Ekaj: how reality became real on-screen by Liam Hewitt
Ekaj is a feature film directed and written by Cati Gonzalez, produced alongside Mike Gonzalez, and it surpasses all expectations imposed prior to its viewing. The story- invented with societal dictation in mind- discovers and delves into real-world problems. Homelessness, Drug Addiction, Rejection from family and community ideals, HIV/AIDS, and a myriad of issues relating to the LBTQ+ community are all waded through in surprising depth.
“It definitely relates to our lives and experiences,” Cati tells me, “We’ve been broke, homeless, suffered drug addiction, and therefore rejection- which is not uncommon with artists. I’ve also had a couple of friends who’ve died of AIDS so I wanted to incorporate that into the Film.”
The tale is a hopeless love story between two drifters, Ekaj and Mecca. Though Mecca has AIDS, and slowly deteriorates throughout the film, he manages to become Ekaj’s only real anchor to reason. Though the protagonist makes some money from prostitution, and Mecca deals occasionally in opportunistic theft, they are discarded into poverty.
Scooter La Forge plays a painter, Johnny, the cold and often brutal love interest and obsession of Ekaj. Though Ekaj is emotionally invested in him, Johnny is often indifferent to this bond, and even beats him. With no place to call home, Ekaj spends his days at Mecca’s cousin’s place, at Johnny’s, and in hotel rooms paid for by clients of his prostitution.
With Mecca and Ekaj living such turbulent lives, Cati writes that “their mutual loneliness leads to genuine friendship.” “The motive that drives the story is to make people aware of how many kids fall into the crevices of society because of family rejection, poverty, lack of education and also rejection within their own communities. This can lead to homelessness, drugs, prostitution, suicide, HIV/AIDS and other diseases in many cases. These kids tend to live isolated from, and lose trust in, society.”
One of the most enthralling characteristics of the film is the production choice to cast “real people” rather than seasoned actors, and this unequivocally offers us a poignant sense of realism. It creates for us an ability to suspend our disbelief, and glimpse into the worries, issues, and fears that plague the characters- a gift that Hollywood productions often sacrifice for bigger names.
Jake Mestre, the actor who plays Ekaj, has continued from the film to win the “Best Actor” award at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival, and was nominated for the same award at the Newark International Film Festival in the US.
“Once I started casting Jake Mestre, who wasn’t an actor, as the lead, it opened my mind to cast the rest of the Film with non-actors. It wasn’t new for me to do this. I had done it so many times in Photography shooting street people rather than models. I did it for Vibe, Spin, ID magazine, etc. I was always looking for the most raw, edgy, and rebellious people I could find.”
Behind the scenes was tempestuous, as some people wouldn’t show up to the studio on time- if at all. One actor dropped out as he thought he should play the lead, and so he had to be replaced. Scooter La Forge, a painter in real life, was cast to play a painter; Badd Idea, who was cast to replace the actor who had dropped out, plays a drifter who suffers from HIV, and this too was mirrored in his personal life.
Cati’s plan to keep the people cast as close to the script as possible worked, but she also recalls that it made it difficult for her to make people play characters that symbolised their real lives so intrinsically. “In the case of Badd Idea, it was harder for me to make him play a character with HIV knowing that he was suffering from it. I must have sent him countless emails prior to a scene making sure that the dialogue was not going to be upsetting for him to play,” she recalls.
Another issue behind the scenes appeared when it came to relaying lines. Cati tells me that some lines would have to be improvised as people would forget them, or that they would be dictated to the actors line-by-line to get the discourse accounted for. “It was worth it because when they would improvise they would carry on and they would be so funny. They had real chemistry going on,” she says.
Through all the turmoil absorbed by the viewer through screen-time, the films realism truly opens up the ability for public discourse surrounding every issue regarding it. The film so ironically mirrors the lives of the producers, actors, and many viewers, that it becomes impossible to disregard it as “just a movie”. Ekaj, through its real-life symmetry, harrowing portrayals of serious societal issues, and the magnetic empathy it draws from viewers, finally opens the floodgates to discussion surrounding all of the issues it deals with throughout.
With its lack of deliberate political correctness, it allows us to finally see what life is like for these people- real people- who have been discarded from society, from community, and from any real sense of “Home.” Ekaj forces us to genuinely see the reality of such harsh real-life situations, in a way that is easily ignored in day-to-day life. We finally stop looking away, and are absolved of ignorance, forced to declare ourselves gazing into true reality on-screen.
_____________________________ Ekaj is screening at the NO GLOSS Film Festival in Leeds, UK, on October 22nd-23rd, 2016. You can buy tickets online from their web address at http://www.noglossfilmfestival.co.uk/. Alternatively, you can keep up to date through social media by following @EkajTheMovie on Twitter, or by searching Ekaj through Facebook. Written by Liam Hewitt. @LiamRAH.