Friday, November 12, 2021

Gracie Otto | Broken Beat || Sasha Ettinger Epstein | Wall Boy || Derek Efrain Villanueva | Lost Angel || Micah Stuart | Johnny || Anthony Schatteman | Petit ami || Aiman Hassani | خطا Khata

working boys

by Douglas Messerli

In the vast network of LGBTQ films one might well expect that there would be numerous works devoted to the horrific if even sometimes rewarding world of boys and young men who serve as male prostitutes. In my discussions of longer films, in fact, I have already devoted numerous pages to this subject in my essays on Polish-born director Wiktor Grodecki’s trio concerning young boy prostitution in the Czech Republic, Andělé nejsou andělé (Not Angels but Angels) (1994) and Tělo bez duše (Body without Soul) (1996), both documentary works, and his final fictional masterwork based on the true-life experiences of its actors Mandragora (1997). The emotionally gut-wrenching power of these films stands behind almost every discussion of the shorter films I am about to undertake.

     And of course, we had far less intense presentations, and less horrifying simply because of the older age of the individuals depicted in Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968), John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), and in an almost invisible appearance as a party favor in William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band (1969) in which the male hustlers were presented less as societal victims and more as clueless child-men who survived far behind the age of the Czech boys because of the stricter age restrictions of US society and the good looks and engaging presence of the central figures, Paul America, Joe Dellasandro, Jon Voight, and Robert La Tourneaux. But, in the end, we can only describe these figures as types which the directors and writers spooled out to their audiences without any intent of deeply exploring them.

    Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s La vie selon Luc (Life According to Luc) (1991) takes us into the true desolation and horror of young boy prostitution in an honest way that few films other than Grodecki’s Mandragora have attempted before or since. In this film, it appears, the young free-working prostitute has alternatives which he refuses to accept, in part because he is making so much more than he would from a “real” job and he has, maybe, the ulterior motive of attempting to raise enough money to pay for his mother’s growing medical bills, although we can never be certain of his true motives. He also simply appears to enjoy his sexual encounters in way that we have seen few other hustlers accept their sexuality and embrace all sexual acts, for which in the end he is severely punished. Civevrac’s work offers no general exploration of male prostitution, focusing as it does on and apparently eccentric and even inexplicable figure, but at least the director is serious in his exploration of the effects of selling the body upon the soul beneath the so-desirous skin. And, in this sense, Life According to Luc clearly represents a new approach, if only temporarily, to LGBTQ characters and their lives.

      At least Brian Scott Mednick in his 1992 film The Confessions of Male Prostitute attempts, like Grodecki’s work, to approach the subject somewhat objectively, trying to illicit the reasons for the young boy’s street hustling from his own mouth; although once again there is no real attempt to explore the deeper dimensions of the experience of prostitution itself. In the end, this kid, kicked out of his home, seems to find that things are not as bad as they might otherwise have been, and has adjusted himself to his limited and soon again to be up-rooted life. Except for a few individuals such as Joe Dellasandro and John Rechy, male hustling offers a professional lifespan even shorter than gymnasts and dancers.

    Later cinematic hustlers, such as the central character in Benoît Jacquot’s The School of Flesh (1998), seem almost happy to return to hustling in order to bring in extra money for their romantic attentions to women. In the French short film by Anne Fontaine, Tapin du soir (Night Hustler) (1996) a young man pretends to be a hustler simply to get the opportunity to meet up with someone to whom he can talk. And the pill-popping male prostitute in Gregor Schmidinger’s The Boy Next Door (2008), when his client skips out for a few hours for a business problem, takes over temporarily as a responsible father-like figure for the man’s neglected son. In these and other such cinema manifestations one would think that being a male hustler wasn’t at all such a serious matter.

       Of far deeper consequence and interest are the two hustlers who appear in Canadian director Nik Sheehan’s television series Symposium: The Ladder of Love (1996), one episode of which was partially censored and other which seems to be missing in the final TV broadcast. In the first, a rather elderly (50 year old) hustler Gerald Hannon meets up with a young boy who is frightened about coming out. Hannon not only helps him to enjoy his sexual self, but spends more than the required time to help the young man comprehend whether having gay sex might have anything to do with his desire for love. The second episode, evidently cut from the final production, is Donald Martin’s moving encounter with a young boy prostitute with whom he falls “absolutely in love,” but unable to tell him searches for him only by film’s end to discover he is died from the effects of his transitory life. Both shorts are far deeper than most of the films I’ve discussed, and are far more personal than Grodecki’s catalogue-like exploration of the subject in his to documentaries.

      Perhaps the most devastatingly honest of films I yet know on this subject is Danish director Brian Bang’s 2014 work, For min brors skyld (For My Brother), a film dealing with a pedophilic father who rents out his elder son Aske to almost anyone willing to pay, including those who might engage him in dangerous S&M fantasies. Aske accepts his father’s assaults and his role as a boy prostitute mostly in order to protect his younger brother Bastian, but when his father finally assaults even Bastian the two escape to a sort of mythical world of protection in Norway. The film is so forthright in its telling that even the normally open YouTube demanded it be censored. I don’t believe this film has been released in the US, but I was able to obtain a copy released in Germany and will soon write about it.

      In Adam Tyree’s 2020 film Green Light, it is the hustler strangely, who must qualm the guilts of a long-ago, now almost forgotten friend who for decades has believed that his childhood sexual playfulness has helped to make the grown male prostitute gay. There is something hilarious about this man’s lack of comprehension of what being gay truly is all about; but at the same time, given the hundreds of heterosexual misapprehensions about LGBTQ life, it is also an ironically touching reversal wherein the long-suffering outsider must be comforted by a fairly happy gay man who might in the past have been described by those very terms.

      Finally, I suppose I need just to mention in passing a film that is tangentially related to this theme, Christian Coppola’s 2019 short Daddy. But that work is closer to a fantasy than to a true concern with male hustlers. The youngish escort boy in this work performs in drag for an older man who has lost his wife and wants to regain, if for just one night, the memory of their love, the gay male grandly substituting for the wife in a pink dress. This work treats the subject so comically and sweetly that you can’t describe it as being a truly serious exploration of the subject. 

      There are, obviously, numerous other works devoted to male hustlers which I shall describe later in these pages. But for the moment I have gathered 6 shorts from the first two decades of the 21st century (2005-2019) some of which together explore the territory in far deeper ways than many of the films I mention above.

 

the perfect relationship

Gracie Otto (screenwriter and director) Broken Beat / 2005 [12 minutes]

In Australian director Gracie Otto’s 2005 film, we meet two young men obviously in love and living together for evidently a short period of time, Will (Ed Cooper Clarke) and Jacob (Jamie Coombes).

Like so many film lovers, these two lie around in bed when the alarm sounds, both hoping to keep the other’s body near him as long as possible, Jacob finally convincing Will that he might be late for his evening appointment so they might enjoy one last sexual escapade, but finally himself having to shower for his own job.

    Will insists that his lover might also stay a bit longer, arriving late to his job, but Jacob reminds him that if he doesn’t work, he isn’t paid. After a long shower and a snort of coke, he’s ready, despite the fact that even his lover suggests he looks a bit on the pale side. Nonetheless Will drives Jacob to his job site, and pulls away, reminding him that his mother has invited them out the next day for lunch.

     In the next few minutes, what we are about to discover represents not only a completely other world than we might have expected, but a cultural and social disparity between the two that we soon realize has destined their “perfect relationship” to failure.

     As the director herself notes of their superficial differences:

“Will and Jacob are lovers but are worlds apart. Will is a golden boy, tall, fair, and accustomed to success. He is loved by his family, has "come out" to his parents, but conceals his homosexuality from his colleagues. Jacob on the other had is as dark as Will is fair, of a large hardworking Italian family who could never accept his homosexuality.”      

      But it is the truly darker differences that make this film so fascinating. The moment Will has dropped him off, Jacob changes his clothes becoming a recognizable male prostitute hustling johns in cars, mostly it appears for “head”—a blow job—at 60 Australian dollars (about $40 US dollars). In the few moments of this 12 minute short, he evidently picks up a couple of guys, joining them in their cars, while one potential client rudely rejects him.

       On this night, however, Jacob is also apparently picked up by the cops. We see only the aftermath, as Will seems to have bailed him out and driving away from the police station suddenly demands that Jacob leave the car and his life forever, as he speeds off.

       That act signifies Will’s painful decision—at least one about which he appears to suffer in dejection and second thoughts—throughout the rest of the film.

        But the rejection if obviously far more horrific for Jacob, who has no other place to go. He attempts to telephone, trying to explain that he has only loved Will, and fragmentarily conveying that perhaps Will was the only one who seemed to love him for someone other than simply a paid-for body.

       Apparently, however, hustlers allowed to allowed real-life lovers, especially if there is the vast class difference on top of Jacob’s outcast behavior. Even Jacob’s return to the apartment door, where he cries out for Will just to let him talk is to no avail, as the cowering Will sits within determined to have nothing more to do with the man a few hours before he claimed to be in desperate love.

        The only problem with his revelatory black-and-white short is that we find it a little difficult to believe that Will would not by this time have perceived that his lover was not working in a restaurant or involved in some other nightly employment. But then we also perceive that Will, living in the bubble of apparent wealth and social approval might not be able to imagine a world so very different from his own blessed state of being. He will surely get over the breakup.

       But Jacob, we perceive, may not. Without anyone solid in his life, he sits brooding at film’s end on a park bench where another stranger (Ronny Mouawad) approaches him, offering only 50 for head, Jacob having no choice but to accept the offer. And we realize that for Jacob, survival is now all that he has left, and that will surely be a downhill battle. 

       Will can now join his mumsy and friends for lunch without the embarrassment of his gay friend.

 

Los Angeles, November 9, 2021

  

standing in wait half-naked in the night

Sasha Ettinger Epstein (screenwriter and director) Wall Boy / 2009 [17 minutes]   

Another Australian film, Sasha Ettinger Epstein’s 2009 Wall Boy serves both as a kind of public message about the problem of the slave trafficking runaway children and a kind of “feel good” film in the fact that in this particular tale, based on a real-life event, the “wall boy” (Keegan Joyce)—real name Tom Sutton in the fiction of the film, a boy listed on a national “lost boy list”—was successfully whisked away from a pimp’s (Terry Serio) control and packed off on a return home to his family.

       But the real story here is not that Tom Sutton is saved by kindly Salvation Army workers (Ben Wood and Danny Adock), who each day show up in a food truck that offers homeless men and sex workers hot coffee, donuts, computers on which to work for short periods of time, and, if they wish, the friendly company of the youth workers, but the fact that others remain on wall vigil, young boys who even in the days that are clocked by the narrative structure which interleaves their daily appearance with a running digital clock ticking away their days, all of them under the vigilance of the same pimp, who watches their every move with binoculars.

      When we first see “Tom” in his dressed in a pullover T-shirt, but each day the truck and workers return they see him stripped down, first to a lighter shirt, then a sleeveless tank top, and finally bare chested, as if he were gradually being stripped nude before our eyes just as we observe the pimp attempting to both reverse his growing lassitude and perhaps also controlling him with shots of heroin, drugging him into a state of momentary rejuvenation that in the long term leaves him in an even more passive and dead-like state.

     The wall boy in this tale knows what is happening to him, and attempts over the weeks that the youth worker’s truck visit to leave behind cryptic messages on the computer that might be read by the friend worker, the first time simply saying “Don’t call the cops. He’ll kill me,” and gradually revealing further that he is under observation and is doomed if action is not soon taken.

       Even his entry into the truck is not only observed but is perhaps subject to some punishment, as each time, after briefly looking up his name on the list or shopping for roller skates—a pair of which he evidently enjoyed as a younger child—he quickly bolts to return to his stand along the wall. To be honest this skinny, acne-faced kid, despite his age of about 11 or 12, seems not to be popular among the clients. Indeed none of these boys, on the edge of death, are terribly attractive to the patrons behind the near constant flow of cars which pause momentarily at the wall as if in memorial tribute before speeding away empty.

      When our do-gooder hero, the kindly youth worker, determines he must finally take action to save the boy, it involves a cloak and dagger event that might almost be stolen from an episode of a good adventure movie. Slipping off and out of view from the ever-observant pimp and camera view he evidently enters a nearby car driven by someone else playing a mean-minded john, who like the others, slows down in front of the kid, this time inviting him into the automobile before driving off, the pimp even jotting down the car’s license number.

       Moments later the half-naked boy hears the automatic lock of the vehicle doors, suddenly terrified of what might happen, particularly since the newspapers have recently headlined that a male boy hustler has recently had his throat slit by a local killer.

      From the back seat, however, the youth worker rises to assure the boy as they speed away to the airport where they hand him a ticket home, some money, and a used pair of roller skates the worker has pulled out of his own closet of old mementos. They assure him that authorities will be waiting on the other side of the flight to help facilitate his return to his family.

       The unfortunate truth, however, which in its celebration of the boy’s salvation, Epstein’s film does not even begin to explore, is that many if not most of these boys leave home because of abuse or are forced to run when rejected by parents unwilling to accept their sexual orientation. And there is utterly no attempt to explore how this child deals with his return to “normalcy” after his near death experiences in the city. Can he truly be expected to return to his roller-skating childhood after shivering and sweating out the nights against the wall? How will his sadly gained knowledge of evil interact with the youthful innocence of his peers?

        It is obviously a cause for celebration when such a terrorized youth is “saved,” but one cannot help but feel if less time were spent on applauding the particular and a bit more energy was spent on exploring the general problems that this narrative presents, Wall Boy might have been a richer film. And where are the police in all of this; why haven’t they swept down upon these wall-bound boys and their evil controller watching over them in the nearby car. Surely even a casual viewer might discern that many of these night owls perched against that wall are too young to be standing in wait half-naked in the night? Are kindly youth workers who devote their energies to kidnapping such kids the only solution to this serious social problem? 

Los Angeles, November 10, 2021



heart of gold

Derek Efrain Villanueva (screenwriter and director) Lost Angel / 2013 [17 minutes]

US director Derek Villaneuva’s Lost Angel is an oddity, a comedy about a young male hustler Carlitos (played by Villaneuva) who picks up a totally lost Dutch tourist, Michael (Timo Descamps), takes him to his hotel room and proceeds to spend most of the night hustling, returning only to be greeted by his pimp (Johnny Ochoa) who might have killed him had not the new friend jumped out from his hiding place in the closet and scared the man away nursing his knifed friend back to health for a couple of days.

      And if you can believe all that you can also swallow the fact that the smiling Dutch boy arrives at LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport, only to lose his wallet, followed by dropping and breaking his cellphone. Pulling his heavy luggage up the empty boulevards surrounding the airport he accidentally happens upon Carlitos, trying to get his car to start, asking him where La Cienega Boulevard (pronounced in an unrecognizable manner as do most newcomers to my city). Within minutes Carlitos has offered him a ride to a closer motel—the one in which he permanently resides—and when he discovers that his new acquaintance has no money, invites him into his bed.

      If you can believe all that, well then you can certainly accept the fact that when Michael steps into the bathroom for a much needed release of his kidneys, Carlitos disappears—for what he later describes as his “escort” duties. Michael opens his suitcase only to discover—similar to the all-male apparel the German tourist Jasmin Münchgstettner discovers in her suitcase in Percy Aldon’s 1987 film Bagdad Cafe—that his suitcase is filled only with clothing belonging to a big-breasted female!

      And if that doesn’t phase you....oh well, let’s just say that Villaneuva’s Los Angeles, despite its rather serious topics of complete disorientation in one of the most tourist unfriendly cities in the world and the near murder of a young male prostitute, is actually, like Bagdad Cafe, a fairy tale or, more particularly in this instance, a tale about two angels who, meeting up in the City of Angels, truly save one another’s lives. It is only natural that they fall in love, with the film ending with Michael imagining his relationship with his new mover might last forever. 

      I suspect that the writer/director might ask you to forget that a few days earlier in the story that Michael was totally disapproving of new acquaintance’s profession, that Carlitos was dismissive of any concern that Michael might have had for his wellbeing, and that the two were in appearance and manner polar opposites.

      We probably shouldn’t ask what Carlitos might have thought returning to his room to find his new bedmate dressed in a pink nightie. Or that, after miraculously the airport found Michael’s proper luggage and called him in Carlitos’ motel room that the Dutch boy found money enough to pay the taxi for the trip—and even more amazingly return only to discover that his friend no longer inhabits the same room, now inhabited by a sleazy motel guest (Joe Filippone) who is apparently expecting a girl named Candy? It doesn’t seem to matter, for the boys quickly find one another in the open hallways and snuggle up into each other’s arms in bed in Carlitos’ new room.

      If this is a comic work, why do I find myself in tears over their mutual naivete? Have I become so hard-hearted that I have taken the role of a young male hustler who daily has to face danger in the arms of those who momentarily pretend their love? Or has Michael truly found the hustler with a heart of gold? 

Los Angeles, November 2021



his first kiss

Brandon Lloyd [as Brandon Crowder] (screenplay), Micah Stuart (director) Johnny / 2016 [19 minutes] 

Sam (Tony Abatemarco) is an older man who, for first time in his life, picks up a male prostitute, Johnny (Brandon Loyd), a handsome young man nearly beyond his prime as a hustler. But he is perfect for Sam, who after he signs in at the motel desk and checks out the bed springs and pillows, all the time carefully watching his young man get undressed, momentarily stops him—as Johnny moves toward him, grabs his necktie, and pulls Sam toward for a kiss—“It’s my first time.”      

     Johnny gently kisses the man and kisses him again more passionately, pulling briefly away. “Now it isn’t.” And indeed as Johnny undresses Sam you can see and almost feel the waves of pleasure pour over his body as he finally gives into a passion that he has clearly been resisting throughout his life. When Johnny bends over Sam’s naked body, you can almost see the older man shake with joy, waiting as if hypnotized by the sheer sensuality that he has been resisting for  decades. To call Sam closeted would be to suggest he’s been living a gay life under cover; Sam, however, has been dead and now is suddenly awakening sexually to something he has attempted to deny since his birth. 

     In a moment, Sam switches places, topping Johnny and enjoying what almost appears to be the most pleasurable orgasm of his life as he rests his hand on the young man’s neck with a slightly brutal release of years of pent up emotion. When it’s spent, Sam stammers out the words, “Thank  you” with so much feeling of gratitude that you realize just how meaningful this “first kiss” has truly been for him.

     The moment over, Johnny stands, goes the sink, quickly rubs his cock and ass clean with a towel and swigs down water to clear out his mouth. Unexpectedly, perhaps because of Sam’s quite exceptional behavior, Johnny comes back to the bed, briefly tousling with him and laying for a few moments next to his elderly client as Sam strokes the boy’s face.

     Suddenly, Johnny tells of a nearly forgotten incident when as a child, playing with his best friend David he suddenly asks Sam if he’s been in a fight? From Sam’s nod, we gather than he has. But Johnny says he has only been one fight—who he suddenly begin inexplicably to choke, his hands held around his neck. Despite the desperate scratches his inflicted to his hands and arms and even, so he recalls, a slug just below his eye, he couldn’t let up. He, who was apparently seen as a weak boy, never felt to powerful, so in control. His whole body was shivered with heat.

      Finally, he passed out, later coming to.

      “What happened?” asks Sam.

      “Nothing,” his mother came to pick him up. But things between them were never quite the same. A short while later, David was killed. Attending another school he was beaten up by older kids and “things done to him,” apparently in attack, it would seem, because David was perceived as being queer. It was just before Christmas, Johnny recalls.

      Sometime after Johnny begin to no longer care about things around him. At 13, almost 13 qualifies, he left home, never to return.

    When Sam later suggests his parents must have suffered over his absence, Johnny insists that he never heard from them again, that they evidently made no effort to seek him out.

     Sam is honored to have had Johnny share his nearly forgotten story, and suggests, as Johnny prepares to leave that he might spend the night. The hustler scoffs. Might he be interested in dinner? Where does he live? All ridiculous questions, Johnny implies, as he puts on his shirt and hurries off in the early twilight.

       Alone again, Sam takes out his billfold, opening it to a snapshot of what appear to be his wife and young son, about the age when Johnny must have left home. The image ties them together somewhat, as Sam breaks down in tears, apparently having apparently left them some time ago, or they having left him if he revealed his hidden desires to his wife.      

      Johnny, stopping for a final cigarette on the motel balcony, replays the scene with his childhood friend that we have previously witnessed in his mind. But this time everything in reverse, the fallen globe uprighted, the hands removed from the neck, the broken stack of blocks reconstructed, and something missing from the first frames, his friend David bending towards him as he attempts a kiss. This, we suddenly realize, was Johnny’s first kiss, his almost terrorized reaction, and the violence he has never since felt. His first kiss, unlike Sam’s first male kiss, was something that he was not yet ready to accept, and has regretted it ever since, perhaps making it up somewhat my seeking out thousands of kisses just such as the one he has planted on Sam’s lips. 

       I’m not suggesting that Johnny lives with a deeply hidden sense of guilt, but simply after that first “fight,” he has never needed to battle with his feelings of same sex desire ever again. He has grown to want and return that kiss and sought it out so endlessly in his daily life that he has nearly forgotten where the feeling first emanated. David has been there always as a kind of hidden elective affinity, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe might have put it, the lodestone of his life. And this night he has passed the first kiss on to another, even if he is only an old man who has almost let his life wither away before accepting it.

       I have now seen this movie 3 or 4 times, and I realized that the wonderful acting of Lloyd and, particularly, of Abatemarco has brought me back to it. The simple chordal composition of composer MadFlags adds resonance to this simple but moving movie.

Los Angeles, November 10, 2021

 

 

two faces

Anthony Schatteman (screenwriter and director) Petit ami / 2017 [14 minutes]

Vincent (Thomas Ryckewaert), a handsome man in his late 30s or early 40s has rented the poolroom of the Petit ami gay hotel for the 3-day Christmas weekend where Jasper (Ezra Fieremans), a 20-some year-old who advertises as himself and looks more like a teenager meets up with him in Belgian director Anthony Schatteman’s 2017 short film Petit ami.

     Although it is clear that Jasper is an experienced pleasure boy who when the two encounter each other Vincent immediately fucks standing like an animal in rut, the two hit if off, the younger offering  the other the lovemaking and, at moments, the enjoyment he appears to be desperate for, Schatteman and cinematographer Ruben Appeltans’ camera lushly capturing their erotic activities which are the focus of this film. Champagne, pizza, and sex in bed, pool, and everywhere else, in fact, seem to resolve the problems faced by Jasper’s obviously desperate Christmas weekend customer. But even the boy who whips up a good time in a mean holiday cannot help but feel some sympathy for a man who, he gradually discovers, has left his wife and two daughters for the comfort of an almost teenage kid.

      The promotional entries for this film all seem to suggest that Jasper discovers the “secret” that Vincent is hiding; but even the laziest of sleuths would have been able to quickly deduce that Vincent has missed this family celebration because of his sexual ambiguity or, at the very least, he is replacing the obviously failed marital relationship with the substitute that may lie at the crux of his familial problems.

      And Jasper’s overhead telephone conversations and his reading of the beginning of a letter addressed to the man’s wife do not, thankfully, fully explain the reason for his john’s 3-day reservation nor his sudden decision to cut it off now that he has resolved some of his emotional turmoil.

      The depth of this superficially beautiful film lies in how much each viewer is willing to plumb the possible explanations for Vincent’s Christmas fireside absence. Has his wife suddenly discovered his sexual desires and sent him packing? Has he himself, having obviously lived in a kind of closeted marital hell, finally determined to leave those he clearly loves behind? Has he broken up with his wife for other reasons and is merely using this despairing weekend as an opportunity to explore alternative forms of lovemaking or seeking out what he has often done of business trips and covered up through the years? 

      Any of these time-worn and predictable narrative solutions, which at least engage our minds, would explain Vincent’s almost brutal introductory rape of Jasper upon their meeting, and his gradual softening as the experienced prostitute applies his sexual balms. What is perhaps somewhat more interesting is how Jasper’s own inner feelings are altered despite his outward charming engagement of his customer. And it is apparent that by    the time Vincent is willing to send him packing that he is not sure that he truly is ready to leave, that he has developed a kind of sympathy and perhaps even a bit of love for his customer not permitted in his profession.

       Schatteman’s long focus on Jasper as he leaves in the early daylight a day earlier than scheduled is fascinating when compared with the boy’s nighttime arrival two days previous.


       In the earlier night shot he seems to be wistfully looking off into space, his lips expressing no obvious emotion, the creases around his mouth, although almost straight, are very slightly raised as in a would-be smile. He is, in full, enigmatic, a boy without seeming empathy or even emotional depth, ready to move forward, we soon discover as he enters the hotel where he meets up with his customers, to do whatever is required of him without question or judgment. In a sense he truly does look here like a teenage boy, a bit wide-eyed and open to the world if, we can well imagine, worn out by what he has already at his young age witnessed and experienced.

      The second image shows the man, dressed just as he was two nights earlier, but his eyes glancing away to the left, which transforms his whole face, including the equivocal position of his lips, into what appears as, even if it actually is not a slight frown. Whereas in the first frame his face is represented as a near circle, in the second daylight photo we observe a more ovalene head, which hints at an elongated, less open expression. If nothing else, the second boy is less eager, less sure of his actions, or even of the meaning of those actions. There is a slightly circumspect look, in general about what the camera catches in Jasper’s countenance by the end of the film.    

    He is still an enigmatic figure and we realize that whatever we may be reading in his face represents only a second in time, not necessarily a dramatic or permanent change of being. But there it is nonetheless facing us, the boy who might pass for a teenager and the twentyish youth who has just spent two nights picking up the spirits of a dejected man who it is apparent, as he writes in the short, never-sent note to his wife, was “not able to live up to whom he should [italics mine] be.”

    Has the boy helped him to transition into what clearly will be a new life? The film does even attempt to explore that. But any empathetic viewer might hope that Vincent can gradually convert the “should” into a someone who “would” or “will” be, or at the very least an acceptance of what that being “is,” gradually converting a failed past into a present that can imagine a more successful future.

     In this instance, it appears—at least superficially—as if the young prostitute might have helped point his brief encounter in that direction.

Los Angeles, November 11, 2021



an error

Aiman Hassani  and Britt Snel (teleplay), Aiman Hassani (director) خط Khata / 2019 [48.40 minutes]

Centraal was a 2019 Dutch TV series of six episodes all centered around the Rotterdam Central Railway Station, the various works concerned with a wide range of figures religious, desperate, lost, or simply wandering through the vast station. Episode Number 4, Khata, aired on November 8, 2019, and written by Aiman Hassani concerns two Moroccan-born brothers, young and very young, who work the station as male hustlers.          

     In Arabic “khata” means an “error” or in this case the horrible mistake made by both the elder brother Hatim (Nizar El Manouzi) and his gentle sibling Kamal (Akram Tanna), first of all for having somehow—their personal histories are never explained, although we see an example played out through Kama’s friend, Milo—having gotten involved in hustling with the brutal pimp Danny (Chris Peters), but more specifically given the events of this narrative, for Kamal’s having come to take male sex serious and falling in love or at least the idea of love with one of his clients Jacob (Tobias Nierop). 

     As we see time and again in several of these “working boy” films the biggest mistake boy hustlers make is getting to like their work, identifying as homosexual, and actually seeking out love. These three sins are enough to doom and even destroy a young male prostitute, and it is the story of how that happens that director Hassani attempts to convey to audiences who surely had previously no idea even about how these young men and boys are used in the public facilities through. The Rotterdam station is one of the central hubs of Europe; even I have traveled through its corridors on my way to and from Paris, the city which later becomes Kamal’s symbol of true love and escape.

      Let me just begin by expressing gratification that in Hassani’s work we finally get a fairly honest presentation of the ugly business which so many US films have seen to present as a joke or a simple matter of the wrong occupational choice, fit only for the stupidest of good looking boys. Let me also say that the three times I watched this made-for-TV 40 minute film at moments I could hardly bear to watch it, and later knowing what was about to occur I had to turn if off for a period to time before getting up the fortitude to continue with the tragic series of events.

     In the case of Kamal, who is the central figure of Khata, it was clearly his brother Hatim who introduced into sexual “slavery” perhaps somewhat innocently when his kid brother complained about never having spending money or perhaps, more likely, he was the only neophyte he knew when Danny and his bosses demanded an offering of new blood. Even Kamal seems to be unable to realize that in introducing his best friend Milo (Sem Ben Yakar) to Danny he is betraying everything that friendship might mean and sending a young man his age to his doom.

     One cannot help but compare Hatim’s sacrifice of his brother to the alter of hustler money to the relationship of Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger) to his younger brother Terry (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront. But Hatim does not just ask his beloved brother to throw a fight which eventually marries him to the waterfront mafia-controlled unions, but worse, literally tosses him into bed with the pimp to be raped and bound into the slavery of prostitution.

     In the similar “showing him the ropes” party which we observe the innocent Milo even imagines he’s attending a kind of all male slumber party where, treated like an adult when offered alcohol and drugs. But before he can even begin to comprehend what is happening, Danny has begun to grope him and soon, with others pinning him down, rapes the boy, someone filming the action. In Milo’s case Kamal tries several times to intervene but is tossed away by others as if he were a rag doll. When finally he can no longer bear his friend’s screams he retreats to the bathroom where he reexperiences his own “introduction” into the hustler’s life.

       The filming of the event is crucial, as soon see. Throughout the film Danny has threatened Kamal, often in the car with his brother Hatim saying nothing, for not handing over enough money. It is not that he has kept record of the boy’s sexual encounters, made mostly in the single toilet cabins in the Rotterdam station via phone transactions between passing travelers who arrange to meet up in the portable-like toilets to have their cocks sucked. But that Kamal, although regularly active at first, has been hiding some of his earnings, we don’t for what purpose but we can only imagine for an eventual escape from the world in which he is trapped.

         More importantly, one customer with whom he hooks up, an architect named Jacob, not only pays him for a longer period, but demonstrates seemingly genuine love for him, taking him to bed after sex and holding him like a lover. Over several encounters the two bond, one rainy night Kamal even remaining in bed with Jacob for the entire night, lying to his mother that he has stayed over at Milo’s house.

        Jacob—so taken by the “otherness” of  the Moroccan boy’s skin and hair that it comes dangerously close to being a racist-like adoration of outsiderness—invites Kamal to join him on a business trip to Paris. What this film doesn’t entirely make clear is that besides hustling, it appears that Kamal is also attempting to attend his regular school classes, something surely required by his middle-class family. How he can manage this and still keep up with his meetings at the Rotterdam Centraal Station halls is rather hard to imagine, but that appears to be the fate of many such boys. It is clear that he cannot simply run away for a few days with Jacob to Paris. Yet he promises that he will join him at another time, and he believes in that possibility almost as a token to the time when he can leave his terrifying world behind.

       Clearly Kamal’s focusing on a single customer, particularly when he is holding back some of the bonus money the wealthy Jacob is providing, does not please Danny. It is apparent that either Kamal is refusing to hand over his earnings or is not sufficiently doing his job. And it isn’t difficult for someone like Danny to discover what is at the heart of the problem.  

        Recognizing that his worker has become a “faggot” (in Dutch he simply describes the boy as a “homo”), Danny threatens Kamal if he does not come clean, rid himself of his “love affair,” and return to business as usual. Hatim also pressures him to stop the affair, while the impossibly still naive boy explains to his brother that his client has promised to take him to Paris. When Hatim warns him of the consequences, Kamal briefly reminds his brother, in a scene that parallels Brando’s moving reminder to Steiger in On the Waterfront, that it was he, his own brother, who destroyed his life: “I could have been something. I could have been a contender.” Here Kamal simply pleas that they both find away to get out of the lives in which they have become entrapped; but we observe that Hatim has, in a sense, turned into a voice that merely parrots Danny’s warnings. He has become part of the underworld system.

        In an attempt to find solace from the brewing storm of his life, Kamal attempts to hook up again with Jacob, but only gets a recorded message in response. When he visits Jacob’s house, the architect is in the midst of an august gathering for his mother’s birthday, and quickly shuttles the boy out the door, shocked that he would attempt to meet up with him without warning.

       Suddenly we recognize that despite all of his beautiful ministrations to his sexual toy, that Kamal is not truly worthy in his mind to be a part of his “real” life. Even if they have enjoyed sex alone in the night in a new office building that he has designed, by day he could never been seen with a Moroccan boy at his side. In Paris, Kamal would be kept safely in a hotel room or permitted only to walk the streets alone.       

     When Danny threatens Kamal with the tape of his own initiation rites, hinting that he will reveal it not only to his parents but his school mates and everyone else who know him, the boy becomes unstrung, grabbing up the computer containing the film, and runs. Out of breath, he pauses on the street, throwing the laptop to the concrete, kicking it, and pummeling the machine of horrific communication again and again, only to hear his phone ring where he perceives a long list of reactions by dozens of friends and acquaintances who have now witnessed the film of his sexual “coming out.”

        By the time he reaches Jacob’s house, he sees his former lover attempting to wash away the graffiti someone has painted across his windows in retaliation, apparently, for his sexual relationship with Kamal. As the boy attempts to seek out solace from the only one who ever showed him caring physical love, Jacob rejects him, pushing him nearly out of the door as Kamal himself tears off his shirt to reveal the body the man had once so gently caressed—all to no effect, Jacob insisting he leave immediately.

       Running into Hatim on the street, his brother pummels him with anger and bitterness, as Hatim attempts to calm and hug him to. They motorcycle back to their motel-like abode only to find the doorlock changed, their own parents having locked them out. Kamal pounds pointlessly upon the door, demanding that his mother and father let them in. When his mother finally halfway opens the door, we comprehend that no entry back into family life will ever be possible for either of them.

        As the credits role, the viewer might almost miss seeing the now drugged-out Milo crossing the terminal to sit at one the tables to check his cell-phone for sexual his connections.

        I don’t know what the reaction of Dutch families was when this film appeared upon their TV screens. I’ve looked for information in an attempt to try to see if the film, set within several other seemingly more whimsical Rotterdam train station stories, had any effect on Dutch society, as surely as Grodecki’s Mandragora did on the Czech scene. This film, like Grodecki’s notes that what we have seen was based on real events, but then disclaims, as such movies always must, to any specific events and individuals, denying any connection with true beings or lives. Somehow there seems to be an error, a khata ( خطا ) in the film maker’s logic. Obviously if it was based on “real events” is was also based on “real” individuals, surely now only ghosts, destroyed by the society which could not help them to survive.

Los Angeles, November 12, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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