From <i>Deseos</i>
From Deseos

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When it comes to TBA—and art in general—I find that one can measure the resonance of an artistic work by the amount of questions it leaves you with. That’s not to say questions that come from confusion or misinterpretation of a piece, but rather thoughts that prompt a viewer to ask questions of themselves, their surroundings, or their institutions. Carlos Motta & Maya Mikdashi’s Deseos / رغبات (Desires) left me with a lot of questions. More on that later.

This short film is the result of a collaboration between Filmmaker Carlos Motta and his co-screenwriter Maya Mikdashi as they unpack and explore the lives of Martina and Nour, two characters (or one could say historical subjects) who lived in the 19th century and personally dealt with conflicts of gender, sexuality, and society’s views of the sexual body. According to Motta and Mikdashi’s research (presented on Motta’s website and also in a dramaturgical packet given to audience members at the screening) Martina was prosecuted by the colonial court of Colombia for being a “hermaphrodite” when she was accused of having an “unnatural body” by her then-lover. In Beirut, Nour faces similar societal and cultural adversity when she is forced to marry the brother of her female lover when they are caught in the act by her own mother.

The structure of the film is a correspondence (which I believe is fictionalized by Motta and Mikdashi) between Martina and Nour as they continue a lifelong letter-writing process telling each other of their struggles and their successes. We hear this correspondence via voice-over from the two characters as we see glimpses of what we are led to believe are visual representations of their bodies and surroundings. However, as the film moves forward, as we follow along with the progression of this relationship and the lives Martina and Nour are living out, the visuals also progress forward in time. What starts as a shot of what we might think is a primitive housing structure in Beirut is revealed to be an abandoned, open-air home, filling up with mounds of dead leaves and trash. Like 20th-century plastic bottle trash, not 19th-century trash. We see this kind of modernity creep into the film more and more, juxtaposed with the conversation between the characters that we are led to believe happened over 200 years ago.

One has to think that the intention here is to show the progression of time alongside the film as a way of showing the timelessness of the stories and their outcomes. In the beginning, we are presented with two characters who facing adversity as “others” outside of society’s perceived norms. But as things unwind, we come to see that these conflicts have a happy resolution. Martina is tried in court but is set free, since medical doctors cannot cite enough evidence to justify her ex-lover’s accusations. And Nour ends up being able to express her love again fully to her husband’s sister when she he asks him to take another wife. These (more or less) positive outcomes were very much intentional, according to the dramaturgical information at hand:

“While finishing the script Carlos and I [Mikdashi] were surprised that somehow we both insisted on that unexpected and surprising thing: happiness. After the fact, we realized that imagining joy and avoiding the trope of tragedy… can be a political act…. The social lives of unnatural desires, and the lives of queer people in the contemporary moment, are too often constructed as unhappy, as anxious, as saturated in disappointment and as disappointing and discomforting to families, friends, and social orders… Our characters live lives that are ordinary and fulfilled, with joy and tragedy, friendship and solidarity, love and heartbreak, passion and fulfillment, oppression and opportunity, ecstasy and pain.”

I can say that I believe this goal to move the audience in a joyful way was successful at last night’s screening. The woman sitting next to me openly cried as the character of Nour described, in the closing moments of the film, her joy at being able to grow old with her lover at her side.

For me, I may not have been moved to tears, but I certainly left the piece with (oh here they are!) many questions the film provoked in me: For one, has this gotten better? Has the way our modern societies treat those who are perceived as outside the norm become less or more severe? In the dramaturgical information, Matto and Mikdashi make a point at “queerness” being something that society needs in order to build up its own definitions. There isn’t a “one” without an “other.” So maybe the question isn’t "Has this gotten better" but rather, "Has this changed?"

In the contemporary landscape, what does the “other” look like right now? What will it look like in 10 years? 20 years? Is the goal to have the “other” become part of the “together”?

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With the concept of gender in mind, is there a goal for obliteration of the delineation? Does this complicate or simplify definitions? Does this increase compassion? Does this point us toward a freedom that is defined without label or judgment? Are we looking for the essence of a person?

Clearly, some heady stuff was jumping out at me upon leaving the Hollywood Theater after Deseos. And all that from a 30-minute film. If you missed it at TBA, you can watch a streaming version and take a peek at the rest of Motta’s films here.

Previously, at TBA:
Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble's Stealthy Mindfulness and Toxic Masculinity
Disco Nostalgia and Wildwood Fantasies in Meg Wolfe's New Faithful Disco
When Watching One Part of Morgan Thorson’s Still Life, Another Part Passes You By
Narcissister’s Sublime, Ab Fab-Approved Spectacle