whatever they made, it had to be in some way about life during the pandemic, and they had to follow local health guidelines while making their films. The result is a moving, often astounding record of this time in history. That was the point when the NFB launched the project this spring in the early days of the pandemic. The continuing project plans to add seven more films by the end of the year.
“It’s related to the DNA of the NFB to be there and to document all the society’s changes and challenges,” Roy says.
Dorfman and Davis had been talking about working together again before being approached by the NFB. In 2010, they made a short film of another of Davis’s poems, called How To Be Alone. It became a phenomenon. It has been viewed more than 8.4 million times on YouTube.
Friends had begun calling Dorfman in the early days of the pandemic to say she needed to make a follow-up to How To Be Alone. Whereas that film was about choosing isolation, wilfully separating yourself from a world that was always there, suddenly we were all shut indoors, so much of the world becoming inaccessible.
The poem Davis wrote was the perfect companion piece to that earlier film, Dorfman says.
“A lot of my work centres around the idea that we are alone,” she says. “It’s really one of the things we need to accept.”
As much of a downer as that sounds, the film manages to be simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. No wonder just about everyone talking about it on Twitter says it made them cry. The movie begins with a shot of a book called How To Be Alone. This was a happy accident. Dorfman ended up animating on the pages of old books because the special animation papers she was going to use were delayed because of the pandemic.
She describes the poem as “sort of a how-to manual."
It begins on a bleak note, much like the pandemic itself.
If you are at first really anxious, just wait, it’ll get worse, Davis begins in a soft voice. She offers suggestions of what we can do to keep busy, from yoga to prayer.
Dorfman’s whimsical animation pairs with each line of the poem, from a cartoon figure lifting weights to purple and yellow and blue dots drifting across the screen. It is a pleasant counterpoint to the words Davis narrates.
She chronicles the painful isolation of dinners alone and watching movies all by yourself. But as the music lifts and an animated disco ball spins, she strikes upon a truth that has been evident from the beginning of the pandemic.
“The disaster is we believe we’re separate. We’re not,” Davis says. The spread of the virus is proof, undeniable. “Lean into loneliness and know you’re not alone in it.”
We have all heard many times that we are all in this together. Dorfman’s movie will make you feel that in a new way. Yes, we are alone. And that fact is one of her main interests as an artist. But as she says, we’re also connected.
“It’s okay to feel these feelings and to suffer and to feel grief for what we’re going through. It’s okay, because this is what we’re all going through,” she says.
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