Written and directed by #DustinGuyDefa
“I guess I felt like that’s what my character would do there.”
During one scene in Dramatic Relationships, in which two actors are asked to repeat a scene due to the female actor’s line delivery, the male actor slaps his acting partner. In this shocking moment that comes completely out of nowhere, Dustin Guy Defa highlights how the control that masculinity has over film sets can make women feel uncomfortable and over step an acceptable working relationship. This behaviour exhibited above is intrinsically damaging, as the actor justifies his actions by suggesting that this is how he believes his character would react. The male gaze and hyper masculinity is explored in a particularly meta way by Defa, as both director of the short film and the director featured within the story.
Dramatic Relationships captures a series of uncomfortable yet realistic moments between a male director and his female actors on set, as he repeatedly interrupts and asserts his dominance in scenes by making micro-adjustments which don’t appear to be necessary, or indeed even revelatory. In one scene a female actor, played by Hannah Gross, is asked to move her hair to be in a certain way, interrupting the scene and meaning she has to repeat her lines. In another scene, a different female actor in the film, played by Lindsay Burdge, is asked to unbutton her shirt a little and to mess up her hair. By highlighting smaller micro-aggressions such as these and larger issues such as slapping, anger and frustration become the main takeaways from watching Dramatic Relationships, as the film explores how pervasive this behaviour can be. The film succeeds in being satirical by positioning the director of the film as complicit in the act while still critiquing it. Defa also positions the male actors as complicit, for example during the slapping scene. The film’s directing style and overall look is very stripped back and realistic, making it easier for the viewer to imagine that these scenes are everyday occurrences. There are no dramatic uses of special effects or music, further grounding this study of masculinity in the real and the everyday.
Defa has since the short film’s release stated that the story is partly inspired by the controversial filming conditions that director Abdellatif Kechiche exploited lead actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos to on the set of the Palme D’Or winning Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013). In the film the male gaze takes centre stage in exploitative and voyeuristic sex scenes. One particular scene took ten days to film and since the film’s release the two leads have expressed openly how horrible the experience was. There are moments in Dramatic Relationships that feel as unnecessarily voyeuristic as those featured in Blue is the Warmest Colour. For example, when Hannah Gross’s character is filmed in the shower and the camera moves over her body in a provocative way. This also applies to the aforementioned example of asking a female actor to expose more flesh by unbuttoning her top. The female actors are realistically hesitant to speak out in Dramatic Relationships, and even when one does fight back her voice is drowned out by the men directing and starring in the scene.
Overall, Dramatic Relationships manages to achieve what it sets out to do, by providing clear examples of the male gaze through a series of moments that instil a feeling of frustration in the viewer. It’s a step in the right direction for film to prove that there is an awareness of this kind of harassment happening on sets. However, I can’t help but feel it’s still a heavily masculine look at the whole issue. It would have been interesting to see this taken even further and for there to be more of a female perspective introduced, perhaps even more from the point of view of the female actors. But, by highlighting some awareness from the male presence in the room, Defa’s direction does examine and critique in a way that the film sets out to and suggests that this kind of behaviour is still very much culturally instilled in filmmaking, as well as the wider world.
Dramatic Relationships is now streaming on YouTube as part of We Are One: A Global Film Festival.