Exploring the world through global cinema

The Call Of The Wild

If you were asked to pin down the one fundamental instinct that drives all human relationships and indeed the shape of every society, what would you say? Travel with me to Bolivia this week as World On Film explores the ugly, but brutally honest truth of:

Sexual Dependency

(2003) Written & Directed by Rodrigo Bellot

Hunter and prey in 'Sexual Dependency', though gender is only part of the divide.

(To view a trailer, look to the bottom of the previous entry.)

In Sexual Dependency, writer/director Rodrigo Bellot delivers a stark, brutal and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of humanity as driven by its sexual urges, desires, and fears. Society is reduced to the hunters and their prey, the aggressive dominators and the submissive victims. Sexuality, both the need and fear of it dictate the daily lives of all, wittingly or unwittingly. Viewed through the lens of the animal, the human condition is merely a thin veneer stretched tightly over millennia of instinct. However, the film is also about the ever-changing roles of people as determined by shifting environments and perspective, which Bellot drives home through the use of a fairly uncommon and at times disconcerting film technique.

So as to ensure the central message that sexual politics and animal group dynamics are fundamental to all, Bellot and fellow co-writer Lenelle N. Moise, rather than zooming in on one small cross-section of society as representative of all humanity, present a series of loosely-connected short stories populated with a number of different social groups. To really hammer the point home and ensure the viewer doesn’t dismiss the unsettling narratives as simply the darker side of Bolivian culture, the action transfers halfway through to New York, where the same fundamentals of aggression are at work. However, the change of location also serves another crucial purpose, of which more a little later.

The film's split-screen format is a revolution in cinematic visual experimentation - or deeply irritating, depending upon whom you ask.

Another function of the loose anthology of story segments (minor characters in one become major characters in another) is to show a progression of both sexual awakening and the inevitable consequences of social groups led by dominant and aggressive leaders. Thus the first segment explores the difference between fantasy and reality as centred around a 15-year-old girl. 15, we are told, is the time when one comes of age in Bolivia (more strictly-speaking, the age of consent is when puberty has been reached), and when the testosterone-filled vultures begin to circle. However, while male dominance and aggression are undeniably the driving force of all conflicts throughout Sexual Dependency, the young girl’s unpressured curiosity and awakening sexual desires against the juggernaut of a young man whose hormones will brook no disagreement are thrown into sharp contrast with the unwitting young man forced into sexual adventure by his peers in the next segment: the message ultimately being that consent is either way irrelevant, since the weak and submissive will simply be directed by the dominant forces of the group. By the end of the film, the male victims of this natural law are no less numerous.

The third segment then shifts the focus from the weak to the sexual predator, exploring the many acts of dominance they must perform on a regular basis to remain at the centre of their world, and how these acts impact those around them. Importantly, it also delves into the insecurity of that psyche, which plays an even greater role later on. It is here that the action relocates to New York, with one of the key Bolivian characters moving there and discovering both the true fragility of the world they have built up for themselves and that the law of the jungle is the only universal constant.

By shifting the film's setting, Bellot shows the way in which someone can be dominant in one social group and a submissive victim in another.

In this way, the cultural shift not only reinforces the argument that basic social behavior is the same everywhere, but also demonstrates that positions of dominance are entirely relative. Here, the hunter of one world may become the prey of another, though in a film set in two countries, cultural difference in and of itself becomes a contributing factor. Besides this, the New York half of Sexual Dependency goes on to explore themes not already addressed earlier, such as homophobia, rape, and reinforcing heterosexual group dynamics north of the border. The overall progression from innocence to revelation and fall continues throughout and the final segments begin to blur together in a chaotic mess (carefully structured) so as to echo the crushing mental and physical pain brought on by fear, loathing, victimization, realization, and the fall from innocence. The sex in Sexual Dependency bears no relation to the fantasy of the expectant imagination: this is the physical act borne of instinct, aggression, and indeed, dependency.

[Sexual Dependency is] a stark, brutal and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of humanity as driven by its sexual urges, desires, and fears.”

Some segments of the drama are not quite what they appear to be, to varying success.

Full credit must go to Bellot to choosing a cast who clearly understood what was being asked of them and performed it with absolute believability. In depicting the real rather than ideal normally featured in cinema, this was central to making Sexual Dependency work, and I can’t think of a single actor present who didn’t deliver. Equally important to this was the subtitles for the Bolivian sections. For my copy at least, they were absolutely spot-on, with excellent use of equivalent English slang and colloquialisms to really ensure that cultural difference didn’t distract from the underlying message. I was also quite impressed by the overall thematic progression and the way in which the way it was edited together managed to match the escalating drama unfolding on screen. There is so much happening on so many different levels both in the stories themselves and the post-production later that the overall result is a rich and layered experience.

The most obvious example of this is the way the film itself has been shot. Bellot experiments with the widescreen format to a degree not often seen before, by having two moving images at once. For the most part, this simultaneous imagery is of the same subject, with one camera filming from a different angle. However, one video is often a few seconds out of sync with the other, providing a sort of ‘echoing’ effect, which is most effectively used in a monologue segment later on. At other times, the two images may be entirely different, with one intended as a thematic contrast to the other, and by the time of the drama’s chaotic climax-as-descent, the visual confusion rises to a crescendo. The overall success of this technique is varied, in some places proving quite effective, while at other times being quite disconcerting and overcomplicated and in some places, not especially necessary. It does certainly provide a visual cue to the overall theme of perceptions shifting depending upon not only how one perceives the world, but what role one plays in a social group and how it changes according to circumstance.

The unsubtle dimensions of prejudice and hypocrisy in sexual politics are also explored to good, though brutally honest effect.

Another criticism I would make has to do with the murky breaking of the fourth wall that occurs toward the end of the film. Metatextuality is an art in its own right and often hard to pull off without being seemingly over-clever or gratuitous. Suffice to say, Sexual Dependency is a title both of and within the film. It doesn’t dampen the overall aim of the film, but it did make me feel a little cheated and emotionally ‘exploited’, although perhaps I simply didn’t see what other viewers may regard as glaringly obvious.

The bleak nature and stark reality of the subject matter unapologetically makes for a rather uncomfortable and disturbing film at times. This of course is the point, though 2 hours in the company of base human desire is certainly not an easy ride. It should cause the viewer to look at themselves and how they may fit into the social hierarchy. It bypasses our rational excuses for ourselves and holds the truth up to the mirror where we can’t escape. While certain aspects of its presentation and narrative manipulation didn’t always work for me, Sexual Dependency is a powerful, thought-provoking work of cinema and a sobering commentary on this most fundamental part of the human animal.

*****

Next Time

Civil war threatens to tear them apart, but they’ll do whatever it takes to stay together. However, if there’s one thing the Bosnians and the Serbs hate more than each other, it’s homosexuals. The compelling black comedy Go West when World On Film returns.

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