Cati Gonzalez’s feature film debut, Ekaj, is the story of a young man, the Ekaj of the title, played by Jake Mestre, living on the streets of New York City, adrift and confused. In many ways it’s a film about identity. Ekaj is trying to find his place, both personally, socially and sexually. And yet, unlike many films that purport to deal with serious issues (usually the sure sign of dramatic interest fatigue at around the 20 minute mark), Gonzalez’s film is bold, daring and intimate.
This intimacy extends to the director’s use of non-actors, crafting a naturalism that is both risky and effective. Mestre is a young man with a history not a million miles away from Ekaj’s background, who caught Gonzalez’s eye due to his remarkable, almost androgynous, features.
With immaculate bone structure, and striking eyes, he is at once captivating and tragic, the perfect combination for a story such as this, while the director compliments her protagonist with close-ups, often jarringly close, capturing every pore, every facial tick, every moment. And this is a film made up of many moments.
Ekaj is naïve, hopelessly falling in love with an abusive boyfriend (Scooter LaForge), and justifying any misery that he encounters with the belief that bad times “create a different person but it definitely makes you stronger.” This notion of identity is a running theme throughout the story.
Indeed, if audiences will have issue with anything, it will be the pacing of the narrative. There is no real plot to speak of, merely a succession of events that propel the story forward, negotiating the numerous hardships and dangers of a life on the very cliff edge of oblivion. It seems aimless, at times, and yet its in step with the main character, who has only his desire to live on his terms to keep him going. And yet, despite the occasional drifts in focus, you never tire of its pace, the character’s struggles rightly compelling.
Yes, it’s grim, the film taking in drug abuse, homophobia, prostitution, violence and the ever looming shadow of AIDS. But Gonzalez is smart enough to provide many a respite from all the reality, through visually arresting images and a series of larger than life characters, who Ekaj encounters during his inevitable downward spiral. There are also dreamy vignettes interspersed throughout the narrative, crafting cinematic breathers between the hardships.
Not just another portrait of life on the mean streets, it is also a study of sexuality that rings extremely true in todays shifting cultural climate, where the LGBTQ community continues to evolve, now, more than ever, within a media saturated aesthetic.
Ekaj is gender fluid, and it is the failure of those around him to see him for who he is, that drive the young man out into the streets. Ekaj’s father would rather his child be dead than a homosexual, and so he latches on to various people, finding that his true acceptance comes from those least likely; those who have nothing, and therefore have nothing to lose.
This acceptance, in its own unique way, comes in the form of Ekaj’s friendship with Mecca (a remarkable performance from Badd Idea), a hustler who, despite spending the majority of his days high, is the only person who truly sees Ekaj for the confused soul that he is.
Technically, the film is extremely confident, a fact that, given the budget, is nothing short of remarkable. Paul Vega’s music is used sparingly, but effectively, while the film’s real master stroke is in its editing, cut by Gonzalez herself, along with her partner Mike, who also co-produces.
The film reminds you of the work of Larry Clark, particularly his photography, the film shot with a gritty eye for its subjects (Gonzalez is also a fashion photographer and her distinct visual style is fresh and at times extremely poetic), while elsewhere there are shades of great 70s pictures like Midnight Cowboy, or The Panic In Needle Park. Shot on the real streets, it’s a vérité cinema that flourished in this era and reinvented itself in the 90s, and now, in this film, appears to have shifted once again.
Ekaj represents the very best of what true independent cinema can achieve; an intimate portrait of characters who live, for better or worse, a remarkable life. A view of a world we rarely see and a voice we rarely hear.
Ekaj was initially released in 2015 and has since been on the festival circuits, gaining numerous awards and accolades. The film is available to watch online from various services. For more details, visit the Ekaj website.
STARS: Jake Mestre, Badd Idea
RUNTIME: 80 mins