Split Personalities

in 56th Locarno International Film Festival

by Ronald Bergan

The first thing that strikes one about Sexual Dependency is that, except for one sequence, the entire film is shown using a split-screen technique. In a way this aesthetic choice has dominated all discussion of the film, detracting from many of its other qualities, both in style and content.

There have been previous attempts at splitting the screen from as way back as D.W Griffith’s epics and Abel Gance’s Napoleon, which often resorts to multiple images, through to its sporadic use in mainstream Hollywood films such as It’s Always Fair Weather and Pillow Talk, to the more recent Time Code.

But, the 25-year-old Bolivian director Rodrigo Bellott has taken the courageous step of choosing to use the split screen throughout in a consistently inventive way. Initially, it seems to be an arbitrary choice, but gradually one realises that it is wedded to the subject of people split from each other and from themselves. In other words, the split screen is also a dialectical device.

The director explains: ‘I wanted to transgress the oppressive language of a single narrative image and to try and create an audio-visual dialogue that disturbs the complacency of the passive spectator’.

The parallel action sometimes repeats the scene from a different angle or perspective – on the left, a medium shot, on the right a close-up – or it is used to fragment time and space – an action is seen in another location either before or after the action in the twin frame. But all this makes the film sound over-schematic and impenetrable. Nothing could be further from the truth. The realisation of the various interlinked narratives is both lucid and approachable.

The film follows the lives of five young people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds: a girl from a working class family, whose father dominates the family; a 15-year-old Columbian boy forced by his friends to go to a hooker; an upper-class young man goes to study at a US university and finds prejudice; a young black woman student who is gang raped by jocks while walking home alone at night on the campus, and a male model and football star, who is a repressed homosexual.

What comes through these portraits is a powerful exposé of machismo, linked with racism and homophobia. The split screen only enriches the portrayal of the marginalised characters. For example, the black girl has a monologue, or rather, duologue with herself after the rape. Then, in one of the many surprises in the film, turns out to be an actress playing (herself?) in a play called Sexual Dependency. The model, first seen in Bolivia on a poster advertising Calvin Klein-like underwear, crops up as one of the students, who we see in the process of posing for the poster.

Bellott, who was also co-scenarist ando-cinematographer, shows an understanding of the digital camera, which is often used elsewhere as a poor substitution for film. Here, it is part of the texture of the film, giving it an extra vibrancy and immediacy.

Sexual Dependency is the first independent co-production between Bolivia and the USA, and the first to be shot digitally. At the moment, Central and South American cinema seems to be blossoming, and thanks to this film, Bolivia, a country that has produced very few films in its history, can now be added to the other countries providing exciting films on the continent.