Reviews Short Documentary

Staying Sane (During A Global Pandemic) (2020) – 5 stars

Director: Dorothea Sterian

Writer: Dorothea Sterian

Running time: 10mins

The start of 2020 represented something of a milestone for me. Going into the year, living in an apartment without damp or pests, in a stable writing job, and I had finally managed to pay off all the debt wracked up from my previous life in film festivals. Maybe, I dared to dream, this is the year I could finally broaden my horizons, look to enjoy new places and experiences, challenge myself mentally as a writer, or physically by returning to competitive sport – maybe I would even find the time to make a film of my own again.

Quickly, it became apparent that the year was going to be something of a write-off in that regard, and for me, like so many others, survival would have to be the major goal of 2020 – and probably 2021 to boot… We might have big plans for the future, but for now we will need to learn from Norman Stanley Fletcher’s philosophy in Porridge. It’s all about little victories. While I might have felt a little disappointed with the way last year turned out, however, it was invariably easier for me to adapt to this mindset than for the likes of Dorothea Sterian – a young, up-and-coming director whose work I have covered before on Indy Film Library.

From her previous effort, A Simple Haircut, it was clear that she was on the cusp of something before the pandemic. Completed months before the global lockdown, the film explored themes of social alienation and familial disconnection – showing viewers a day in the life of Sterian’s Grandmother, who remains in Romania after many of her relatives have spread across the world, in search of happiness further afield. In a cruel change of fortunes, Sterian now finds herself in a similar situation in Staying Sane (During A Global Pandemic).

Living alone in Britain, Sterian’s career was clearly in the ascendancy going into last year. Already producing polished and moving documentaries on the basis of what was to be seen in A Simple Haircut, after studying for a television and radio degree, she was accepted onto the Edinburgh Television Festival’s prestigious Network scheme, while reportedly also finding an early career mentor in BBC Storyville’s Commissioning Editor Mandy Chang. While all this still bodes extremely well for her future career, whenever there is sufficient return to ‘normality’ to pick that momentum up again, to have suddenly seen all that progress stall must have been devastating.

While the sudden absence of things to talk about via film seems daunting for someone who is embarking on a career as a documentary storyteller, however, there is also a story to be told about that. One of the things which is broadly true of all documentaries is that, on some level, they are inescapably about the artist as much as the subject. Directors can try to distance themselves from the on-screen action as much as possible to make them feel organic, but ultimately, they still have a hand in creating the meaning of their film – choosing what to leave on the cutting room floor, which snippets to leave in, and the tone and tempo with which it is all stitched together – reflecting subconsciously their own ideas, assumptions and blind-spots as a result.

While supposedly having ‘nothing’ to talk about might be unnerving for a documentarian then, it is also an opportunity to do something many will baulk at – overt introspection. To that end, Staying Sane (During A Global Pandemic) is a brave and intuitive piece of filmmaking – with Sterian using the space presented by the Covid-19 shutdown to turn the lens on herself, and to analyse her own vulnerabilities. This is a terrifying process – especially when there is nothing like a career or social life to use as window dressing – but arguably an essential step on any artist’s journey. In order to handle other subjects with awareness of how it relates to you, and how your hopes and fears might inform your eventual creation of art around it. First of all, know thyself.

The meat of the film consists of some marvellously composed shots of the director alone in her apartment, in various states of distress and or determination. While stylistically, this is pretty heavily structured for documentary, that is entirely permissible in the grand scheme of things. Filmmakers like Werner Herzog clearly do not feel that clearly constructing certain scenes is any anyway compromising of the reality of their other footage – after all, they know they tamper with organic footage’s meaning enough to illustrate a ‘greater truth,’ so adding a minorly manipulated scene to further add to that is no more problematic. At the same time, Sterian made this film in her house during lockdown – she can hardly wait until she is unaware of herself before starting to shoot candid footage.

Sterian goes through the motions which will have been familiar to many lockdown jailbirds during so much of the early stages of the pandemic. She takes up seemingly random hobbies – we have all been butchers, bakers or candle-makers in our time during the past 12 months – but is left unfulfilled by the end results of each. The more time that passes, the more obvious it becomes that she will not be able to distract her mind from addressing her mind from the material situation she faces.

Living within an economic system which necessitates the sale of our labour for survival, we have been conditioned to see filled agendas and eternal creation as virtuous cycles – and dread the quiet moments where we are not being productive. Even amid a global pandemic, the utterly cynical race of governments to rush people back to school or to work has reinforced this feeling of guilt – the economy is going down the tube, and it’s our fault for not embracing a dangerous return to mass commuting more readily. This was not a healthy attitude to adopt even before the coronavirus outbreak – but at present, it is a certified death drive.

Things are not normal – there is a potentially lethal virus which thrives on human contact circuiting through the population. Underestimating that in the summer has seen the number of cases hit 100 million and the death toll stand at over 2 million people, thanks to a lethal second-wave across much of the world. Whether or not you believe that the rat-race of pre-pandemic life was as good as it gets, the fact is that, for now at least, you will have to make peace with simple survival being your key target for the foreseeable future.

In the end, Sterian manages to do just that. She uses the terrifying silence of lockdown to confront her endless drive to work, as well as her unobtainable pursuit of perfection – something which will be healthy and essential lessons learned well beyond the Covid-19 crisis. Accepting that her storied future will have to be put on hold temporarily, while focusing on little victories to get by on a daily basis, Sterian delivers an important message to herself, and the many other vibrant and innovative independent filmmakers who have similarly found themselves lost in their own heads during the lockdown months.

The best documentaries, I believe, are the ones where we go on a journey with the filmmaker, learning from them, and growing alongside them. In this case, Staying Sane (During A Global Pandemic) is not only a slick, well-thought out and creative means for one documentary filmmaker to have combatted the lockdown blues; it has also served as a learning curve for Dorothea Sterian, and presented viewers with some important wisdom to help them survive the indefinite crisis they are currently weathering. It is an important, worthy and engaging piece, which sees a talented young filmmaker unafraid to be vulnerable, and to use that vulnerability to connect with viewers. In this way, Sterian is developing a level of self-awareness that will make her a cinematic force to be reckoned in the years to come – I look forward to seeing her continue to flourish in her future work.

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