Nearly three years after the COVID pandemic sent the world into isolation, audience demand for films recapturing the spirit of lockdown may not be all that high — though perhaps we’ve just started to gain enough distance to evaluate that strange, sad, sometimes warmly intimate time and how it changed us. A highly personal, fine-grained film diary of lockdown life from married Dutch docmakers Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster, “Journey Through Our World” presents an experience at once individually specific, universally familiar and, when you take a few steps back, close to absurd — preserving habits and practices that already seem quaint following our accelerated return to “normal.”
Though it was an obvious home-crowd favorite at IDFA, where it world-premiered in the main competition, “Journey Through Our World” is nonetheless broadly accessible and affecting enough to match the international festival profile of Lataster and Lataster-Czisch’s 2016 doc “Miss Kiet’s Children” — which even secured a limited U.S. release.
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Seeing the filmmakers turn their camera on themselves, and barely leaving the confines of their Amsterdam townhouse and petite but lushly planted backyard, this initially feels a departure for a duo whose films have tended to be outward-looking and socially conscious. Yet as “Journey Through Our World” gradually builds a sense of community with neighbors and friends seen across fences or via Zoom screens, their signature empathy and human interest prevails.
Just as often, however, they quite literally magnify details of the natural world that, outside of lockdown circumstances, we rarely take the time to see. The film begins with painstaking closeups of a caterpillar dangling from spring foliage, or a snail feasting on a just-ripened blackberry — as the couple find in their lovingly tended garden a universe of living to supplant the outside world from which they’ve been cut off. A family of crows takes residence in a tree that spans multiple properties, as talk of their growth and welfare becomes good-humored common ground between the filmmakers and their neighbors. Later, Lataster films a savage duel between a spider and a wasp at heart-stoppingly close range: Life-or-death drama, it turns out, is everywhere you look.
There is a luxury in slowing life down to this level, and “Journey Through Our World” isn’t oblivious to the privileged circumstances that permitted such a document to be made at all. Lataster and Lataster-Czisch are well-off and secure in their elegant, comfortable home, and can afford to stay entirely housebound for months on end at the height of their pandemic anxiety. Their domestic routine — as they chatter, garden and do tai chi together, and remain able to work from home — will seem enviable to many, as may the glimpses we get of their neighbors’ daily lives. Snatches of overheard phone conversations betray parents’ exasperation but no real desperation; the exuberant boing of a child’s outdoor trampoline is a recurring motif on the soundtrack.
And yet through such comfort, the pain of living in a time of separation cuts through. Over the course of multiple Zoom conversations, we trace the story of the couple’s oldest friends, well-regarded journalist Ingrid Harms and her wife Hansje, as the former battles cancer, their spirits ebbing and flowing with each new stage of treatment. The inadequacy of virtual togetherness in such fraught circumstances is sharply evoked, but so are tender compensations: not especially online-savvy, these middle-aged pals develop their own code of body language to denote love and solidarity.
When relaxed quarantine rules permit them to meet for lunch in the filmmakers’ backyard, the difference is positively seismic: “Journey Through Our World” observes and outlines its space so intricately that its sudden occupation by others is unexpectedly powerful. Future, hopefully COVID-free generations might happen upon this gentle, bittersweet doc and find it a peculiar time capsule; right now, it raises shivers of recognition.
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