Two features from this year's Sundance Film Festival speak to our strange circumstances with eerie accuracy, and haunting speculation. Exploring nuclear families in dystopian times, The Pink Cloud and The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet look at how a child can be brought into a world their parents weren't prepared for. Rafaela Sales Ross looks at two depictions of parenting in a pandemic
During yet another Zoom call, a friend gulps down a large glass of gin and recalls how, earlier on the week, her toddler, Emma, had sobbed uncontrollably after seeing people casually strolling on a TV show, her tiny hands patting her face as if searching for a nonexistent mask. She looked at her mother, then at the TV, then at her mother once again, silently asking why were these strangers allowed to so blatantly break convention.
You see, to Emma, there is no world without face masks. By the time she took her first steps, proudly crossing the threshold between her home and the outside on her own chubby legs, there were no more playdates, no more impromptu visits to family members or Sundays at the cinema. Distance was the norm, as a silent threat continuously undermined her chances of anything resembling what once was.
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, two South American films approached the idea of procreating under apocalyptic conditions, Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud and Ana Katz’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet. The first sees a couple actively choosing to bring a child into what seems to be a doomed world, whilst the latter brushes on the subject when a family who recently welcomed a baby is trapped under eccentric restrictions brought by an unknown plague.
“This film was written in 2017 and shot in 2019. Any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental”
In Gerbase’s dystopia, the world awakes to see a dream-like pink cloud moving slowly across the land. Despite its harmless appearance, the mysterious cloud kills whoever comes into contact with it in the space of ten seconds. Once the deadly aspect of the phenomenon is uncovered, the government rings an emergency siren urging all people to immediately take shelter, wherever they are – be it at home, or in a bakery. It is this predicament that traps together Giovana and Yago, a couple who were having breakfast at the former’s apartment after a one night stand.
What seems to be a temporary conundrum quickly turns into a permanent situation, as the days morph into months into years. Whilst Giovana dodges any hints at further commitment, Yago sees the confinement as a blessing in disguise, the woman next to him a twisted gift from fate. It is this certainty that drives the man to, still at the early stages of lockdown, raise the question of having a child together. “Do you want to raise a child in here!?” Giovana rages, gesticulating at the space around her. The man, unbeaten, simply states: “We can be happy in here.”
The mix of maddening isolation and Yago’s optimistic persistence wears Giovana down and, soon enough, she gives birth to a baby boy, Lino, while on a video call with an obstetrician. From there on, every single step is a Black Mirror-ish deviation from the norm. Lino cannot see a doctor, meet his family members or even see another child. The two-story apartment he was born in is his entire universe, the linoleum floors the only surface his feet have ever touched, the big, futuristic tube connected to the tightly-shut windows - from where basic supplies and odd luxuries come from - his sole connection to the outside; to the unknown.
A poetic modern odyssey, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet follows everyday man Sebastian as he is ping-ponged through life, going from an office job to harvesting fields to once again living in his mother’s house. It is a quiet, tender portrait of routine that is deeply assured in its own pace, unafraid of collected contemplation. As Sebastian settles, getting married and welcoming a son, his life is once again distraught, this time by the advent of an unknown plague. The curious disease only affects those who stand taller than a couple of feet, as the air at a certain height contains whatever virus triggers the malady. The odd circumstances leave people with two restrictive choices: to spend a small fortune on an aquarium-like helmet, or crouch.
“It was only six months, they told us” exhales Sebastian’s wife after coming home with a tiny helmet for their baby, sacrificing the family’s savings so her son can climb trees, run freely and enjoy the purest liberties of childhood. In buying the helmet, the mother chose the present over the future, bargaining with fortune. Contrary to the active choice made by Giovana and Yago, the parents here had no say in whether or not to bring a child into a maze of endless limitations and social constraints.
When Emma was only a few months old, back in summer 2019, her family took her to Portugal for a week on the beach, vouching to do it once again the year after, when she could have a better understanding of her surroundings. With that in mind, during my last trip home to Rio, I got Emma the cutest pair of jelly shoes, a whimsical mixture of purples and greens, glitter all around. Her feet are now almost twice the size. The pair of jellies never touched the warm Portuguese sand.
Having a child grow up in a world so starkly different from the one of their parents adds yet another layer to the archetypal generational conflicts. Lino can’t grasp Giovana’s fervent yearn for the ocean, the longing for the feeling of sand between her toes. The boy is entirely content in captivity, oblivious to the joys of what once was. And Sebastian’s nameless son feels none of the guilt that burdens his mother, the sinking feeling of inadequacy that echoes a woman’s deepest fears.
After seeing his mother trapped for months in the augmented reality provided by high-tech VR goggles, steadily detaching herself from the family routine in lieu of a digitalised afternoon in the park, Lino, now a pre-teen, finally breaks down. The boy smashes the intricate apparatus, yelling at the lifeless woman in front of him, “Now you have to live with us in the real world”. And this – the increasingly claustrophobic apartment where their parents once had a carefree post-first-time-sex breakfast – is his real world. The only one he knows.
I once again met my friend a couple of months after our boozy Zoom call, this time for a socially distanced walk in the park. Emma waved her little hands and clumsily made her way towards me – the closest she could get. Gently, she reached inside the pocket of her padded parka and pulled out a neon pink hand sanitiser, placing the little container on the ground before stepping away. Her unexpected offering threw me off, the small ritual one of those pin-drop moments where your surroundings become unbearably clear. These strange yet now common ceremonies were Emma’s response to our own pink cloud, our newfangled plague. Her expression was unfazed as she stared at me, patiently waiting for the moment when I would pick up the bottle and join her safety bubble. It dawned on me then that, as twisted as it all is, the kids will be just fine.
Rafaela Sales Ross (@rafiews) is a proud Brazilian currently living in Scotland. She has a Masters in Film and Visual Culture and is a researcher of the portrait of suicide on film. Rafa, as she likes to be called, loves Harold and Maude and writing about the exploration of death, existence and legacy on film.