Reviews Short Narrative

Blank (2023) – 2.5 stars

Director: Ada Ossmann

Writer: Ada Ossmann

Cast: Mastafa Çiçek

Running time: 10mins

At school, the earliest, most clichéd advice most of us received when the all-too-rare creative writing lessons came round was to simply ‘write what you know’. That straightforward advice – at least in the way it was meant in that context – was great for churning out any old dross in the hour of time you had to craft a story, which a grade could be slapped on, so we could move on with the curriculum as soon as possible.

In the world beyond school, though, I can’t think of something I’d less like to see than a literal interpretation of write what you know. One of the worst strains of all, though, is that obvious cheat-code for writer’s block: writing about a writer who cannot write. This premise is admittedly at the heart of some truly magnificent culture – The Shining, Adaptation, Barton Fink for example – but there is a very thin line here between the transcendental and the excremental (Secret Window, The Rum Diaries, Gal Manns Skrik).

Blank flirts with either side of that line. Ada Ossmann’s 10-minute short follows the struggles of a nameless author, as he tries to undertake a passion-project in possibly the least passionate manner possible. The author (played by Mastafa Çiçek – whose face never seems to move out of mild-confusion) has religiously marked out days in his calendar during which he is allowed to write – with the rest marked down for “Office”.

Yes, if there is one thing which will ensure your brain will take off on wild flights of fancy, its rigorous planning and structure… Oddly, when the author finds that he can’t get going – in spite of making sure he woke up bright and early, ate a healthy breakfast, and took his meds – he soon finds himself looking for distractions throughout his immaculate studio apartment.

Ossmann’s set-design – presuming he didn’t just film in his own apartment – is impressively consistent, if a little on the nose. Each room has an arrangement of science fiction paraphernalia decorating its walls – behind his headboard, for example, is a slightly-too-precisely placed series of posters for The War of the Worlds – while his counter top is ‘littered’ with a small scattering of famous sci-fi works, including Brave New World and Farenheit 451. By the time the “life, universe, everything = 42” poster creeps into view, we’ve seen enough, arguably too much, to let us know what he wants to write about.

That doesn’t do enough to flesh out the character in a way that we can remotely relate to his frustrations, or even take a passing interest in them, though. Just like the wall-space which isn’t being used to hammer us over the head with sci-fi references, our protagonist is a blank slate.

That literal interpretation of write what you know might well be at play here. When stories get this sort of thing right, it tends to be because they take that self-knowledge, and use it to empathise with people in different situations. Writing what you know needn’t be writing what is literally in front of you, or what you have done in your own life – it can be writing using your emotional experiences to explore how other people might feel in other circumstances. And we get none of that here.

Instead, an extremely dry plot ensues, in which the author becomes irritated by the blank page in front of him, and then being bothered by a chattering crowd outside his window, the desire to drink tea, and the sound of an insect somewhere in the apartment. There is room for exploring other parts of this character, and they might have even been set up on purpose – but Ossmann doesn’t do anything with them.

There is room for the author to be caught up in a moment of existential self-reflection. While I don’t agree someone’s life needs to be a nightmare to create good art, all we see of the author’s life is a clean apartment and a text-message commending him on a sale at the office. He evidently doesn’t have enough conflict in his own life to use write what you know in the literal sense, to produce a compelling story. So perhaps it would be good to have him reflect on how boring he is, or on the fact he has compartmentalised his life into a nightmarish regimen of office and writing deadlines – with no meaningful human interactions in between. Interactions which would help him see the world from other perspectives, and feed his imagination. Maybe his struggles to communicate on the page speak of some greater inner congestion, preventing him from expressing himself genuinely in any medium – stopping him from socialising in that way in the first place?

In a film of lingering shots of nothing, in which the protagonist takes a fifth of the run-time getting out of bed and eating breakfast silently, there is space for more of this kind of exploration, and it could be done seriously or comedically. The film’s conclusion – a non-committal Man vs. Bee-style punchline– suggests humour might have been the tone the production was aiming at. Having a fully-rounded character that is more than just “me when I can’t think what to write” would have been much more enjoyable to watch, and probably more interesting for the eternally befuddled Çiçek to play!

This film is a student project. As we have seen many times before on IFL, that can lead to amazing results, as talents from across a university converge to create a final work. But it can also be restrictive, depending on what the assignment was they are responding to, and what the artists were told was important during the project. Perhaps the script was not at all important to the teachers grading this piece – in which case, who cares if audiences won’t relate to this underexplored protagonist? But if that is the case, everything else is so underwhelming – the stodgy pacing of the editing, the flat cinematography, the uninspiring pale natural lighting, the confused acting – it is tough to tell what was the priority here.

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