04 April 2016

EKAJ: More Than a Movie

It's not often that I write movie or book reviews, and for good reason: I struggle to come up with meaningful insight that portrays the essence of the medium, and my thoughts and feelings about it, without giving away any spoilers. I was asked to review a new, independent film made by friends of a friend, and I reluctantly agreed.

It has taken me over two weeks to put my thoughts together because I honestly didn't know where to start. The film completely blew me away, in pretty much every aspect. There is just so much I want to say about it ... but I found it difficult to start because I didn't know which of the myriad thoughts floating around in my mind should be brought up first. I also worried about how I could do justice to such an important work of art that does what all great artistic masterpieces do best: provoke and trigger public discourse.

To review the film, I was given a private link where it is hosted on a password-protected server—and no, I'm not giving out that info. You can, however, view the film's trailer:


Ekaj, a film currently touring the festival circuit, is difficult to fit into a single category. It is a profound, educational, and almost surreal examination of life, with specific exposure of issues surrounding LGBT individuals, youth, addiction, homelessness, gender identity, mental illness, suicide, HIV/AIDS, parenting, and poverty, focusing on a lost soul searching for his place in the world.

It has been described as a love story but I disagree with that classification. While love certainly plays a pivotal role in the story, it does so more as an object of desire for which the main character, Ekaj, seeks to find acceptance, companionship, and belonging—in other words, love. Ultimately, the film follows Ekaj on his quest for love in a relationship, and his ability or inability to succeed in his desires is paramount to the angst directing his choices in life.

The decision by director Cati Gonzalez to use "real people" (as opposed to seasoned actors) who parallel the lives of the film's characters offers an unvarnished glimpse into the graphic reality of a subject often talked about only in generalized terms. The window into Ekaj's life we, the viewer, are exposed to is perhaps the most realistic depiction of the brutal plight that far too many in the LGBTQ community—especially our youth—experience: having to survive on the streets after being kicked out of their homes due to being LGBTQ.

A fundamental theme in Ekaj's journey is the questioning of his gender identity and sexuality, his role in society, and what he wants out of life. The underlying question of what direction Ekaj's life will take is prevalent throughout the film, as Ekaj's decisions continue to lead him down divergent, and often damaging, paths in his search to find his place in this world.

The film started after renowned photographer Cati Gonzalez bonded with one of the subjects of her photography, whom she took under her wing. She fondly recalls how this project started:
I wrote the film, inspired by this 15 years old kid, Jake Mestre (who plays the lead character of Ekaj), whom I found on Facebook and thought I could discover as a model. As a Fashion photographer for 20 years, I took some pictures of him and brought him to a modeling agency. He did everything wrong: he'd shave his eyebrows, cut his hair, wear make up, get to appointments late, etc. He never listened, and I would have given up but he had such a beautiful face and was so shy, and I became attached to him. After a year or so, I wanted to write a script to draw attention to the plight of LGBTQ homeless youth, and I thought he could be in the film.
Cati says she shaped the film's characters after people from her life, including friends who had died from AIDS. She then adapted the script to Mestre, who came from the wrong side of the tracks, which has only exacerbated the difficulties he's faced in his short but difficult life.

Her 20-plus year career in photography has usually centered around those who live on the edge, who don’t fit in society's norms or expectations. Perhaps that explains why Cati chose to use Mestre (and others), with whom she'd formed a bond, to portray the characters in the film. But doing so was not easy. She ran into numerous problems with Mestre during the filming: “he was having personal problems as well as issues fitting in but he grew and matured as the filming progressed,” she recalled.

“Jake's confidence grew during the filming, and I served as something of a mentor to him,” Cati says. “We are family now,” she proclaims as would a proud mother, “and one of the goals of this film is to provide hope and assistance to other kids, too.”


Filmmakers Cati and Mike Gonzalez embarked on this project to shine a spotlight on the unwanted, the rejected, the lonely, the discarded, and some of their myriad issues, as well as to give hope to all of the kids who relate to their film.

While not explicit in the dialogue, one of the numerous issues the film deals with is the alarming increase in the number of youth – both teens and young adults – who are contracting HIV today:
“This isn't something that's often discussed because these youth aren't dying from the disease. In a way, however, they feel like the walking dead,” Cati explains. “Their perception is that their lives are ruined because they are forced to rely on a pill for their survival. Yet, current HIV treatments do not guarantee that they will live, and this is a fear they carry with them. As the actor Badd Idea, who plays Mecca, told me once, 'What happens if there is a disaster and I can’t get the pill, what happens then? Do I go back into a bubble?'”
In nearly every respect, the film's goals have been realized. Now, the filmmakers are working on expanding their audience. To that end, a crowdsourced fundraising campaign has been started on Indiegogo to support and pay for costs related to promotion, festivals, screenings, and increasing the film's audience so that the plight of kids like Ekaj, and all of their issues, can be brought to light.


Although there are some resources for these abandoned kids that exist in a handful of major cities with significant LGBTQ populations, such as New York City's True Colors Residence in Harlem  (which is supported by Grammy award-winning vocalist and LGBTQ community icon Cyndi Lauper, through her True Colors Fund) and the Ali Forney Center, such resources are insufficient to meet the demand and needs of this vulnerable and growing population.

More must be done to help our homeless LGBTQ youth, and Ekaj provides an opportunity to show those who can effect such positive change and provide the assistance these kids require why it is crucial to greatly expand and increase the number and level of services that are available to them.

A current schedule of upcoming screenings can be found on their Facebook page, with the next screening taking place at the FILM @ Downtown Urban Arts Festival from 7 – 10 pm this Saturday, April 9, 2016, at the Tribeca Film Center in Manhattan. An after party is being planned in midtown and will be announced on their Facebook page.

If an examination of the naked realities of life for those living in desperate situations, or a look into the search for acceptance and belonging, or following the journey of a lost soul in his quest to find love, or a window into the lives of society's outcasts, or raw, emotionally gut-wrenching storytelling is your thing, this film is a must-see.

Ekaj is more than a movie; it is a groundbreaking exposé of the issues homeless LGBTQ youth face, beautifully told through masterful storycrafting accompanied by visual daggers punctuating the splattered canvas that represents the lives of this film's characters. If you care at all about the plight of homeless LGBTQ youth, you not only should see this film but also donate to the filmmaker's Indiegogo campaign, which will help them promote this amazing work of art and increase its distribution, propelling the plight and issues covered in Ekaj into the public discourse.