The COVID-era films that we have seen have one singular thing in common - a creative spirit that links all of the filmmakers. Filming under the pressures and limitations of a global pandemic - particularly in the lockdown period - really brought out the creativity and the will to see what can be possible among a lot of artists. Plus it’s just impressive to see something that was finished during that time. If you had told me a year prior that I would be housebound for over a year, I would have told you that I would write an entire book (maybe two) and catch up on so many things around the house. In truth, it was so stressful that I barely did anything, and instead put what little energy I had into just the day-to-day.
Fortunately, not everyone had the experience that I had. This amazing level of creativity is very much on display in Jacob Aaron Estes’ new film, He’s Watching. The film was conceived by Jacob, along with his wife, musician Gretchen Lieberum, and their children, Iris Serena Estes and Lucas Steel Estes. Filmed during lockdown, He’s Watching stars Iris and Lucas as siblings living through a parallel (though different and more severe) pandemic. They are on their own while their parents are in the hospital, recovering from an unnamed illness. The film opens innocently enough; using their phones and some of their dad’s filmmaking equipment, they record themselves engaging in various activities, pranks, and generally finding ways to entertain themselves. They periodically film videos that they send to their parents, providing updates, sharing frustrations and wishing them well.
After a while, they begin to notice other videos appearing on their devices, alongside the footage that they shot. Videos that they couldn’t possibly have filmed. They are being watched by something supernatural. It films them when they sleep. It wanders the house at night, leaving specific objects in hallways and on tables for them to find. It seems to be influencing them toward a specific end, but what?
As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly nightmarish. And increasingly vague. It becomes difficult to discern between the found footage/pseudo-doc style that it embraced at the beginning and the more verite style that it slowly pivots to. And that confusion and ambiguity works in the film’s favor. As Iris and Lucas become more surrounded by the influences of this entity, it feels like we plunge into the depths of the unknown alongside them. We go from innocent videos of them playing piano, watching tv and just being teenagers to nightmarish images that we’re not sure are being seen through the lens of their phone, through their own eyes, or if it’s just something that we alone are privileged to see. It’s confusing, but again, in that good way. It feels like the madness is spreading.
The film definitely has limitations in terms of scope and effects, but that’s part of its charm. The Estes family threw in what they had at their disposal and figured out how to creatively tell a story in largely a single location. It really highlights the efforts involved in independent filmmaking. When you don’t have an endless supply of money and tools, how do you tell your story? What do you use? In traditional indie filmmaking, it’s about making something with little. Here, it’s about making something out of nothing.
He’s Watching has a tremendously creative spirit. It’s a project that one family made together in order to keep the madness of isolation at bay. And in turn, they channeled that madness into something else. And invited us in to join them.
Movie Score: 3.5/5