’Not your average show about rape, female bodies, feminism, and the male gaze’ in which Finnish-Egyptian filmmaker and performance artist Samira Elagoz takes us on a journey across three continents, in a ‘personal research project’ to encounter (male) strangers in Berlin, Havana, New York, Tokyo and numerous other places. The encounters are of a sexual nature, and/or are ciné vérité style interviews, and/or turn the camera on men who are keen to show off their skills and attributes. There is also footage of her family members and friends. This material is presented to us as a mash-up of (often shaky) footage filmed on a smartphone, slightly better quality video, and screenshots, this all interspersed with live – although rather deadpan and unemotional, so she feels very ‘unalive’ and disconnected a lot of the time – commentary and reflection from the artist.

So, what’s it all about, Alfie? The story begins in 2005, when Elagoz was raped (‘force fucked’ he calls it) by her then-boyfriend. Samira (Sam to her friends) tells us that she couldn’t even think about it for ages, but on the one-year ‘rape anniversary’, as she names it, she starts to interview friends and family – sometimes specifically about the rape, but more generally about how they perceive her. Was she ‘asking for it’? Does she look like she’s ‘up for it’ ? The answers, from people near and dear to her, are pretty disturbing. One close male friend points out that although she is encumbered with the problem of being ‘liked too much’ he on the other hand is not getting any because no one wants him. Where to start with this analysis of rape? His views are just left there with us, unchallenged. And this is one aspect of the piece that I like: people just damn themselves, without commentary. Her mother has been told about the rape, and is suitably broken-hearted and concerned. Her father isn’t told, and the only footage of him shows him reading Arabic poetry in a massively untidy den or study, in which books and other possessions are piled up in heaps around him. Nero fiddling whilst Rome burns? My words not hers: again, Samira just leaves that one with us. No comment.

Having met her family and friends, we dive down the rabbit hole with her to begin a journey into the dark underworld of internet dating and sexual encounters – a journey that takes her across the world over four or five years, as (via Craigslist and other sites) she meets strangers and explores the gendered power dynamics of sexuality, turning the male gaze back on itself with her phone in hand and her winning smile.

There’s a lot of humour: I particularly like a video montage section called ‘skills’ in which men she meets impress her with their talents. My favourite is a muscle-bound fire-staff spinner on a roof who forgets to bring up a bucket of water to douse his flames (this could be a metaphor). Men show off their cocks, demonstrate their dance skills, fiddle with Shibari ropes whilst explaining that being God’s gift to women is about a lot more than liking pussy, and – most interestingly – talk eloquently about dominating women as an exchange of equals who agree what they want and how they want it. This Fifty Shades / Story of O guy is the one whose words give the most food for thought. In particular, the BDSM question and how issues of sadism (in men) and masochism (in women) relate to feminism. Every hip, liberal, modern person pays lip service to the notion that what happens between two consenting adults is their affair. But somehow, BDSM within gay relationships, or the Venus in Furs scenario of dominant female, submissive male, feel far easier to deal with as a feminist than the male sexual domination of women – which somehow feels a bit too much like everyday life for my taste!

We then learn that Elagoz was raped again, whilst in Tokyo – and again,  the perpetrator is a person she knows rather than a stranger. So despite all the ‘stranger danger’ worries of internet-driven encounters, the statistical fact – that when women are raped it is usually by men they know – is manifest here. This brings us to a rather odd section of the show, in which two Japanese actors emerge from the audience to act out the post-rape interrogation scene in a Tokyo police station, using a crash-test dummy sat on a chair. I really don’t understand this scene and why it is in the show – it is in such a completely different performance mode, moving us away from the documentary storytelling into something more ‘theatrical’ in the worst sense of that word.

The piece ends with a rather brilliant piece of video footage featuring Sam, her mother, and her grandmother – and the family dog (‘she’s also a woman’ says the grandmother, of the dog). The women of the family are united. The men are absent. The message seems to be: ultimately, it’s the women who are going to have to work together to do something about rape.

This is an odd show to try to evaluate critically. On the one hand, when people lay themselves on the line, exposing stories of traumas such as rape, how can you say anything critical? On the other hand, they have chosen to make art out of life, so fair game.

So, here goes with the reservations: I don’t like a lot of things about the show, but I am aware that there is a disconnect – I find some of the material about internet dating and sexualised social media imagery disturbing and worrying. There’s a whole world out there I know nothing about, and am glad to know nothing about. I worry about the artist’s choice to throw herself into this world. It feels like an acting out of her distresses – and I just want to shout, ‘stop, just see what you’re doing!’ But she has stopped. This is in the past. So OK, I’ll let that one go.

I can’t decide if I like the amateur-hour shaky footage / low production values. Again, it’s part of (or, at least, referencing) the modern world of dodgy reality shows, cheap TV dramas, video blogs etc. that isn’t my milieu. I’m aware I’m probably just not the right demographic to appreciate the irony of the presentation style (if it is irony).

I can’t quite work out the low-key performance mode – she is far more live and alive on screen than in person. I end up concluding that this is, in essence, a five-year art/documentary film project, not a show – and perhaps screen is her best medium. Looking her up, I’ve noted that she has made an award-winning film called Craigslist Allstars, using some of the same material, and I’m interested in seeing how that works.

Samira Elagoz won a Total Theatre Award at Edinburgh Fringe 2018 in the Emerging Artist category. I think we may well see vindication of that decision in future work – but possibly in film rather than theatre (although she has trained as a choreographer at the renowned School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam, so perhaps there is more in there to emerge). Should she, some time in the future, want to make something that is more of a show, rather than a showing of the outcomes of a longterm art/ film project, she would ideally seek someone else’s input – a dramaturg or director to collaborate with, to shape the raw material into something cooked. But that is perhaps not what interests her. On her website she says: ‘I aim to view my life as cinematic, as material to be manipulated, to see reality as both subjective and malleable. Hoping to capture and form reality into a work that is unsettling and encourages discussion of an audience’s own ethics and intimacy.’

Well, she certainly achieved that – the show sparked a lively impromptu discussion in the bar afterwards, and a day later it is right at the front of my mind, the questions it raises niggling away. That’s something! And also to note that I like it much more 24 hours after seeing it than I did in the moment…

 

Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer working in theatre, dance, live art and street arts. Under her alter-ego Dorothy’s Shoes she creates performance work that both honours and usurps the traditions of popular dance and theatre, and plays with the relationship between performer and audience. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She is also co-director of street theatre/dance company The Ragroof Players.

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