Watch How to Be at Home, a Beautiful Short Animation on the Realities of Social Isolation in 2020

I think, as social pri­mates, we want to feel a strong sense of belong­ing either in a rela­tion­ship or to a community—or both. But also intrin­sic to our human­i­ty is a feel­ing that we are tru­ly alone.

—Film­mak­er Andrea Dorf­man, 2010

When they first became friends, poet Tanya Davis and film­mak­er Andrea Dorf­man talked a lot about the plea­sures and hard­ships of being alone. Davis had just gone through a break up, and Dorf­man was just embark­ing on a rela­tion­ship after four years of fly­ing solo.

These con­ver­sa­tions led to a col­lab­o­ra­tion, 2010’s How to Be At Alone (see below), a whim­si­cal videopo­em that com­bines live action and ani­ma­tion to con­sid­er some of soli­tude’s sweet­er aspects, like sit­ting on a bench as sig­nal to the uni­verse that one is avail­able for impromp­tu con­ver­sa­tion with a stranger.

That bench reap­pears in their 2020 fol­low up, How to Be At Home, above. Now it is cor­doned off with black and yel­low cau­tion tape, a famil­iar pub­lic health mea­sure in 2020.

As with the ear­li­er project, a large part of Davis’ pur­pose was to reflect and reas­sure, both her­self, and by exten­sion, oth­ers.

Although she has become a poster child for the joys of soli­tude, she also rel­ish­es human con­tact, and found her­self miss­ing it ter­ri­bly while shel­ter­ing alone in the ear­ly days of the pan­dem­ic. Writ­ing the new poem gave her “an anchor” and a place to put her anx­i­ety.

Dorf­man notes that the project, which was com­mis­sioned by the Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da as part of a short film col­lec­tion about Cana­di­ans nav­i­gat­ing life dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, was “essen­tial­ly cat­alyzed by COVID.”

As she embarked on the project, she won­dered if the pan­dem­ic would be over by the time it was com­plete. As she told the CBC’s Tom Pow­er:

There was this feel­ing that this could go away in a month, so this bet­ter be fin­ished soon, so it’s still rel­e­vant. So as an artist, as a film­mak­er, I thought, “I have to crank this out” but there’s no fast and easy way to do ani­ma­tion. It just takes so long and as I got into it and real­ized that this was going to be a marathon, not a sprint, the images just kept com­ing to me and I real­ly just made it up as I went along. I’d go into my stu­dio every day not know­ing what lay ahead and I’d think, “Okay, so, what do we have up next? What’s the next line? And I’d spend maybe a week on a line of the poem, ani­mat­ing it. 

It appears to have been an effec­tive approach.

Dorfman’s paint­ed images rip­ple across the fast turn­ing pages of an old book. The titles change from time to time, and the choic­es seem delib­er­ate—The Lone Star Ranger, Le Secret du Manoir Han­té, a chap­ter in The Bro­ken Halo—“Rose­mary for Remem­brance.”

“It’s almost as though the way the poem is writ­ten there are many chap­ters in the book. (Davis) moves from one sub­ject to anoth­er so com­plete­ly,” Dorf­man told the Uni­ver­si­ty of King’s Col­lege stu­dent paper, The Sig­nal.

In the new work, the absence of oth­er peo­ple proves a much heav­ier bur­den than it does in How To Be Alone.

Davis flirts with many of the first poem’s set­tings, places where a lone indi­vid­ual might have gone to put them­selves in prox­im­i­ty to oth­er humans as recent­ly as Feb­ru­ary 2020:

Pub­lic trans­porta­tion

The gym

A dance club

A descrip­tion from 2010:

The lunch counter, where you will be sur­round­ed by chow-down­ers, employ­ees who only have an hour and their spous­es work across town, and they, like you, will be alone.

Resist the urge to hang out with your cell phone.

In 2020, she strug­gles to recre­ate that expe­ri­ence at home, her phone serv­ing as her most vital link to the out­side world, as she scrolls past images of a Black Lives Mat­ter protests and a masked essen­tial work­er:

I miss lunch coun­ters so much I’ve been eat­ing [pick­les and] toast­ed sand­wich­es while hang­ing unabashed­ly with my phone.

See How to Be at Home and the 29 oth­er films that com­prise The Curve, the Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da series about life in the era of COVID-19 here.

How to be at Home

By Tanya Davis

If you are, at first, real­ly fuck­ing anx­ious, just wait. It’ll get worse, and then you’ll get the hang of it. Maybe. 

Start with the rea­son­able feel­ings – dis­com­fort, lack of focus, the sad­ness of alone

you can try to do yoga

you can shut off the radio when it gets to you

you can mes­sage your fam­i­ly or your friends or your col­leagues, you’re not sup­posed to leave your home any­way, so it’s safe for you

There’s also the gym

you can’t go there but you could pre­tend to

you could bendy by your­self in your bed­room

And there’s pub­lic trans­porta­tion

prob­a­bly best to avoid it

but there’s prayer and med­i­ta­tion, yes always

employ it

if you have pains in your chest ‘cause your anx­i­ety won’t rest

take a moment, take a breath

Start sim­ple

things you can han­dle based on your inter­ests

your issues and your trig­gers

and your inner logis­tics 

I miss lunch coun­ters so much I’ve been eat­ing [pick­les and] toast­ed sand­wich­es while hang­ing unabashed­ly with my phone

When you are tired, again of still being alone

make your­self a din­ner

but don’t invite any­body over

put some­thing green in it, or maybe orange

chips are fine some­times but they won’t keep you charged 

feed your heart

if peo­ple are your nour­ish­ment, I get you

feel the feel­ings that undo you while you have to keep apart

Watch a movie, in the dark

and pre­tend some­one is with you 

watch all of the cred­its

because you have time, and not much else to do

or watch all of the cred­its to remem­ber 

how many peo­ple come togeth­er

just to tell a sto­ry

just to make a pic­ture move

And then, set your­self up danc­ing

like it’s a club where every­one knows you

and they’re all gonna hold you

all night long

they’re gonna dance around you and with you and on their own

it’s your favourite song 

with the hard­est bass and the cathar­tic drums

your heart pumps along/hard, you belong

you put your hands up to feel it

With the come down comes the weep­ing

those down­cast eyes and feel­ings

the truth is you can’t go danc­ing, not right now

not at any club or par­ty in any town

The heart­break of this astounds you

it joins old aches way down in you

you can vis­it them, but please don’t stay there

Go out­side if you’re able, breathe the air

there are trees for hug­ging

don’t be embar­rassed

it’s your friend, it’s your moth­er, it’s your new crush

lay your cheek against the bark, it’s a liv­ing thing to touch

Sad­ly, leave all bench­es emp­ty

appre­ci­ate the kind­ness in the dis­tance of strangers

as you pine for com­pa­ny and wave at your neigh­bours

savour the depths of your con­ver­sa­tions

the lay­ers uncov­ered

in this strange space and time

Soci­ety is afraid of change

and no one wants to die

not now, from a tiny virus

not lat­er from the world on fire

But death is a truth we all hate to know

we all get to live, and then we all have to go

In the mean­time, we’re sur­round­ed, we’re alone

each a thread woven in the fab­ric, unrav­el­ling in moments though

each a solo enti­ty spin­ning on its axis, for­get­ting that the galaxy includes us all

Here­in our fall

from grace from each oth­er from god what­ev­er, doesn’t mat­ter

the dis­as­ter is that we believe we’re sep­a­rate 

we’re not

As evi­denced by virus­es tak­ing down soci­eties

as proven by the lone­li­ness inher­ent in no gath­er­ings

as pal­pa­ble as the vacan­cy in the space of one per­son hug­ging

If this dis­rup­tion undoes you

if the absence of peo­ple unrav­els you

if touch was the teth­er that held you togeth­er

and now that it’s sev­ered you’re frag­ile too 

lean into lone­li­ness and know you’re not alone in it 

lean into lone­li­ness like it is hold­ing you

like it is a gen­er­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a glar­ing truth

oh, we are con­nect­ed

we for­get this, yet we always knew.

How to Be at Home will be added to the Ani­ma­tion sec­tion of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch 66 Oscar-Nom­i­nat­ed-and-Award-Win­ning Ani­mat­ed Shorts Online, Cour­tesy of the Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da

Watch “Ryan,” Win­ner of an Oscar and 60 Oth­er Awards

2020: An Iso­la­tion Odyssey–A Short Film Reen­acts the Finale of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a COVID-19 Twist


Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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