First Take | Fleeing from one’s own sexuality

Flee is a unique unprecedented cinema on homosexuality. The very term ‘gay animation documentary’ is an ostensible anomaly. How can a film on homosexuality be done as animation, and how can an animation film be a documentary? Flee succeeds in bringing all of this, and more.

Subhash K Jha May 14, 2022 11:28:48 IST
First Take | Fleeing from one’s own sexuality

A still from Flee

While watching Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen's pathbreaking animation film Flee, I thought of Manzu in Hansal Mehta’s beautifully evocative film Baai in the Amazon Prime Video’s anthology Modern Love.

Both Amin in Flee and Manzu in Baai are Muslim and gay. They are both part of a large joint family where homosexuality is considered a disease. Manzu’s homophobic father has tried to “cure” his “sick” son with home remedies, though blessedly not electric shocks. Amin in Flee is in a far worse state. In Afghanistan during the 1980s when Amin flees with his family, they didn’t even have a word for homosexuality in the local language.

Flee is a unique unprecedented cinema on homosexuality. The very term ‘gay animation documentary’ is an ostensible anomaly. How can a film on homosexuality be done as animation, and how can an animation film be a documentary? Flee succeeds in bringing all of this, and more. Its heady blend of documented facts and fictionalized reality confers a unique spin to this survival story.

But wait! What is Flee really about? Is it a survival story? Amin’s journey from Afghanistan to Russia is a classic illustration of survival by fluke. It’s a miracle that Amin lives to tell his tale and that too after overcoming oppression on two seemingly insurmountable levels.

Peeter Rebane’s Firebird is the haunting gay version of Raj Kapoor’s Sangam. What if Raj Kapoor and Rajendra Kapoor in Sangam were in love with one another and Vyjanthimala was just an unsuspecting beard?

I asked myself this question several times while watching this gem of a film on homosexual love during the times of war and other masculine activities. This haunting parable on forbidden love which opened across the globe on April 29 , is set in wartime Russia with masculine tensions underscoring the delicately poised love story which threatens to implode any moment as a sergeant Sergey (Tom Prior) falls deeply and destructively in love with a fighter pilot Roman (played by Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii).

The narrative is done like a walk on glass, as Sergey and Roman try to navigate their mutual feelings through the rigid army guidelines. If caught, they are doomed. If not, they are still doomed.

The mixed feeling of exhilaration and dread gives the film its distinctive shade. First and foremost Firebird is gorgeous to look at. Cinematographer Mait Mäekivi composes every frame as if it’s the last one. There is a tinge of lingering nostalgia and incomplete poetry in every shot. Unlike other films on same-sex romance Firebird is designed as a desperately anxious furiously passionate love story.

David Lean could have just as well directed this film, had he lived long enough to make a gay version of Dr Zhivago. Firebird has all the elements of an epic romance including a triangular conflict that builds to unspeakable tragedy as Luisa(Diana Pozharskaya) falls in love with and marries Roman not knowing that her best friend Segrey is the love of her husband’s life.

The screen-time conveys all the delicacy of Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name. But it is not shot in a self-indulgent mood. The casual beauty that every frame radiates secretes a robust feeling for the forbidden passion. Every meeting of Segrey and Roman is recorded with the careworn sensitivity of a diary entry. Their lovemaking is never about bodies. They go way beyond.

Miraculously while remaining true to the forbidden nature of the relationship, director Peeter Rebane constructs a truly engrossing tale of love where danger lurks in every corner. This is a gay Casablanca cloaked in an elegance that gives it an old-world charm while never taking away from the sheer immediacy of the statement on the taboo placed on homosexuality in communist countries.

The three main actors and the supporting cast were all unknown to me. This gives the goings-on an added sense of credibility. The tragic finale is only expected. But Roman and Luisa’s final confrontation about the man they both love is inhumanly moving.

Does life really have to be so unjust to those who are just inches from obtaining that elusive thing called love?

Great cinema on homosexuality is not scarce. What is rare is a cinema on same-sex relationships which normalizes homosexuality without fanfare or self-congratulation.

In the Austrian slow-burner Great Freedom, there is an eminently disquieting normalcy in the tone adopted to tell the story of a gay man Hans(Franz Rogowski) during post-WW2 Germany who goes to jail over and over again for his sexual preference. Like another character in the film who finally succumbs to official pressure and admits it is abnormal to have sex with another man and thereby wins his hugely ironical “freedom”, Hans could at any point have admitted his “folly” and walked out of prison.

Rather than choose the false freedom based on a concealed smother self-identity, Hans chooses the relatively less suffocating freedom of prison life where his homosexual identity is not hidden.

Hans battles homophobia from within the prison walls, thereby in some tormented way, he gains a freedom that the outside world cannot offer him, at least not back then circa 1945.

The narrative flings a strange stirring and eventually deceptive mood of placidity as if everything you see is the documented truth and therefore cinema that masquerades as non-cinema. In truth, Great Freedom is an excruciatingly cinematic achievement. It pulls the rug from underneath the status quo, rendering the given principles of cinematic expression a tad irrelevant if not altogether redundant.

Austrian director Sebastian Meise whose debut film Still Life in 2011 was again an unsettling meditation on the road to a moral salvation, maps his story with the minimum of fuss. Here is a potentially dramatic story of a non-conformist anti-establishment man who would rather stay a literal prison than a spiritual cell, who sees freedom in defying the conventional guidelines of freedom. Rejecting the obvious exit doors, Meise follows the long hard road to freedom.

I wonder what this ostensibly artless, emphatically austere prison drama would have been like without the great German actor Franz Rogowski who slips quietly in the shoes and underclothings of Hans Hoffman, creating a character who is not only real but also poetic in his eschewal of the literalness of freedom.

Rogowski’s Hans is stoic in his state of grace. He is not pathetic even when forced to perform oral sex on a prison inmate in exchange of a love note sent to a beloved inmate. At such brutally raw points of soul-baring, the director displays a frightening insight into minds that won’t be controlled by authority.

First Take  Fleeing from ones own sexuality

The more the authorities try to beat Hans’ spirit down more it rises in revolt.

Great Freedom is a great film, not because it explores the relationship between deviancy and conformity so deftly, but because it lays bare the agony of being whimpering in protest. All across its emotionally skewered scattered universe Great Freedom punctuates its sorrowful zest for reform with a prideful optimism.

There is an emotional heft to Hans’ story, somewhat undermined by the narrative’s determined zig-zagging progression whereby no timeline is followed. We don’t know when Hans enters prison, leaves and comes back. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. No matter which part of the time zone we trail, the rites of persecution are invariable.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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