Protests at screenings of LGBTQ+ films are a common sight in Eastern Europe. Most notably, a screening of the Georgian film And Then We Danced led to violent protests after debuting in Tbilisi cinemas, with arrests and hospitalisations as those hostile to the queer coming of age story burned pride flags on the streets outside. But there are several other cases similar to this; Poppy Field, the directorial debut of Eugen Jebeleanu, is inspired by protests at a Bucharest cinema that shut down screenings of BPM back in 2017 – a homophobic protest so sadly predictable it didn’t even make international headlines.
If BFI Flare (where Poppy Field is set to play, following its recent UK premiere at Glasgow Film Festival) were to have gone ahead as a physical festival this year, it’s likely that the film’s importance would have been overstated. With the narrative predominantly taking place at a queer film festival getting shut down due to homophobic protesters, it’s easy to imagine Poppy Field being written about in terms of why it shows LGBTQ+ film festivals are so culturally important, in the same breathless tone usually reserved for reminding younger queers that “Pride is a protest”. The film is never better than when it hones in on the tension between the festival audiences and the homophobes who have shut the screening down, a timely examination of how the far right will protest any scrap of progressive representation in culture. And yet, it’s to the film’s detriment that when it squares in on the closeted character in the centre of all this, it becomes significantly less interesting – an overly familiar tale of the pressures of the closet that detracts from the more compelling drama happening around it.
Photo © Poppy Field
The story centres on Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer), a closeted police officer who is hiding his relationship with lover Hadi (Radouan Leflahi). Despite their intimacy, the tensions of the closet are piling up, and come to the fore when he is sent with colleagues to control a protest unfolding at a gay film festival. There, he is caught between homophobic protesters, an audience that includes his ex lover, and a group of colleagues to whom he is trying to appear as straight. Needless to say, the evening doesn’t go well.
This central character study is initially less conventional than it winds up being. As Cristi embraces his partner in the lift up to his flat, showing affection the second they get privacy from a conservative outside world, there is a hint that he is comfortable with his sexuality, and that any tensions are from external cultural pressures outside of his personal life. But this is short lived, as all the usual boxes you’d expect from internalised homophobia narratives are ticked, right up to the clunky narrative contrivance of a former lover appearing at the cinema while he’s on the job, threatening his appearance as a straight man. Conrad Mericoffer is at his strongest when he’s merely a silent, reactive presence, thrown into the chaos at the cinema and doing all he can to suppress his own emotions when faced with homophobic protesters citing religion as an excuse for their bigotry. His performance remains as assured when his inner torment spills outward, but is let down by a clunky, cliched screenplay that offers no surprises, the character’s self loathing anger depicted in the most violent outdated cliches of this genre. That Romania produces few LGBTQ+ films is no excuse for this eye rolling predictability – if anything, it’s damning that when given an exciting new cultural context for a character study in this vein, it quickly lapses into familiar cliches.
Photo © Poppy Field
But there are signs of promise in this directorial debut. The initial confrontation in the cinema, as the gendarme enter and observe the clash between cinema goers and unwelcome protesters, unfolds in a naturalistic long take that doesn’t feel obtrusive or self aggrandising in the way so many now do. Instead, it merely centres us within an unfolding argument, observing the heightened frustrations of cinema goers, who are treated with more suspicion than protesters, frequently getting asked for their ID cards while their rivals continue to spew prejudiced nonsense as they obstruct the screen. It’s a stunning sequence, removing the central character from the foreground and instead observing the simmering tensions that have contributed to his self loathing spiral. It’s also exactly why the cliches that follow feel doubly unnecessary, painting such a vivid picture of internalised homophobia without a whiff of exposition, making the need to spell it out clearer for the audience an inevitable letdown.
Poppy Field has a bold idea, but very few moments live up to its promise, with its central character study paling next to the wider cultural commentary left in the margins.
Written by Alistair Ryder
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.