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Kalel, 15

HIV-positive teen grapples with a dysfunctional family and society, in this extremely bleak yet sobering drama from the Phillipines - live from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM THE TALLINN BLACK NIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL

At the age of just 15, Kalel (Elijah Canlas) does not have it easy. He has to face a very premature adulthood. He drinks, he smokes, he takes heavy drugs, he has a girlfriend, he has to contend with violent thugs at school, plus a witchy mother and careless sister at home, in a busy lower middle-class neighbourhood somewhere in the Philippines. Plus, he has been diagnosed with HIV.

This is a harsh and cruel society almost entirely devoid of altruism. No one is supportive of Kalel. His tactless father – who happens to be the local priest – asks whether he has been “bum-fucked”. His mother is far more concerned about her well-endowed new lover, a married a man called Mon. His sister is also devoted to her new boyfriend. Screaming, slapping, punching and menacing body language are the main currency, even at home. Gestures of affection are few and far between.

The institutions are equally broken. The nun at his Catholic school endorses violence, while the local doctor does little more than offer ointment for treating the skin rashes that are quickly spreading all over Kalel’s body. Most Westerners will know that these are symptoms of full-blown Aids, yet both Kalel and his doctor seem unaware of the gravity of the disease. Antiretroviral therapy is nowhere to be seen. At the end of the movie, we learn that the number of people infected with HIV in the Philippines has grown by 170% between 2010 and 2017. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of people remain undiagnosed because they fear the widespread and overwhelming stigma associated with the disease. This is a society unprepared and downright unwilling to support the most vulnerable people.

The movie is never concerned whether Kalel is indeed gay and how he became infected. That’s entirely irrelevant to the narrative.

Jun Roble Lana’s 15th feature was clearly made on a shoestring budget. The images are black and white and the frame is a very unusual square (instead of the more conventional 16:9 and 5:4). This is not a handicap. In fact, the movie is teeming with spontaneity and frankness. It’s also profoundly disturbing, and there is no message of hope. It does, however, successfully raise awareness of a very disturbing phenomenon. While HIV infections are under control in most of Europe, there is a very fast-growing epidemic in this Asian nation.

Kalel, 15 is showing in Competition at the 23rd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. A very audacious addition. DMovies are live at the event as special guests.


By Victor Fraga - 29-11-2019

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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