Director: Angela Zandberger
Writers: Angela Zandberger & Sonja da Graça
Cast: Dirk van der Pol, Pinar Karaslaan, Gustavo Ruben Venzuela, Sven Petrus
Running time: 8mins
The golden rule in filmmaking, especially when it comes to short narrative pieces, is that less is more. Obviously there are exceptions to any rule, but generally, if you are looking to make an emotional impact on an audience in as little time as possible, getting the basics right is paramount to your success.
Filmmakers Jesse Adlam and Roberto Vivancos both recently provided a master-class in short film production to that end, with their documentary and narrative films lasting under seven and two minutes respectively. Both films managed to hone in on a relatable central theme, and building outward from that simplicity to produce moving, intelligent and visually stunning end products.
On the other end of the spectrum, we also recently saw what can happen if a filmmaker over-complicates a short – with Erin Richardson’s effort trying to cram the intricacies of a feature-length punk rock plot into less than 10 minutes of run-time. Trying to rush a 90-minute narrative in this way resulted in scatter-brained storytelling, which ultimately undermined what could have been a very worthy comment on the entertainment industry’s casting-couch culture.
Unfortunately, this is the end of the scale where we find Angela Zandberger’s Lost. Co-written with Sonja da Graça for the 48 Hour Film Festival, Zandberger’s short attempts to synthesise the intricate nuances of modern gender theory with the blunt impact of family melodrama in eight minutes – something which many storytellers might struggle to do over the course of 48 weeks – and the effects are what you might expect.
Dirk van der Pol stars as Karel, a recently bereaved husband who has spent the weeks following his wife’s death propping up the bar at the local bruin café. His apparent slump into alcoholism is not necessarily identified as the problem at the heart of this film though – instead playing second fiddle to the fact he is wearing a dress and lipstick while he sips his glass of rosé. This seems to visibly disgust his daughter (Pinar Karaslaan), who has recently returned home from overseas to attend her mother’s funeral.
Van der Pol’s performance is probably the best thing about the film, restrained, but with a clear sadness behind his eyes – his facial muscles visibly tensed around them, as if he is perpetually fighting back a fit of sobbing. That’s exactly what you need at the heart of a compelling short. Unfortunately, the 48 hour schedule of filming does not seem to have allowed the cast and crew to build anything of note around it. Aside from some mediocre shot-construction, and a completely out-of-place electronic score which pulses into life at the film’s finale, Karaslaan’s performance is noticeably out of step with her on-screen father’s intensity.
To be fair to Karaslaan, she seems to be doing her best with what she was given – a script hastily cobbled together – and the time constraints likely mean she didn’t receive many opportunities for extra takes to take into account directorial feedback – but her wide-eyed incredulity does not deliver the necessary blend of empathy and panic which could have made her relationship with Karel work. At best, she comes across as a whiny child, tugging at her crumbling patriarch’s sleeve to show him a scrawled drawing of a stick-figure family including him and his currently unborn grandson, while at worst she comes across as a genuinely spiteful and mildly bigoted individual, whose offspring you would genuinely worry for.
Confronting Karel at the bar, his daughter responds to him claiming cross-dressing helps him feel closer to her mother by hissing, “Nobody said it was easy. It is not easy. But there are other ways to keep her memory alive – not like this! I need you. I need a dad. Not a man in a dress. Think about your grandson!”
She follows this initial guilt-trip up by demanding to know how she could ever explain this to Little Johnny (as an aside, if any script-writers are listening, if you want to avoid drifting into self-parody, never name a child character Little Johnny). It’s a particularly vulgar point to centre the conversation around, and not one which is adequately addressed once it has been rolled out – particularly as it begs the question how this woman would react if her son found he ever had an impulse to cross-dress. The idea that it is inconceivable for some kind of familial figurehead like a grandfather to want to wear a dress seems to suggest Little Johnny’s mother would not be especially understanding if this were the case – whether or not that was the filmmakers’ intent.
To that end, I don’t necessarily think this was the ideological point Zandberger or her team wanted to make – the film’s mid-section does include Karel’s son-in-law interjecting on his behalf, suggesting that “with or without a dress, he is still your father” – but this is not a sentiment which is ever alluded to by father or daughter in their actual interactions. You might argue the film’s ambiguous ending allows room for interpreting the father and daughter reach some kind of reconciliation, but it is utterly wordless, and without context.
In a film which has gone to explicit lengths to spell other aspects of the story out (from having the daughter literally announce she had to “return to Holland for this”, to having her husband implore her to “think of Little Johnny” as if her massive pregnant stomach weren’t enough of an indicator) the omission of a more overt closure seems pointed. Again, this could be attributed to the short amount of time spent making the film, but materially, an absence of thought here has amounted to the same thing as a genuinely toxic attitude toward masculinity would – the suggestion that cross-dressing is a form of mental illness, and that parents have a responsibility to enforce gender norms as the only natural option for their children and grandchildren, if they are to be happy and healthy.
Watching Lost now, in the week where musician Kevin Rowland spoke to The Guardian about his own struggles having publicly worn clothing traditionally labelled ‘feminine’, the film’s handling of the topic leaves a particularly bitter taste in the mouth. The former Dexys Midnight Runners frontman wore stockings, lipstick and a pearl necklace on the cover of his 1999 album My Beauty, and was publicly pilloried for it in the press who repeatedly reported that it was a sign he was having a mental breakdown. “There was this idea that I was mad, that this was all part of some crack-up,” Rowland told The Guardian. “Just so patronising.”
Despite being the subject of a barrage of abuse, including an incident where the audience at a festival hurled bottles at him, Rowland stood by his work, and as was revealed in the same article, his grandson, Roo now benefits from a more tolerant, fluid concept of gender identity which he helped to pioneer. “I’m so proud of him,” he added. “He’s been wearing dresses and makeup since he was 13.”
But imagine if that boy hadn’t grown up in that family environment, where he was told his desires to wear different clothes from other boys were perfectly fine – where he had a granddad that could help show him that it’s ok to be yourself. If that weren’t the case, there would probably have been one more miserable, repressed man shunted into a world he has been told to hide his desires, because the world will not understand. In that kind of world, the world as it appears in Lost, it is little wonder that men are around twice as likely as women to take their own lives.
It might seem harsh to lay into a zero-budget film made in a brief window of time like this, but frankly, handling important topics like this without proper planning is irresponsible. Leaving questions like “how do I explain to my son why his granddad wears dresses” just hanging open does little to buck the persistent narrative that this is socially unacceptable – a logic which constrains a great many men, and leaves unable to accept themselves psychologically or emotionally.