How to be at Home

The other day, purely by chance, I came across a lovely little film about dealing with lockdown and isolation – How to be at Home. It’s a charming little animated film poem from the National Film Board of Canada, tender sweet and relatable. Having watched that it was all too easy to easy to slide gently into the fascinating depths of their website to watch more and more excellent animations. I think the last time I fell down a rabbit hole watching NFB short films, was when I was doing research on John Grierson’s work the best part of a decade ago, but I may have fallen down again since. They have a fair amount of useful resources, so I may have got distracted doing legitimate research – they do have a decent chunk of Norman McLaren’s work – or perhaps I’ve just been sensible enough to put their YouTube page in another tab and promise myself a browse when I was done with the current project and resisted temptation. However, as the only pressing deadline this month is to write a blog post, as many days in the month as I can, there’s really no reason not to head willingly down the rabbit hole.

In order to stop myself getting completely lost down the rabbit hole, I intended to focus on their most recent playlist, a collection of new animated shorts marking International Animation Day – called ‘Get Animated!’ Unfortunately the vagaries of film rights meant that my choices were rather paired down, with almost all the films that caught my fancy turning out to be not available in my location. Though I must give an honorary mention to the film Mamie that was both compelling and beautifully animated – for some reason I kept expecting it to be in French, it felt very French.

My travels have therefore been rather more haphazard. Yet, time and again, I keep coming back to the film that started me off on this journey. I’ve spent time watching lots of Andrea Dorfman’s back catalogue, which have all so far been charming with a clever twist. There is, nonetheless, something special about this particular film. Every time I watch it, I feel like a find another detail that makes me smile or brings a lump to my throat. (Remember how many people it takes to make a story, just to make a picture move.) It feels very much of this moment – how could it exist without this pandemic – but it also feels like a very necessary piece of art in a broader sense. When there is so much talk about the conflicting ways in which the Internet makes us more connected to each other than we’ve ever been and more isolated then we ever were. As though isolation was new, as though the urban isolation and alienation has not been a subject with newspaper columns as long as there have been newspapers – perhaps as long as there have been cities. Perhaps it’s just more visible now, or perhaps it’s just expressing a truth that we need to learn over and again, that we’re all connected and there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely.

How To Be At Home is a sequel to another film that director/animator Andrea Dorfman and poet Tanya Davis made a decade ago, called How to be Alone. You don’t need to have seen the first film to enjoy this one, but having now watched them both it is clear that the second film is very much in dialogue with the first one. As beautiful as the poem that the film is based around is, there are a couple of lines that felt like non-sequiturs in it, but that having seen the first film make perfect sense – they’re not non-sequiturs they’re call backs, little private jokes between the collaborators themselves and between them and their audience.

A really nice part of watching the films in the ‘wrong’ order is that you get to see how much both halves of the collaboration have developed as artists in the intervening years, the animation much smoother and more cleverly executed, the poetry somehow more secure in it’s vulnerability. (It sounds like Tanya Davis has read a lot more of her poetry out loud in the intervening years, that indescribable element of having found ones voice.) As though everything they’ve been trying to say in the intervening years has been distilled down into this one practically perfect piece of art.

If you enjoy this pair of films I’d also like to recommend you Flawed another animation by Andrea Dorfman that is available on the NFB website, though this one is in water-colour storyboard format. It’s really lovely too.

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