Reviews Short Narrative

DION (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Harvey Kadijk

Writers: Jolijn van Dulken & Harvey Kadijk

Cast: Melisa Alkanlar, Romy Blom, Abel Sanders, Rolph Goosens

Running time: 12mins

Not including sexual harassment, the United Nations estimates that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. Despite a long and fierce battle for justice for such cases, however, a tight cultural enclosure of shame and silence still engulfs survivors – often enforced by the wealthy and powerful – with those who do speak up belittled, shunned, and commonly blamed for the violence directed at them.

In the fight to finally overhaul such centuries-old repression, art and culture often provide an important platform for the marginalised and oppressed to fight back. Film, in particular, can play an important role in helping survivors and their allies find their voice and championing them when they do; and so when filmmakers authentically attempt to do so – however successfully – they should be applauded. To that end, Dutch director Harvey Kadijk’s earnest film DION deserves a great deal of praise.

Co-written with Jolijn van Dulken, Kadijk’s short shows both an admirable level of restraint, both on a cinematic and dramatic front – giving the feeling that this project was born of a genuine desire to lend support to survivors of sexual assault. The majority of the film sees the camera tightly trained on Dion (Melisa Alkanlar), invading her personal space, placing us squarely within her claustrophobic world of wordless dread. The only times the camera leaves her side is to focus on some nearby figure illustrating her perceived place in the world; her unsympathetic teacher (Abel Sanders), an aggressive classmate (Rolph Goosens) or some distant stranger lurking in the periphery.

The first two serve to illustrate Dion’s vulnerability; her teacher is indifferent to her internal struggle, and declines to ask if her slumping grades might be due to matters beyond school, while her classmate takes issue with her accidentally marking his jeans with her bike-tyre – demonstrating with alarming ease that he has the strength to take revenge over it, if he saw fit. The significance of the third figure, the stranger, suddenly becomes terribly clear to us then. If he decided to attack Dion, she might be unable to fight him off, and she is demonstrably alone without any visible means of support. In this terrifying moment, we feel an unimaginable dread, a vicarious paranoia that we are in danger.

Beyond these moments, however, the framing of each shot is uncomfortably close to Dion. Combined with the isolated and exposed nature of the experiences we live with her, we begin to feel as though the walls are closing in on us. This is just a tiny fraction of the anguish and fear that survivors of sexual assault must endure on a daily basis, but in future it might well help viewers better empathise with people they judged too hastily in their own lives. Maybe there’s a reason people they know have shut themselves off, become physically or emotionally distant, or hard to gauge. Maybe there’s something they can do to reach out and offer them help.

One of the things that is perhaps easily overlooked, but merits high praise when it comes to achieving this important effect, is that it exhibits massive self-control on part of Kadijk in terms of his cinematography. It is clear from the gorgeous colour palette DION uses to illustrate the mood of its players that the team behind it had access to a decent standard of filmmaking equipment – while having lived in Amsterdam for three years; glimpses of small pieces of the surroundings tell me that he pretty much had the run of the city’s Noord area.

It would no doubt have been tempting to lean on wide-shots of that especially scenic district, especially on the ferry which runs across the vast expanse of water between Centraal Station and the EYE Film Museum (both of which I think make up major filming locations. At the same time, A’DAM Lookout is just next-door, and offers a panoramic aerial view of the city, which again it must have been tempting to place Dion against to utilise the stunning, moody vista.

But that would have compromised the entire aesthetic impact of the stifling close-ups of our lead, trapped in her world of internalised pain. If that had have happened, the ground for making this film – to give us insight into the daily struggle of a survivor – would have been undermined, and played second-fiddle to cinematographic grandeur in quite a distasteful sense. Thankfully, Kadijk remains does not fall into those particular trappings, and is all the more powerful for it – as it suggests that while this is a filmmaker who is well practised in his craft, he is not willing to sacrifice substance for style.

With that being said, the film’s conclusion is not perhaps as satisfactory as it might have been. The duration of DION sees lead actor Melisa Alkanlar struggle with panic attacks, while multiple attempts to verbalise her experiences are quickly quashed by flushes of anxiety. Perhaps it is asking too much of a short film to provide a nuanced conclusion to these events, but in this case, DION has left too much for itself to do at the end. The various strands of the plot are tied up far too hastily, and we move far too quickly from our main character seemingly contemplating walking into traffic, to deciding that now is the time to confide in her mother, and hopefully start to rebuild her life.

It’s a shame, it somewhat lets down a captivating performance from lead actor Melisa Alkanlar. She has precious little dialogue, but this in no way inhibits her ability to tell a story, and throughout the film a lifetime of frustrations, fears and hopes seem to bleed from her deep, dark eyes. The film’s climactic scenes could have been so much better sold if they had taken more time to utilise her, tracing every thought and counter-thought across her face as she weighs up her options.

At the same time, while Alkanlar is quite adept with speaking to us without words, for a film which seems to centre heavily on helping victims of violence and societal oppression to find their voice, a little something extra is needed for the film’s final moment. As it is, Dion addresses her mother over the phone, “Mama…,” and the film cuts to black. It’s hard not to feel like this is a slight cop-out.

While filmmakers might rightly say that more often than not, less is more, and you are better off not being too on the nose about a film’s message, for many survivors of sexual abuse, one of the most important and difficult moments on the road to recovery is admitting what has happened. Sadly, real-life victims are denied the opportunity to see someone go through that process in DION. Considering the film does not do much to contextualise sexual assault as a social or political problem, this is arguably the most important aspect of the film then, as it is the one moment which suggests how survivors might find it within themselves to reach out for support and guidance.

DION is a sincere and disciplined attempt at demonstrating the suffocating anxiety, paranoia and isolation endured by survivors of sexual assault; Harvey Kadijk and his team deserve a great deal of plaudits for taking on such an issue without being melodramatic, or losing sight of the end goal in favour of stylistic frivolities. While this particular film doesn’t quite stick the landing, it does demonstrate an excellent understanding of empathetic filmmaking; if the artists involved can build on that in future projects, then I expect big things from them in years to come.

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