Reviews Short Narrative

Secret Santa (2022) – 4 stars

Director: Charif Ounis

Writers: Charif Ounis, Luca Jonas Müller & Lilly Weiss

Cast: Luca Jonas Müller & Lilly Weiss

Running time: 4mins

Independent art is usually at its worst when it decides to try and ape mainstream content generation. Many of the themes they will try to mash into a tiny, underfunded work are already woefully out of step with the lived experience of most audiences – and without the time, resources and glamour to try and gloss over that fact, such productions tend to descend into farce really quickly.

Perhaps the most painful strain of ‘mainstream-indy’ for this reason is the independent Christmas film. The ‘Holiday movie’ is already an insufferably saccharine blend of po-faced religious posturing, and gluttonous consumerism, out of which comatose audiences are induced to turn the blind eye to the avarice and hostility of the last 11 months they have survived, and believe there is goodness in all of us, somewhere. But without the budget and star-power to help distract us from how removed from reality that is, the façade quickly fades, and leaves audiences comparing the work – correctly – to the very worst crimes presented by the Hallmark Channel.

Over the past four years, I’ve come across more than my fair share of shoddy Christmas productions, whose creators have found the above out the hard way. And somewhere along the way, it’s become very difficult for me to imagine that one could be delivered with originality and sincerity. Like snow in July, however, Charif Ounis’ short Secret Santa is a rarity of note, that shows sometimes the impossible does happen.

Like Ounis’ other submission to Indy Film Library, Momo or Moses, the chief aim of this LGBTQ+ drama seems to have been to highlight the acting talents of lead performers Luca Jonas Müller (who also featured in that last production) and Lilly Weiss. And if that was indeed the aim, then while the photography and soundtrack might not be anything to write home about, Ounis has still triumphed. The performances Ounis has drawn from the pair are a revelation (and he should rightly be credited for this, too); as they play a brother and sister tripping over long-held secrets, during a seasonal trip down Memory Lane.

As was the case in Momo or Moses, Müller brings a warmth and welcome sense of mischief to his performance as Simon, sorting through old photographs and documents from their childhood – hoping in equal parts he might stumble on something that invokes happy memories, or presents an opportunity to crack jokes at her expense. Having moved on from laughing at how much of a “loser” she was because Lea’s teacher signed her year book, he stumbles on an old, folded up letter.

Weiss, as Lea, is excellent in wordlessly conveying what that letter means. Having been grinning through the performative meanness of her brother so far, her entire demeanour cools, and she bluntly says Simon is not to read any further. In room previously filled with the warmth of family nostalgia, it feels someone just burst that bubble, and the cold December air has rushed in.

Even so, Simon is a little slow to understand the gravity of the document he might be holding, and bumbles on until he reaches the name of its subject. It is a love letter to a girl named Valerie.

Müller’s face tells an interesting story all of its own, as the initial smile fades into a frown, then into a knitted brow. After initially behaving defensively, caught out in a moment of emotional carelessness, he quickly lands on a realisation that his sister might have kept her sexuality from him for a reason.

In a heartfelt conversation, the pair gradually open up to discussing their parents – who never appear on screen – and their prominent homophobia. As Simon had never challenged them on it, Lea feared he might simply have agreed – a suspicion which, when it comes to light years later, causes both siblings a great deal of pain.

Again, like Ounis’ previous film, Secret Santa doesn’t offer much context beyond the immediate scene – or a suggestion of how the lives of its characters might go on, when the film stops rolling. But it does work much better as a stand-alone short film than Momo or Moses, because it manages to hint at a rare kind of nuance that most Christmas entertainment is seemingly allergic to. There are still people in the world who are spiteful bigots, people who will try to do harm to anyone that does not fit into their own world view – and perhaps Lea and Simon’s parents are people like that. But standing against those people – even in the smallest of ways – can mean a world of difference to someone else suffering in silence. That imbues the film with a spirit of love and solidarity that should be held in our hearts for life, not just for Christmas.

The biggest problem with Secret Santa is that its name and its cinematography bring to mind precisely the kind of awful drivel I started this article talking about. But if it gets the benefit of doubt from audiences, this film will genuinely move people – and highlight the talents of some exceptional performers in the process.

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