Reviews Short Narrative

Sola (2020) – 5 stars

Director: Zoltán Debreczeni

Writer: Zoltán Debreczeni

Running time: 9mins

See the trailer for Sola from Zoltán Debreczeni on Vimeo.

I think a lot of people have jumped the gun by proclaiming that things “cannot go back to normal” whenever the Covid-19 pandemic should finally die down – if there is one thing that we have learned from the last century, it is that capitalists can and will enforce ‘business as usual’ at the most brutal and exploitative of times. It is not even hard to imagine that they will do so without an improvement in terms of the current outbreak. What is true, however, is that this conflict between the interests of the many and the few has suddenly been drawn out of hiding – having always loomed over us, just out of view.

Humanity faces a number of inescapable systemic crises – economic, political, and environmental – which represent an existential threat if they continue to go unanswered. Meanwhile, the majority of the global labour force are over-worked, under-paid, and are having the few protections afforded them by the social security net hastily withdrawn by governments and businesses, who are keen to maintain ‘business as usual’ at any cost. It is no wonder that most of us are ‘stressed’, existing in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight, which is proving utterly unsustainable for our minds and bodies.

Despite this, every day we are expected to slot our beaten and bloodied cogs back into their allotted place in the market’s machinery, as if nothing were wrong. What is more, rather than addressing the crumbling world around us causing our fragile psyches to verge on shattering, most businesses and political leaders urge us to deploy that most odious concept of mindfulness. If coupled with meaningful change elsewhere, this would be fine; but alone – as it is exclusively being deployed – it means meditating to mitigate the negative feelings we experience, as we help our masters pour fuel onto the inferno our world is becoming.

Hungarian short film Sola is a quite brilliant examination of these social conditions. Zoltán Debreczeni’s finely poised animation sees an IT worker abandoned by her superiors (as so many are), left to manage a mental health condition while maintaining her required levels of productivity, seemingly amid a civil war. As she massages her aching cranium, staring at two screens crammed equally with inane tasks in the foreground, beyond the frame of her monitor her colleagues engage in a heated and rapidly escalating battle.

In this regard, Sola shares a lot in common with Alfonso Cuarón’s masterfully choreographed Children of Men. Superficially in the foreground of that particular film, Clive Owen’s grizzled protagonist appears to be learning some kind of lesson about learning to be emotionally vulnerable, but as Marxist pop-philosopher Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, just over his shoulder lays a depiction of a disintegrating social order – laying bare the absurdity of such a traditional ideological narrative. We cannot preoccupy ourselves anymore with these individualistic echoes of a failed and collapsing system, we must also turn our attention to the structural oppression we are brushing up against every day.

In Sola, we see this manifested as our nameless lead sees her individual situation deteriorate on what, in many other films on this matter, would see her embark on an individualistic arc to get in touch with herself, to ‘get better’, and be a normal productive member of society again. Not here; there is no definitive happy ending to Sola, and for that reason I would argue it is the film to address the mental health crisis – which is in fact itself a symptom of the systemic crisis we are in the grip of every day.

As the woman who the camera centres on crushes her foam stress-toy, it is clear she is already aware of ‘mindfulness’ procedures to help her cope. In the background, however, her office’s social microcosm continues to shred itself, with her colleagues moving from using office equipment to batter one another to arming themselves with plastic guns. It is abundantly clear that one way or another, whether or not she completes her individual arc, the broken which caused her breakdown remain, and will continue to destroy her and others.

This is further emphasised by the process through which the nameless worker faces her fears. Her anxiety is gradually manifested in a tumour growing from the side of her head. After developing a face and hat, it engulfs her in a gloriously grotesque sequence – before she emerges back into normality. After a process of wrestling with inner – and initially outer – demons like this, a traditional story arc here might see the heroine freed from her condition, striding forth into the world as a stronger individual. Debreczeni stays true to the wider film, however, and instead delivers a reminder that we cannot be ‘free’ until we start paying attention to the situation just over our shoulder.

A disturbing and occasionally disgusting film; Sola is the gold standard of adult animation. Other filmmakers should look to Debreczeni and his team as an example of what can be achieved with the genre; as they do not waste the opportunity animation provides to show us something utterly otherworldly, while providing a fearlessly cutting critique of the world we live in. The visuals and score also deserve more of a mention than they got here – but rest assured; they are flawless. Ultimately, this is a polished and challenging final product, delivered in less than 10 minutes – in the world of short film it doesn’t get better than this.

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