“Do you prefer shagging men or women?”, Hedi asks Iva as they both lie on her floor mattress, Hedi smoking, Iva on her front clutching the sheets beneath her. “It’s all the same,” responds Iva. Then, after a pause, “when love strikes.”
Mongolian-German filmmaker Uisenma Borchu impressively made Don’t Look At Me That Way as her diploma project at The University of Television and Film Munich on a modest €25,000 budget. Borchu’s film, however, is far from amateurish (as her multiple prize wins at the International Federation of Film Critics and Filmfest München attest to). Don’t Look At Me is a complex, delicate, and powerfully ambiguous tale of a woman of colour’s relationship with her white German neighbour, touching on issues of loyalty and deception, motherhood and sexuality, cultural roots and diasporic identity.
Rather than understand Don’t Look At Me as an enjoyable film with a message or a moral, Borchu has stated:
I don’t want people to say, “Hey, that’s a nice film”, I want them to feel it, deep and pure. To feel pain or helplessness is a good energy. It is not about entertainment…It’s a film about a certain feeling.
SQIFF is screening Borchu’s debut as part of a programming strand committed to exploring bisexuality* on screen – cinematic representations of characters desiring people of more than one gender. While Don’t Look At Me is not a film with an explicit message, it is notable as one of the few films receiving praise on the queer festival circuit depicting protagonists with bisexual* desires.
It’s common in queer cinema for characters to display attraction towards someone of a different gender, only for this to then be cast off as a period of ‘confusion,’ ‘experimentation,’ or ‘closeted-ness’ prior to the realisation of their ‘true, out, gay self.’ Don’t Look At Me resists this filmic trend both in its visual representations and characters’ dialogue. As Borchu asserts,
In the film Hedi tells Iva, “I’m not lesbian.”… I personally can actually understand why people are fed up of saying, “Yes, I am lesbian,” “Yes, I am homosexual.” Why can’t we love each other? It’s just one aspect of this film.
The writer-director-star’s efforts to explore desire beyond the homosexual-heterosexual binary mark an important divergence from the norms that have emerged in queer cinema. Yet Don’t Look At Me cannot be said to be a film promoting ‘positive’ representations of bisexual* people (whatever that could look like); however, that is also not its intention.
If every film made were Philadelphia, queer cinema would be a much more banal space than it currently is. While some of us hate them, there are others who have an affinity for excessive ‘bad bisexuals,’ like Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell or Skyfall’s Raoul Silva. Questions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ representation are rarely as black and white as they might claim to be.
Our assessment cannot simply end with noticing that bisexual* representation exists; we must ask some additional questions. How do these representations come about? How are they readable? What stereotypes do these representations engender and what does this mean to bisexual* people in the ‘real world’?
The complexities of Don’t Look At Me’s characters provide a fruitful starting point for a discussion around bisexual* representation on screen. A film with ambiguity at its core, Don’t Look At Me, like bisexuality*, cannot be said to be doing simply one thing and this is precisely what makes it so fascinating.
SQIFF 2017’s bisexual strand, Looking Awry, continues with Jacob Engelberg’s illustrated talk, Representing Bisexual* Desires On Screen, on 30th September 12.45pm at CCA, Glasgow. Jacob will also introduce screenings of Gregg Araki’s Nowhere (30th September) and Sheila McLaughlin’s She Must Be Seeing Things (1st October). For more information and tickets, click here.