Review: Watching You (2003)

Watching You (2003) is a collection of award-winning international film shorts, varying in length from seven to 32 minutes, each with a distinct voice well worth a listen.

The first on the DVD is 4PM, a quirky and funny little U.K. film from director Samantha Backhurst and featuring Emma Kay, Linda McGuire and Barry Lee-Thomas. Belinda takes us with her in her pursuit of dangerous fucks and high risk one-nighters, and in this case, Jenna with the sexy boots. Needless to say, the two hook up for said one-nighter, but things go very wrong when Jenna can’t figure out how to get out of the house the next morning. A comedy of errors ensues as Jenna tries to piece together who her one-night-stand was, and comes to understand that Belinda is not just your average girl on the street. After a few gunshots, sex toys, dead fish, and clips of Belinda on the news, Jenna manages to accidentally create one last round of havoc when Belinda and her husband return home. Though the soundtrack occasionally borders on the cheesy porn-flick variety, the writing and acting are solid, and it’s sure to produce a few laughs, even a little food for thought. 4PM is also the most decorated of the Watching You shorts, having picked up several awards internationally.

The next film is the Australian short, Bare, from director Deborah Strutt. We open with one male and one female couple as they begin their mornings. The women seem to have just spent their first night together, juxtaposed against the men who appear to be settled in a domestic partnership, in a nice inversion of the usual stereotypes. While setting the table for breakfast, one of the men catches sight of the two women having good-morning sex in the opposite apartment building. The ladies are alerted to their Peeping Tom neighbour, and each couple is respectively mortified. But rather than let it put a damper on the morning, all four seem aroused by this voyeurism, segueing into a Strutt cross-edits the two couples’ love-making sessions, with increasingly intimate close-ups, so that it is hard to distinguish the genders and sexes of the respective parties. She subtly, and poignantly, universalises the act. Bare won Winner of Best International Short at the Brussels International Film Festival (2001).

The Canadian Interviews With My Next Girlfriend (directed by Cassandra Nicolaou) will resonate with anyone, male or female, who has been in the market for a girlfriend (or boyfriend?) in their lifetime. One woman interviews a series of hysterically diverse prospects to be her next girlfriend, and in so-doing seems to cover the length and breadth of the queer female dating pool. Her interviewee sample cuts across gender, racial and political identifications; sexual preferences and fetishes; educational backgrounds; professional tracks; even a couple subconsciously trying to eradicate their LBD. Though each of the interviewees may border on the stereotypical, the film is too hilariously written, strongly acted, and vivaciously edited for it to be a real problem. If nothing else, it will assure every single or used-to-be-single girl (or boy?) out there: you are not alone.  Interviews has won awards at festivals around the world.

Mood shift. Watching You is next, an affecting piece from Israel (in Hebrew with English subtitles) and the most intellectually and emotionally penetrating of the selections. It is beautifully and subtly acted under the directorship of Stephanie Abramovich. We follow protagonist Sharon, single mother to her son Yoni, and who is dating cab-driver Ronit. When not working as a chef at a local restaurant, she enjoys taking pictures. These days, it’s mostly of her beautiful neighbour in the opposite apartment building, Michali. Yes, voyeurism across the urban apartment blocks returns as a theme. Things aren’t going so well for Michali, however. She is ill, and is in a frustrating relationship with a married man. When Michali takes her beau to the restaurant where Sharon works to confess her illness, she literally bumps into Sharon in the kitchen. When the night doesn’t improve for Michali, and Ronit explodes after finding the pictures Sharon has taken of their neighbour, Sharon and Yoni cross paths with Michali while wandering the streets after dark. Michali invites Sharon and Yoni back to her place, where she finally finds the support she has been looking for. There is a palpable eroticism to the vulnerability and intimacy the women share as they explore each other, in turn ignoring the pounding of jealous but inadequate lovers at the door. Delicately, the film leaves us with a sense of the hope and possibility that Michali and Sharon may find in each others’ arms. Like the other films in the collection, Watching You has won several international awards.

After a string of strong comedic and dramatic pieces, I suppose it was impossible to keep that standard up. Dear Emily, the first U.S. film on the DVD, is the project from director and star, Katherine Brooks. Up goes the red flag: it is an intensely personal piece that takes itself extremely seriously, and which is directed by and starring the same person. The protagonist, a high school student, struggles with her sexuality and has a crush on a best friend, experiencing fear of alienation, rejection, and falling victim to self-destructive patterns queer teens can engage in to curb feelings of worthlessness. All of this is important and compelling subject matter, which makes it all the more disheartening when Dear Emily, winner if the IFFCON Pitch Contest but easily the weakest film of the collection, features a saccharine original score, paltry and banal writing, only amplified by the heavy-handed voice-over and poor performances, all neatly packaged in a short which dwells in dangerously self-indulgent and melodramatic territory.

Unfortunately, things did not improve much with the next short. Directed by Lee Friedlander, The Ten Rules from the U.S. is a “survival guide” that takes on the challenge of how incestuous and small the community’s dating pool can be. I was sure that this would lend some clever comic relief to mitigate my annoyance after Dear Emily, and introductory credits set to Blondie’s classic One Way Or Another seemed like a promising start. But it was not to be. What began as potentially witty running commentary from out protagonist soon deteriorated into hackneyed humour, unconvincing performances, and mind-numbing predictability. One point of interest was a celebrity cameo from Megan Cavanaugh, but that alone could not make up for the fact that few of these rules seemed compelling in any way. Nevertheless, Ten Rules won the IFFCON Pitch Contest (as did Dear Emily, co-incidentally), as well as awards at other festivals. In other words, it might just be me.

The DVD also includes two cute bonus features: Traveling Companion (from director Paula Goldberg, U.S.A, which makes up for the previous weak U.S. entries), featuring Kristin Davis as the protagonist’s sister and a cameo by Marga Gomez; and Double Entente (from Jacquie Lawrence, U.K.).

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