Monday, June 7, 2021

Joshua Chislett | The Dirt Between My Fingers / 2020 || Tyler Reeves | When I Grow Up / 2019 || Chadlee Skrikker | Hand Off / 2019 || Sumir Pawar | Khawaaish / 2018

four gay fantasies

by Douglas Messerli

The wonderful thing about gay and lesbian short filmmaking is that it often allows beginning students the opportunity to learn how to put a film together. Because of the numerous genres available to LGBTQ individuals, and because much of what the narrative might express comes out of or has relevance to their own lives, it allows them a fairly easy access into the mysteries of film direction not always available, it seems to me, to young heterosexual would-be creators. Just the vast numbers of new films issued annually on LGBTQ subjects gives testimony to this wonderful phenomenon. And since it’s still a relatively new form, perhaps only four or five decades old, it allows for a great amount of originality. Although the specific tensions and difficulties experienced by characters in these films may be evaporating, there is still enough of a cultural gap and a general lack of understanding that interesting perceptions of gay love and sex are still available.

      And accordingly, when reviewing beginners’ films I have attempted to be rather sympathetic to their sometimes obvious narrative and visual flaws, attending to their use of genre and how they have worked to create an original viewpoint despite the sometimes limited strictures in forms that so many hundreds have already explored before them.

      But several times over the past few months, I have grown irritated by some of the new gay films that I’ve seen, and feel it’s important to be honest about what I have begun to see as a problematic shift that may certainly not serve LGBTQ interests or, more importantly, provide these young directors with the avenues that they might imagine for future filmmaking.

      My biggest pet peeve of late has been what I might describe as a newly-developing genre that certainly has it roots in many earlier gay works, but has now reached what I might describe as a kind of dead end. These films, instead of confronting issues of love, identity, transition or even utter rejection in a focused and exploratory manner take the route of pure fantasy, which may be somewhat enjoyable while it lasts, but ultimately makes no serious attempt to actually deal with those issues and the sense of loneliness and displacement with which their character is still faced when the credits roll.

      As examples, I’ve just chosen four short films, two of which are English language productions from Canada and the USA, a third released in Afrikaans from South Africa, and the fourth a film without dialogue from India.


picture of two boys skipping rocks

Joshua Chislett (screenwriter and director) The Dirt Between My Fingers / 2020 [10 minutes]

The first of these films, Canadian director Joshua Chislett’s The Dirt Between My Fingers (2020), is not precisely a fantasy, but since it involves a relationship between two young men that is basically still one of the imagination, by film’s end it certainly reads more as a work of desire than an actual series of events, although a recitation of brief events is perhaps the only way this film can be described, like reaching out for something that never quite materializes.

      Part of the problem with this otherwise subtle story of tentative love is that we never get enough background on either of the two central figures, Gabriel (Jack Parsons) and Liam (Shawn Vincent), to really know why they are participating in the events the film portrays in order to understand what they are even seeking in one another.

         What we do know is that Gabriel, living at home with apparently only a mother, is a retiring and shy boy who spends much of his time without human companionship. His mother seems to not mind if he leaves the house in late afternoons, presumably after school, and stays out all night, as this boy does. In fact, his mother evidently disappears for long periods of time herself, leaving only a message that she will be back in a few days.

       Fortunately, what Gabriel is doing is not partying, drinking, partaking in drugs or other self-destructive activities, but merely retreating to the nearby wilds, sometimes simply laying down on the ground and listening to nature or falling asleep outside. He seems to be a naturalist in the making, except that we also perceive that he is seeking something and is also attempting to express his feelings and ideas in art, evidently without much success.

     It is only when he accidently encounters the long-haired Liam, of whom we never learn anything whatsoever, that Gabriel seems to have found some purpose in his vagrant travels. He first discovers Liam asleep in the grass, gingerly kicking him awake as the boy rises and almost resentfully runs off, obviously seeking to have no connection with the other.

     We can only presume the kid, whom we soon after observe simply skipping rocks across a seemingly urban riverbed, is homeless with no other place to  go. And Gabriel presumes that, returning to the same spots when his mother announces she’ll not be home for a few days.

     This first time out he does again spot Liam, the boy, surprised to see Gabriel return, challenges him with the question: “What, are you following me?”  In fact, he follows Gabriel, curious why anyone who had another place to go would purposely chose the outdoors as a place to sleep. When he finds Gabriel, lying in the grass, scanning the skies, he lays down in the other direction and soon spreads out beside him.

         In the most eventful moment of the film, Gabriel slowly opens his hand and inches toward the other’s boys fingers, momentarily touching him before Liam jumps up with some alarm. A few seconds later, however, he leans over and plants a kiss on Gabriel lips, as if sealing an unspoken pact between the two. It does not seem so much an expression of sexual desire or love as it is a token of appreciation, a commitment to friendship.

         Over what seem like the next couple of days, Gabriel again seeks out his new friend, but without any success. His return home to sketch some figures in his pad, presumably images of Liam, doesn’t appear to please him since crosses them out, at the same moment that hearing someone riffling in the refrigerator, presumably his absent mother having briefly returned home. Nothing is spoken between the two, and Gabriel again returns to the out-of-doors to spend the night.


     When he finally does run into Liam again, he sits down on a rock near to him, taking out a piece of red licorice the chew on, a few moments later reaching into his backpack to pull another string and hand it to his friend, who responds, “You fucking kidding me?” but accepts it nonetheless before beginning to chew on it.  

       The two soon both stand and together skip rocks across the stream, their friendship—or whatever it is—obviously consummated.

        It is not that this film has no story. It’s quite obvious that two lonely and abandoned boys have, by film’s end, made a friendship that removes at least some of their isolation. But that story is so terribly simple and inconclusive that it might as well have been a kind of fantasy, an empty dream. Do they ever do anything together than skip rocks across a stream? Well, of course that’s up to our imaginations, but in the director’s demanding that, as he does by closing down his film as suddenly as he does, he suggests it’s all simply a fantasy now of our own making. He’s simply drawn a picture of two boys who desperately need someone else in their lives. What they do with the gift of one another is up to our personal fantasies, a world not to be shared in the “real” one in which individuals meet up and communicate, if only in the process of sharing a movie. The movie, by and large, is an empty screen on which we are asked to play out our own imaginative fictions. I might create an entire world of adventures for them, but then it isn’t truly my responsibility and I might certainly have chosen far different characters in the first place. It is as if the director has given up and gone home to do more important things. The only concrete evidence he has provided us is that sleeping on the ground as they have, there probably indeed is dirt between their fingers even we will never able to identify the personal pronoun of the title.

Los Angeles, June 6, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2021).


connor’s confusion

Tyler Reeves (screenwriter and director) When I Grow Up / 2019 [5 minutes]

US director Tyler Reeves 5-minute short When I Grow Up is perhaps the most fun of the fantasies of which I’m writing. A family has gathered at a local restaurant to celebrate their daughter Ashley’s (Lauren Elyse Buckley) acceptance to college where she intends to study creative writing.

     Mother (Varda Appleton), Father (Jonathan Fahn), and Ashley’s younger brother, Connor (Noah Dobson), slightly uncomfortable within his own slightly chubby body, all toast to the girl, her parents expressing their excitement that she gotten into the school of her choice. The moment they toast, Connor suddenly observes two gay men enter the place and sit at bar table behind him.

      A moment later Connor is caught up in a fantasy of the couple working backwards from their now seemingly pleasant workaday lives together, back to their marriage, the marriage proposal, their first drink in a bar, their early meeting and first kiss, one of the two telling his parents he is gay, and back into their high school days when it seemed like he would never meet anyone who might like him, as the camera pans back to the boy conjuring up this imaginary voyeuristic voyage into another’s couple’s past—while in the process conjuring up a future which he hopes someday be his.

      It’s a rather remarkable, if hard to believe, fantasy trip for such a young man to make, drawing as it does upon the hundreds of LGBTQ “coming out” films since the 1990s, while still managing to include a lesbian-in-the-making and featuring a gay Asian-American lead. It’s clear our young man must have been secretly watching dozens of videos that he parents know absolutely nothing about.

     Obviously, it’s unlikely that high school freshman or a possible middle school student would know all the tropes of those various genre films but it doesn’t truly matter, does it, since it’s a fantasy about some future, any future which will whisk him away from the world of heterosexual normalcy in which, as a child, he is now forced to endure.

     It’s actually a kind of cute gimmick. But it’s not an honest film. Coming out, easy or difficult, cannot be reduced to a moment of sitting down to tell your parents you’re gay. An image of an erased text message does not fully express the pain and doubt of trying to tell someone you love them before deciding not yet to admit that feeling. A gay wedding cannot yet be summed up in a photoshop pic of the cake, etc. In short, fantasies cannot truly represent life and, as such, unfairly represent the imagination of any young boy hoping and praying for a day in which he might begin to live the life he feels necessary for his happiness. Even in this little family gathering, Connor is already an outsider, so the director’s cooking up a fantasy that might be summarized by the trite phrase “It gets better” is a kind of cop out. 

       When asked by his parents has he thought about his future Connor replies “Not really,” which we know absolutely to be a lie. But that might have been the starting more for a truly honest movie. As it is, this film is not about our young uncomfortable teenager, but about the director posting the good news for a possible future that probably will have far more suffering in it that      these simple gay scrapbook fantasies.

     Fantasy, once more, has been used to renounce the serious job of a writer/director as he refuses to create a story that explores the truths, joys, and fears of the figure he has created. Cheerleading the character on is not the director’s role. If I had my way, I’d start over at the moment his parents ask him to come out of his reverie to join them in conversation, titling it Connor’s Confusion. Maybe his creative writing sister might be able to provide him with a script.

Los Angeles, June 6, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2021).


shanghaied on his way to coming out

Chadlee Skrikker (screenwriter and director) Hand Off / 2019 [23 minutes]

Of the four gay fantasy films I’ve chosen to discuss in this essay, the one that perhaps irritates me most is Chadlee Strikker’s Hand Off (2019), about a pair of South African rugby players, one of who discovers he has fallen in love with the other.

      Shrikker begins his story where so many others end up, with a young gay sports player Jaco (Andahr Cotton) admitting that he’s broken up his girlfriend Em to his buddy Willem (Arno Horn). When Willem asks what happened, Jaco vaguely tenders the issue by admitting, “I told her something.” When Willem probes further, he admits that he told her “That I have feelings for someone else.”

      Most directors, simply to develop the drama, would leave it there to spin out gradually over the course of the film until finally the character desperately in love with his straight mate would have to admit that fact, the consequences determining the ending of the tale. But I have to give credit to Shrikker for having his character so quickly leap into the fire: 

           Willem: Shit, do you cheat on her?”

           Jaco: No man, that’s not...

           Willem: So, what’s the girl’s name?

           Jaco: It’s not...  ...It’s not a her.

           Willem: Fuck. Listen, I’ll always be here for—

           Jaco: Willem.

           Willem: Yes? [silence] What?

           Jaco: It’s you.

    And when in the next frame we see Willem marching away from his friend with hardly a look back. As Jaco follows, you can almost hear a collective gasp of recognition for what we might all have predicted. And when Jaco shouts out, “I’ll see you tonight,” we recognize just how naïve this character is, while recognizing that for the next half hour or so he’ll be forced to suffer through some very painful moments to explore just how deep his friendship truly runs. Will Willem “be there for him” if that is precisely what his friend most desires?

      At least you can say that Shrikker’s film is not predictable, but not precisely. For while Jaco most certainly does have to suffer those long moments of utter fear that he has lost not only his best friend but his potential lover, the director radically intrudes upon his own narrative taking us into new territory.

       Jaco begins his journey by simply attending a college party where he has been scheduled to meet up with Willem. Instead he runs into his former girlfriend (Rebecca Patrick) sitting alone in a room. She hugs him in sympathy and perhaps with a little hope of reviving his heterosexual lust, but in the end hands over a bottle of liquor with which, presumably, she was herself attempting to swallow away the taste of her recent rejection.

       For a moment I even imagined that perhaps our director was taking us into a corner of an LGBTQ movie that I have long sought out, possibly exploring how the other half of a relationship handles the news upon hearing that his or her companion is more interested in the same sex. No such luck, for in the next frame our young sufferer, having evidently consumed too much of the medicine Em provided, wakes up to discover himself in gay fantasy all done up in gold and ornate paintings where a beautiful genie-like white robbed boy with gold-leaf appliques upon his face, rings on his fingers, and rows and rows of gold-plated bracelets tells him: “Words don’t really mean much in places like this.”

       I’m sure they don’t. In the place it seems to be, a kitsch palace of gay dreams, designed as one of the movie’s respondents described it by a drunken window dresser, Jaco is hugged, kissed, pampered, and introduced into a harem of gay boys who look a bit like something out of the gay commune to whom the worn out queer hero of Rosa von Praunheim’s It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives is proudly introduced after he has explored all the other sexual avenues available to gay men.

     However, Shrikker’s fantasy world is very much perverse, particularly since these pretty Aladdins’ idea of relieving his loneliness, longing, and disorientation is take him into a Louis Quartorze piano room in order to bathe him in an orgiastic imitation of love and anything that looks like gold. 

     I suppose if you gotta suffer, cooking up a fantasy in your imagination that fulfills your longings is better than just sweating it out. But if this is a young gay neophyte’s vision of gay life, I’d keep my hands off him as well—especially if I were playing the most touchy-feely sport of all, rugby!—while handing him off to a good shrink instead of leaving him in hands of this little blue boy cult.

     To abandon an innocent, who’s just discovered he likes boys by asking him to sign up for this preposterous fantasy is truly derelict. It’d be one thing if Shrikker were somehow undermining the genre with a good dose of campy satire. But sorry to say, it appears the director truly believes these golden-mangled angels will help our hero to survive his crisis while Willem and the director go silent for twenty some minutes before the former buddy comes round to say, it’s okay, I’ll still be your friend. 

     In other words, Shrikker, just like the other fantasists I write about, gives up on his movie the minute when he might have dug down deep into the psyches of his central figures, in this case Jaco, Willem, and Em all three, in order to find out what’s truly the problem besides the superficial homophobia that they’ve been taught to rely in such strange situations.

    Given the choice of the suggested therapy or coming to terms with what I most fear, I’d choose the poison pill any day. But none of our so-called characters get that choice. And we never do find out how they come to terms with the real-life situation or what happens when Willem and Jaco walk arm and arm off into the land of nod and shake hands to just being friends. Does poor Jaco even get a kiss? Did he get a chance to pull off all that damn gold leaf before meeting up with the team to swig down a drink?

Los Angeles, June 7, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2021).


man with gay umbrella

Sumir Pawar (screenwriter and director) Khawaaish / 2018 [7.5 minutes]

Indian director Sumit Pawar’s 2018 film Khawaaish begins with a sort of silent declaration. A young man, evidently locked in an either parentally or maritally controlled household—made evident by the two children sitting near him on the floor—ties his shoes and takes up his gay  “rainbow” umbrella determined to go out in Mumbai to discover a more compatible world. By bus and rail he travels to the famed Mumbai harbor, looking out over the waters as it begins to rain.

    He puts up his LGBTQ rainbow umbrella to protect him from the rain, but just as suddenly closes it, allowing himself to grow miserably wet, half enjoying the encounter with nature, but also suggesting his attitude toward himself, an unprotected lonely man staring off into space with no specific vision ahead but the rolling waves.

     Suddenly turning his head he glimpses a handsome man sitting nearby also allowing himself to get wet. He joins the man, sitting next to him, his umbrella now rolled up. The man turns toward him and openly smiles.

     From that moment on the film shifts as the two, introducing themselves, decide to share a soda or some other such drink. They (Sajith Acharya and Abdul Salam Girkar) obviously have made a date, for we soon see them walking together in the bright sun, the one putting his arm around the other. At another moment with the beautiful skyline of Mumbai behind them, we see one of them waiting for the other in what is obviously a second date.

     Soon after, again looking out over the harbor, one 

     Soon after, again looking out over the harbor, one of them pulls away, takes out a wedding band from his pocket, bows down, and asks the other to marry him.

     They enter the second man’s apartment, lit with fanciful lights and candles, almost like the rooms were themselves a shrine. They lay down on his bed and cuddle. Everything seems so very pleasant.

     In the next scene, however, the two men are sitting on the bench where this story begin, the second not necessary even aware of the presence of the other. He soon stands and walks off, leaving the original boy with the umbrella behind.

     Obviously the 7 and a half-minute film is a pure fantasy, the wishful thinking of a lonely gay Mumbai man who, attracted to the other, spends a few idol moments to imagine a life that seems out of his reach.

      Pawar’s work is well filmed, the scenes quite evocative and the two actors, despite the fact that they are given no lines, appear to be quite charming. But what are we to make of this? To me, alas, it seems to represent simply a waste of time. We never get any deep insight into either of these figures, so we have no way to identify with their feelings; and what feelings are in evidence come mostly from the imagination of the first man, who seems almost enervated even before the film begins.

      I realize, particularly given India’s familial binds that finding another gay man, particularly given the slightly older age of these two middle class citizens, is extraordinarily difficult. Even though our original figure is obviously “out,” evidenced by his umbrella, to be found in a gay bar by an acquaintance might bring shame upon his family, and even more so if he might be the father of the children we spot on the floor next to him in the very first scene. Perhaps dreaming of what life might be or might have been is the only alternative our “hero” has available.

      But why doesn’t Puwar tell us that story, of how he has come to be in that position, instead of cooking up something that reveals nothing but the wishful thinking of his character? Perhaps we might, at least, come to feel some real empathy with the lonely boy. As it is, his daydream is simply that, a dream that provides us with very few clues, other than his obvious desire for a gay relationship, of how it relates to his real being.

      As anyone who has read several of my essays might tell you, I am not at all committed to realist narrative. But neither am I committed to empty pipe dreams that do not even allow me enough credence to allow me feel emotion for the characters. As Puwar’s film ends, it makes clear that its truth lies in its single first image: a man with a closed umbrella staring out over Mumbai bay, intentionally allowing himself to be soaked. It’s an evocative photograph with a subtly poetic message. But it is no movie.

      Perhaps if our figure had kept his umbrella up, protecting himself from the raindrops, he might have attracted someone else to join him in an attempt to keep out of the rain who might even had  something to say that could have evolved into a true conversation. It might have been the start of something far more interesting than the fairytale world our director has come up with. But then my scenario is just another fantasy as well. Perhaps we need to go back to that original room to explain who are the two children sitting of the floor as he ties his shoes to go out. That, for me, is where Puwar’s film stopped, at the very moment it had just begun. The rest is little more than a TV ad for the LGBTQ promotional piece set against some lovely tourist snapshots. I’ll pass.   

Los Angeles, June 7, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2021).

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