Acting Out: "In Camera" by Naqqash Khalid
The winner of the critics‘ prize in the International Competition at Thessaloniki Film Festival 2023 is a highly original, stylish satire of millennial life. At the same time, it impresses as a portrayal of the frustrating struggle for artistic recognition by young people of colour in Britain. The jury applauds the film’s assured surrealist style and darkly comedic observations on precarious life at the margins of the entertainment industry.
Aden (Nabhaan Rizwan) is a young actor trying to make his way in the entertainment industry, but things aren’t looking great. In Camera’s opening shot depicts him lying lifelessly in a pool of blood – fake blood, of course, but his role as a murder victim in a generic TV crime show still clearly demonstrates that his career is not going anywhere yet. The film initially follows its protagonist from unsuccessful audition to unsuccessful audition – a toothpaste commercial, an irrelevant TV pilot, and so on. Again and again, Aden is lined up in drab office spaces with numerous other young men of similar height, age, and skin colour. Then, the casting director appears like an almost God-like figure, picking one of them seemingly at random for the next selection round.
Khalid depicts these recurring situations as a series of humiliations with a surrealist touch. He achieves a very delicate balance in these scenes: while they often appear as utterly preposterous and grim, they nevertheless ring of true, lived experiences. We are inevitably reminded, for example, of the viral audition video shared last year by actor Lukas Gage,where a director made disparaging comments about “these people living in tiny apartments”, not realising his microphone was on. Aden, too, lives in a small shared flat with two other young professionals: an unnamed junior doctor and Conrad (Amir El-Masry), who works in a fashion start-up. Again, Khalid perfectly captures the strange mood between familiarity and anonymity that comes with living in shared flats as an older millennial: while the young men have dinner together and share polite small talk, they also seem utterly alone and isolated.
This is further underlined by the film’s distinct style which combines the impersonal coldness of its non-descript urban space with vivid, surrealist dream sequences. The electronic score by composer Clark calls to mind Mica Levi’s disturbing sound spheres for films like Under The Skin by Jonathan Glazer. His name appears as a clear influence on this impressive debut in that Khalid similarly engages with the lived realities of contemporary Britain without adopting the realist style British cinema is known for. Instead, he opts for a subtle heightening or “making strange” of reality which can drift from the comic to the horrific in a matter of seconds. The most memorable example for this is a brilliantly acted scene in which Aden is hired by a wealthy couple to “act” as their deceased son in a misguided attempt at radical therapy. What begins almost as a dark comedy sketch, ends in sheer and utter dread.
These tonal complexities work to a large degree thanks to Nabhaan Rizwan who delivers a brilliantly nuanced performance. His skills become especially prominent in the film’s second half, where Aden begins to emulate the demeanour of his boisterous flatmate Conrad in order to do better in auditions. Rizwan’s transformation from shy and withdrawn to a suave show-off is both funny and disturbing. This is also where the film explores its central themes of identity and precarity in a most convincing way.
We are reminded of an earlier conversation in which Conrad optimistically referred to his and Aden’s shared identity as young men of colour: “This is our time… we are the new currency now!” Yet, as Aden’s succession of humiliating failures at auditions clearly demonstrate, this is not the case. In the aftermath of campaigns for more diversity in the film industry such as #OscarsSoWhite and others, not much appears to have changed. Aden’s eventual success seems to be mostly due to his resigned acceptance of performance, selection, and evaluation as a permanent, twenty-four-hour condition in neoliberal capitalism. The film thereby transcends its niche relevance for the film industry and will feel familiar to young viewers in most professions. It makes sharp satirical comments on the intersection of class and race in a country that, despite currently having a prime minister of Indian descent, still has a long way to go towards equality.
© FIPRESCI 2023
Edited by Savina Petkova