QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
Simi (Jakob Fessler) is a quiet and introspective 18-year-old. He loses his virginity to a school friend, in an encounter where the boundaries of consent are deeply blurred. The young woman never resists advances of the young male, even assisting him at taking his clothes off. Yet she never agrees to the sexual interaction with an unequivocal yes, and her body language does suggest that she is scarcely enjoying herself. She mostly lies rigid in bed, while grimacing and avoiding eye contact. Soon the the event goes viral on social media. Every friend and family member seems to have a strong opinion of what happened, and pressurise both young people to act accordingly. What follows is deeply traumatic to both adolescents.
The film opens up with a very unnecessary warning: that it contains an explicit sexual assault and self-harm. The assault is neither graphic nor shocking (even for the standards of young people). The same with the self-harm. You will have seen far more disturbing material many times in other films that do not come labelled as such. Plus this warning also happens to be a major spoiler. Viewers will thus realise that a very vulnerable Simi is about to collapse under the weight of his guilt. He indeed resorts to slashing himself.
Theo (also played by Jakob Fessler, who delivers a very convincing double performance) embodies Simi’s consciousness. Literally. Theo constantly questions, challenges, insults and even assaults Simi. Sometimes he even interacts with his friends. This isn’t a split personality disorder. This is a young man allowing his conflicting sentiments to tussle and eventually to have a constructive conversation with each other. This narrative ruse is both smart and didactic. It will likely resonate with young viewers. Presumably the objective of this film is to educate young people, and it indeed does achieve that.
Simi is eventually charged with rape, but the court finds him not guilty. That’s because Swiss law explicitly mandates that a rape victim verbalise their refusal to engage in sex, with a clear “no” or something to that effect. This film tacitly criticises what many would perceive a legal loophole in the legislation of the Central European nation.
The director deserves credit for investigating the impact of the rape on both sides. The victim confesses that the turmoil that followed the encounter has tortured her just as much as the non-consensual sexual interaction. Simi experiences severe mental health issues. He fails to engage at work and to retain a key family connection. And he becomes unable to perform sexually. By the end of the film, you will sympathise with both young people in equal measures.
The director Damien Hauser, who is just 21 years old and already on his second feature film, has two crystal clear messages to his audiences: rape is rape and it should always be recognised as such; the perpetrator isn’t always a rabid predator, it could be a young and unexperienced person who made a mistake. They should not be punished for life.
Theo: A Conversation With Honesty just premiered at the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Fest as part of the Just Film section (targeted at children and young people). Please read our review of Submission (Leonardo Antonio) for a filthy genius film about the nature of consent (it premiered in Tallinn two years ago).