In 2012, South Africa-born, Paris-based filmmaker Antony Hickling became the first international guest to visit the International Queer Film Festival Merlinka in Belgrade, Serbia. On that occasion, he presented his short film Little Gay Boy Christ Is Dead. That year marked one of the first editions of Merlinka, and Hickling recalls being surprised at the number of police force in the building where the screenings were held. “Introducing an LGBTQ festival into any city is always a bit iffy,” he reflects. “It can be dangerous, and one has to protect the people and the artists that are involved. We forget sometimes that there are some weird people out there!”
Cut to 2019. Merlinka, which will take place this year from the 5th to the 8th of December, has now become an annual queer cinema highlight event in the Balkan region and is set to honour Hickling with a retrospective of his works up to now. The program will include his recently completed triptych – made up of Little Gay Boy (2013), Where Horses Go to Die (2016) and Frig (2018) – alongside his second overall feature, One Deep Breath (2014).
Some have deemed these movies controversial, particularly because of their potent mix of surrealism and sexuality, as well as the violence of some of their sequences. Equally as problematic to some are its uses of and references to religious symbolism, especially evident in Little Gay Boy, whose young male protagonist, Jean-Christophe, shares the same initials as Jesus Christ. But even this aspect, Hickling insists, is directly linked to his childhood, when he claims he was “very involved in religion. At one point, I even wanted to become a priest.”
Despite some of these responses to his works, the filmmaker claims that it is not his intention to be seen as controversial. “I’ve been telling stories about my personal stuff,” he says. “My films have been totally based on my experiences about coming to terms with myself, about coming to terms with my sexuality. They’re also about emancipation. They’re about freedom. So, if my personal stuff is considered by people as controversial, then I am sorry, but it really happened.”
Whether seen as controversial or not, these films have extensively travelled the globe over the past years and have been screened at numerous international film festivals. For example, over the past six months, the entire triptych has been shown at three different festivals in the country of Brazil alone, where it fuelled debates and discussions particularly apt to the aftermath of the election of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro as its president.
Despite the resonance these films may have in various parts of the globe and on different societies in each of the countries where it was screened, Hickling has consistently remained true to his approach of using his truth as building blocks and his own past experiences as paint pots for his movies. In fact, this may also be the secret of the fundamental universal appeal of his works.
“Up until now, the films I have made have been autobiographical. But they’re hopefully not only that,” he explains. “I’ve used autobiographical elements as starting blocks and I have been working on queer theory, performance art and all these things for years. So, when I started creating, all the paint pots and all the tools were from all these years of research and work and study and performance art and everything else. And it was all related to sexuality – my sexuality.”
Hickling sees his journey to becoming a filmmaker as a very clear path, which began with his training as an actor and continued with his university studies in the arts of the stage in both England and France, where he eventually moved and is currently based. While studying in Manchester, two events occurred that had a profound impact on the course of his life: a meeting with Nenagh Watson, a fellow at Central School of Speech and Drama who taught challenges to naturalism module, and his introduction to the works of acclaimed and deeply influential filmmaker Derek Jarman.
“Because I was training as an actor, there was a lot of practical work. So, I started to move into performance art, even though I was still doing classical theatre.” It was Watson who gave Hickling the first camera with which he began to film his performance art and snippets of the first of these films are featured on Frig. For Hickling, the inclusion of this footage was symbolic. “It’s as if I was telling myself, ‘Okay, I’ve said what I needed to say about what I went through. It’s done.’”
By the fourth year studying for his degree at the Arden School of Theatre, Hickling had definitely started to focus on film. “I’d always been interested in cinema and when I came to France, I wanted to get involved in cinema,” he recalls. “That was my objective. But I thought I would be an actor in cinema. That’s what I thought I wanted. With time, I realized that I am not interested in acting, even though I’m still acting. What I’m really interested in is creating and directing.”
As it turns out, there was quite a lot he had to say. On Little Gay Boy, for instance, he revisits the times when as a young man, he was abused by photographers who wanted more than to take a couple of snapshots of him. Despite this, he insists that his filmmaking is not part of a personal psychoanalytic investigation on the significance of his life events. On the contrary, he claims that if he had not dealt with his past and not put his demons to rest, “I would not have been able to make that work; I would not have been able to create what I have created,” he explains. “I had dealt with all the stuff I needed to deal with. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to create because I would have been too close to it to use it in my work.”
Nonetheless, for some people, parts of his films remain quite uncomfortable and confrontational. “Some people can’t stand that. They can’t stand the violence. But it’s like Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty or Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre of Death. Or the works of Francis Bacon, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Marquis de Sade, Pier Paolo Pasolini… All of these people. It’s about life and death and, primarily, about sexuality. Up until now, all my works have dealt with that. All of them.”
In the beginning, the harshness of these films, complete with their aforementioned surrealist edge, made things difficult. Nobody seemed interested in screening them, deeming them as too controversial. Some even called them homophobic and Hickling recalls, “I was criticized not only by the straight community but also by the gay community. But I think that as the work started being shown and selected, people started to re-look and re-think.”
Indeed, this retrospective in Merlinka is only the latest in a long line of acknowledgements of the fact that Hickling’s works have indeed had an impact on many of those who have dared to venture into his world. That, for Hickling, is reason enough to be proud of what he has achieved and what he has done. “I haven’t got a penny from these movies but I’ve done exactly what I wanted,” he declares. “People initially thought these films came out of nowhere. But I’ve spent eleven years at university and even had to learn another language. I could have made nice movies with nice stories but that’s not my job. My job is to push myself to the limit in order to move things forward.”
Hickling sees the triptych as a first chapter in his filmmaking oeuvre and, as Frig marks the end of this chapter, the director looks eager to embark on a new part of his career where he looks to approach projects from a more traditionalist standpoint that is more closely linked with his past training as a stage actor. “I decided I wanted to attack text because I want to work with actors in a more traditional sense,” he explains. “But also because it’s something that is already part of who I am. It’s something that I wasn’t interested in for some time but now I am interested in again.”
He reveals that he is also going back to acting and will even play the lead role in one of the upcoming three films that he has outlined – the first of which he will start shooting on February. Much like Pasolini, Hickling too appears to be drawn to trilogies as markers for testing new styles and approaches for telling stories via the cinematic artform. That is why, as he is set on embarking on a new creative period in his life, he allows, “Who knows? After that, I might go back to some crazy-who-knows-what!”