Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Ekaj Review

Last year the film community was captivated by a film about a day in the life of two transgender friends named Tangerine (2015), when it triumphantly burst through onto the independent scene. It's safe to say that Tangerine left people wanting more of these independent films that tackle the struggles faced by the LGBTQ community, and it's safer to say that Cati Gonzalez's directorial debut Ekaj (2015) will satisfy that want.

Ekaj follows it's titular runaway teenager on a journey through New York City as he discovers sexuality, friendship, love and even himself. Ekaj is eventually taken under the wing of a hustler named Mecca, who has AIDs, and they become fast friends. Despite all of Mecca's own issues he does everything within his power to help and guide his new friend through life.

Ekaj's heart lies firmly within it's cast and their performances. The casting of non-actors, Jake Mestre and Badd Idea, as the two leads means that the film is full of naturalistic performances. The relationship between the two is mesmerising to watch; watching their connection grow as Ekaj becomes more confident, around the already overtly confident Mecca, is like watching a genuine friendship blossom in front of you. There is a perfect blend of tenderness and humour that binds the characters together; the laughter and glances that the two share whenever Mecca innocently taunts passersby is outstandingly organic and is one of the many factors that give the audience a rapport with the people that they see on screen. Badd Idea is captivating as Mecca, with his intriguing facial tattoos and rapid, sharp talking demeanour. He perfectly breathes a subtle comedic lifeline into an otherwise serious film. Mestre is also brilliant to watch, and he portrays Ekaj at his low points beautifully, he avoids the melodramatics of trained actors in mainstream films which presents the viewer with raw, natural emotion.

Aside from the acting, Ekaj also avoids the rose tinted view of the world that mainstream, Hollywood productions enjoy providing for its audiences. Ekaj isn't a gay teen from an accepting family, he's physically and emotionally abused by his father, who states that he would have his son be anything but gay, which ultimately drives him out onto the streets and into a series of unhealthy relationships and situations. The film manages to put across some serious home truths about the hardships that the growing population of LGBTQ homeless youth in New York City face that will certainly hit viewers hard. Examples such as Mecca revealing that his situation has led to him being raped, and that he now almost accepts it as a normality as well as an inevitability, and Ekaj's prostitution as well as his welcoming of abusive boyfriends because he doesn't know any different expression of love are extremely poignant.

The cinematography in Ekaj serves the film well. The film constantly uses handheld technology that, along with the natural interactions between Mestre and Idea, adds to the film's naturalistic qualities as the viewer is placed in the scene as if they are part of the dialogue. There are many scenes in which Ekaj is film through windows which come in and out focus, almost as if to say that he, and others in his situation, are visible and right in front of us, we just need to break that barrier and reach out to them.

Ekaj is essentially an intimate snippet of Ekaj's life, we get brief glimpses of his situation prior to the narrative beginning, and we are left with a sense of what he will do next. Focusing on a short period of time allows the viewer to witness what he deals with on a daily basis under a magnifying glass and this evokes a brilliant sense of empathy. It also raises some serious points about the issue of how that the stigma of being part of the LGBTQ community for many young people leads to homelessness. The subject of AIDs is something that is also highlighted and dealt with in a refreshing and realistic way. Instead of being weighed down by it, Mecca doesn't allow his AIDs diagnosis to define him, though he asserts the fact that it is obviously a negative aspect of his life, he can still poke fun at his situation. Ultimately, Ekaj shows us that people in situations such as Ekaj and Mecca's are still people; despite the unconventional choices that they must make to survive. Giving the audience the chance to see characters in these positions from a subjective perspective teaches them a lesson; these people shouldn't be looked down upon and we shouldn't turn away and hurry by them when we encounter them on the street.

Overall, Ekaj has been perfectly assembled by Gonzalez, who not only directed the film, but also produced and wrote it alongside Mike Gonzalez. Together they have created a truthful, raw, thought provoking piece of cinema. Ekaj is not only a beacon for the plight of the LGBTQ, the homeless, and those with HIV/AIDs; but also a beacon of hope.


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