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28/09/2021
The Call (2020) by Marios Psaras

In the 1960s, when television entered the majority of US households and became a ubiquitous cultural force, professor of communication George Gerbner developed cultivation theory to examine the medium’s influence on its viewers.[1] Within fictional worlds, he argued, ‘representation’ is vital, because it ‘signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation’ (1972). Although cultivation theory has been criticised on both methodological and conceptual grounds (Hughes 1980; McQuail & Windahl 1993; Potter 1994), its engagement with the effects of representations paved the way for screen scholarship to examine how media in general have at different times and in different places favoured or erased particular topics or people from public consciousness. Indeed, research conducted within different disciplines has quantitatively and qualitatively described culture media products’ treatment of women and black, gay, lesbian and, relatively recently, transgender persons.

Despite its sinful past, contemporary American media culture has now ushered in a golden age where transgender characters and storylines, and discussions concerning transgender issues have become more and more prominent (Zamantakis & Sumerau 2019). In the film industry, for instance, films like Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999),The Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, 2013), Pierrot Lunaire (Bruce LaBruce, 2014), The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015) and Moxie (Amy Poehler, 2021) have brought representations of transgender characters, lives and possibilities from the margins to the mainstream while claiming significant awards at film festivals.[2] Although the mainstream anglophone film industry typically constitutes the unwritten canon against which researchers (myself included) assess other national cinemas and search for their political potential, we must not assume that interesting representations of trans experiences are present only in mainstream feature films. Nor should we assume that transgender representations must be ‘revolutionary’, ‘unapologetic’ and ‘transgressive’ to matter. Instead, we must bear in mind that cultural texts do not exist in a vacuum; thus, context is key in understanding and assessing a country’s screen cultures and representational politics. The new short film The Call by Marios Psaras is a tough yet timely reminder of that kind.[3]

Inspired by Jean Cocteau’s monodrama La voix humaine/ The Human Voice (1958), the story of The Call revolves around a phone call that a trans woman (Nektarios Theodorou) receives from her brother. During the call, she learns that her mother had been hospitalised for two months (presumably due to a chronic illness) but has now passed away and is about to be interred. The purpose of the call is nominally to inform the protagonist about her mother’s upcoming funeral but mainly to negotiate the terms and conditions of her attendance. This review explores thematic, cinematic, and intertextual elements that emerge from the film.

An important dimension of The Call’s storytelling is its cinematic techniques and aesthetics. The film begins with a pitch-black scene; running water as in a bathroom is heard in the background. This generates in viewers confusion and anticipation for what is to follow. This sequence runs for about twenty seconds, and then the camera provides a view of the interior of a house. The audience sees a wall directly in front of it with a limited perspective of a room in the background.

With the opening credits, the protagonist exits from what we assume is a bathroom and enters the room viewers can partially see. She moves to the wardrobe, checks her clothes and tries some of them on in front of the mirror without wearing them. The first and only dialogue occurs after a minute, as the character, whose name is never revealed, picks up the phone and talks to a family member named Yorgos. Although his words on the other side of the line remain unknown, viewers get a sense of their interaction through the protagonist’s verbal responses and manoeuvring. When the main character first hears the news about her mother, she moves to bed thus preventing the camera from capturing her entire figure. The more information she receives about her mother’s loss, the more upset she becomes, pacing up and down the room and visiting blind spots that the camera cannot capture. Gradually, the otherwise static camera frame introduced in the beginning is replaced by closer shots of the room that invite viewers to better examine the protagonist’s personal space and reactions. The character’s constant movement inside the room, the emotional ups and downs and the yelling directed at her brother come to an end in the last minute of the film when the protagonist lies exhausted on her bed in the fetal position and bursts into tears.

Through its ten-minute scene, The Call concentrates on the emotional responses of a trans woman who has experienced the loss of her mother. At the same time, the social elements of being transgender are recognisable as the film’s underlying impetus. Psaras’s work succeeds at illuminating the trans experience from multiple angles: ambiguous family relations, rejection, shame, verbal harassment and social barriers are themes that may affect transgender persons’ lives in different parts of the world and prevent their effective involvement in social and cultural life. Yet, despite the applicability of the film’s themes to various social contexts, Psaras’s incorporation of the Cypriot language throughout the entire short is an intentional choice – one that aims to discuss and criticise Cypriot society’s relationship with gender diversity. For those familiar with the relevant academic literature, this film provides a basic understanding of what it means to be trans and Cypriot in a society that conforms to the gender binary; the institutional challenges experienced by trans people in the public realm (Kamenou 2020); and the community’s need/obligation to escape oppression by moving abroad (Onoufriou 2009). Although no real solutions or closures are provided, Psaras’s work appears to communicate with another short that was produced in Greece in 2017 by allowing us to imagine some of its possible endings. More specifically, Dimitris Katsimiris’s Mama, gyrisa/Mum, I’m back) follows a trans woman (Eva Koumarianou) as she travels back to her place of birth and walks back in a graveyard to say a last goodbye to her mother. Exploring notions of normality, the film uses the protagonist’s transgenderism and female clothing as an opportunity to test the limits of heteronormativity. Unlike The Call, however, Katsimiris’s film places the trans subject in the distinctive public space of a funeral and makes us witness the brutal treatment that deviant bodies may endure. When The Call and Mum, I’m back are viewed together (in that order), the films appear to serve as a ‘before’ and ‘after’ sequence of events. The former foreshadows one of the futures that Psaras’s trans character may have experienced if she decided to attend her mother’s funeral.

Much like its non-glittery ending, The Call is direct and honest in what it means to convey. It raises the topic of trans lives, experiences and representation up for conversation. Even the selection of a cisgender actor to play the role of a trans character is one that opens possibilities for academic and non-academic debates. All in all, Psaras’s The Call, besides a call between two family members, becomes a powerful piece of trans screen representation and, simultaneously, a call to individual and collective awakening and contemplation of gender and sexual diversity in Cyprus and beyond.

Bibliography

Fries, S. (2014), 'Don't Applaud Jared Leto's Transgender 'Mammy', TIME, https://time.com/10650/dont-applaud-jared-letos-transgender-mammy/

Gerbner, G. (1972), ‘Violence in Television Drama: Trends and Symbolic Functions’, in G. Gerbner, G. Comstock & E. Rubinstein (eds), Media Content and Control: Television and Social Behavior, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 28-187.

Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980), ‘The “Mainstreaming” of America: Violence Profile No. 11’, Journal of Communication, 30(3), pp. 10–29.

Grant, C. (2015), 'Regressive, Reductive and Harmful: A Trans Woman’s Take On Tom Hooper’s Embarrassing ‘Danish Girl’, IndieWire, https://www.indiewire.com/2015/12/regressive-reductive-and-harmful-a-trans-womans-take-on-tom-hoopers-embarrassing-danish-girl-213499/

Hughes, M (1980), ‘The Fruits of Cultivation Analysis: A Reexamination of Some Effects of Television Watching’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 44 (3), pp. 287–302.

Kamenou, N. (2020), ‘When one doesn't even exist’: Europeanization, trans* subjectivities and agency in Cyprus’, Sexualities, 0 (0), pp. 1-23.

McQuail, D. & S. Windahl (1993), Communication Models for the Study of Mass Communication, London: Longman.

Onoufriou, A. (2009), ‘Proper masculinities’ and the fear of feminisation in modern Cyprus: university students talk about homosexuality and gendered subjectivities’, Gender and Education, 22 (3), pp. 263-277.

Potter, W. J. (1994), Cultivation Theory and Research: A Methodological Critique, Columbia: Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Zamantakis, A., & J. E. Sumerau (2019), ‘Streaming Transgender: Visualizing Continuity and Change in Transgender Media Representations’, in J. E. Sumerau (ed.), Gender and Pop Culture, Leiden: Brill, 25-42.


Notes

[1] Cultivation theory began as a communications and sociological framework to assess how repeated exposure to violence through television may affect children and their ways of making sense of the world. The theory's main proposition is that ‘the more time one spends “living” in the world of television, the more likely one is to report perceptions of social reality which can be traced to (or are congruent with) television’s most persistent representations of life and society’ (Gerbner et al. 1980: 14).

[2] Eddie Redmayne, who starred as the female protagonist Elbe in The Danish Girl, was nominated at the 73rd Golden Globe Awards, and Jared Leto won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013). However, both films and their protagonists have received mixed reviews from audiences and sparked intense controversy over cisgender actors’ right (or lack thereof) to play transgender roles and the way trans experiences have been displayed onscreen (Fries 2014; Grant 2015).

[3] Filmmaker and film scholar Marios Psaras was born in Cyprus but lives in London. He holds a PhD in Film Studies from Queen Mary University of London and is the author of the monograph The Queer Greek Weird Wave: Ethics, Politics and the Crisis of Meaning (2016). He is the artistic director of Cyprus Short Film Day (London) and a member of the preselection committee of the National Competition section of the International Short Film Festival of Cyprus. Prior to The Call, Psaras directed three other short films (Close to You [2009], On the Rooftop [2010] and An-Other love [2011]) as well as the documentary Thin Green Line (2017).


 
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