Outside of documentaries, the Syrian refugee crisis is yet to become a major subject in arthouse cinema, but its impact is beginning to be keenly felt by LGBT filmmakers. People arriving from a country with a hostile attitude towards gay people can find themselves struggling to fit in when arriving in a more welcoming environment, feeling displaced from the community in which they belong due to having to hide who they are for so long. This was already explored in the under appreciated 2017 film A Moment in the Reeds, but German director Kai Kreuser is approaching the subject from a considerably less romantic perspective.
Label Me is aptly titled, asking the audience to analyse the bruised emotional state of its Syrian protagonist, demanding he be defined in a way he stubbornly refuses to. Although nominally a gay for pay hustler, Waseem (Renato Schuch) has complicated feelings with regards to his own sexuality, succumbing to outbursts of random violence and verbal homophobia every time he gets close to realising a version of himself that doesn’t conform to the values he was raised with. Kreuser’s film is a bruising reminder that living in a tolerant country doesn’t count for much when you’ve been raised with self loathing deeply engrained in your DNA. The running time may only be an hour, but the emotionally brutal nature of the character study lingers for much longer.
Waseem seems detached from his chosen line of work; he opts to make money having sex with men, but appears repulsed if it deviates from his own strict criteria. Kissing is obviously off the menu, and there’s a stark revulsion towards bottoming, but then he also displays a performative disgust at the end of most hook ups, struggling to conceal the nagging truth that he reserves most of his loathing for himself. This feeling only heightens when he meets Lars (Nikolaus Benda), an affluent man who becomes a regular customer, but eventually starts giving money purely in the hope of forcing Waseem to get out of his comfort zone. But when he’s still living in accommodation shared with other immigrants, whose views on homosexuality appear to track far to the right, allowing himself these sexual freedoms proves to be a hurdle he can’t jump across.
Label Me is Kreuser’s graduate film, produced upon completion of studies at the Cologne International Film School. Many graduate films make their way out of the lecture theatres and into film festivals, but his is the rare case where you wouldn’t be aware of its academic origins if you weren’t informed, as this is an assured, powerful debut that grapples with topics it’s safe to assume are out of the director’s comfort zone. He manages to get inside Waseem’s head without reducing him to stereotype, or attributing his self destructive, self loathing worldview to a presumed religious upbringing – which is all the more impressive when you consider the director has spent his entire life in Cologne, and could have easily opted for something more relatable to his own life as a debut feature. He’s made a rich character study that feels authentic, which for a first time filmmaker refusing to remain within his comfort zone, is not an inconsiderable achievement.
Condensing a rich, complex character study into a mere hour is no easy task, and to achieve this with a debut is even more impressive. Label Me marks Kai Kreuser as a director to watch out for.