December 17, 2017

Laps: Understanding the female experience as a man

I was 25 when I watched Laps, and it shocked me.

I immediately sent it to some female friends with the question “have you experienced this?” One of them told me it had happened to her the day before. Another told me “I appreciate that you needed to see it like this to understand it, but it’s sad that many men don’t know that this happens, that it isn’t part of any conversations.”

It’s a film that has stayed with me for the last year, and I will probably come back to over and over again.

Shot without any dialogue, or music, and almost exclusively in tight, claustrophobic shots, it is a powerful piece of work that displays how shorts can be used to have an impact, create understanding, and develop a promising voice. And although there are no actual voices in Laps, it is clear that director Charlotte Wells has one we will hopefully be seeing more of.

But why was Laps so shocking to me? If you haven’t already watched it, I urge you to click the link above and let it sink in.

The film is interesting on a number of levels.

First off, Wells quickly establishes her editing and camera technique, preferring to be uncomfortably close to her lead character, played by Thea Brooks, and avoiding a regular rhythm to the cutting. Occasionally we linger on a moment, allowing the tension to build, before cutting away to the loudness of the swimming pool, or the subway carriage bellowing through a station.

Early on the male gaze is also established, but in a subtle way. Brooks swims up to the male swimmer as he waits, tired at the edge of the pool. She acknowledges him, then pushes on, but we stay with him, Wells and editor Blaire McClendon preferring to hold on to see what he does. But he does nothing. He’s spent.

When Brooks gets to the shower, Wells shoots her through a shower rack, with plenty of foreground, almost completely obscuring her face. The room is cold, with muted colours. Away from the openness of the pool she is slightly more vulnerable.

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When the film enters the subway, we’re immersed in quick cutting, using sound and image to create initial confusion as to what’s about to happen. Even taken just as a film relating to underground train travel, it’s powerful. I think many of us have felt a sense of overwhelm or discomfort, especially when we consider the reality of our situation, travelling at 50mph in a metal carriage through underground tunnels packed in with a load of people we don’t know.

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At first she plays a game on her phone, listening to music with red earphones, a signal of the danger approaching. We don’t see the people closest to her, or even her eyes at this point. We as the audience feel we’re on the carriage, and are lost, looking down and not looking for interaction or confrontation.

A male hand appears next to her, tightly clasping the handrail. There’s a wedding ring on the finger. The first sign of a threat.

Without any music, sound effects, or even much of a visual cue, somebody presses up against Brooks. We can hear her breathing heavier, and we see the goosebumps on her neck prick up. He places his arm over hers, then his foot. He’s pressing her in, and we feel it.

She’s being crushed, drowned by what he’s doing. She raises her arm to grasp the ceiling to avoid touching his arm, and her shirt rips under her arm.

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We see the bottom of his face. He seems incredibly calm about what he’s doing, as if he’s not doing anything at all, or he’s done this so many times before that it’s second nature to him.

We cut to an abstract shot of the subway passing through a station, and see an ominous man’s head staring out at us in silhouette. It is unrecognisable and ‘other’, but we feel we know what it signifies.

Occasionally we see other passengers on the subway. They look at us, the camera, with vacant glances. We can’t tell if they’re aware of what’s happening or not. Whether they’re the ignorant or the innocent.

Eventually she makes her escape. She stands on the platform, unmoving. Her arm is beside her head, clasped on her back, presumably where he had been pressing his chest. We see her in a medium shot for the first time in the film, as she processes what’s happened. She’s visibly upset, but nobody stops to ask her what had happened, whether she’s OK. It’s business as usual in the metropolis.

Collecting herself, she makes a decision which surprised me the first time I saw the film. She gets back on. Saddles up and resumes her journey. And this is where the film’s initial scene, title, and its meaning all make sense.

At the start we see her doing laps in the pool. She passes a man who is tired and spent, but she keeps moving.
Keeps doing laps.
At the end of the Subway incident, she forces herself away from the man, takes time, and then resumes what she was going to be doing. She goes back to her laps. Pushing herself on. Being strong.

I showed the film to a group of teenagers I was doing a class with a few months back. The reaction was interesting. I asked them what they thought and how it made them feel. The boys, louder in this class than the girls, immediately voiced their thoughts: “Why didn’t she shout at him?”, “I would’ve kicked him in the balls and run.” Most interesting was that a couple of them didn’t think it was particularly realistic. They hadn’t seen anything like this in person, how common could it really be?

One girl then raised her voice. At 15, she said that while she had never experienced this, she thought it was symptomatic of a wider female experience. She said stuff like this, while not in this exact form, is part of the parcel of being female. That “we’re always dealing with how men treat us.”

I felt that while this blog is on masculinity, this is why it is important to address how we as men go about our lives. Actions affect other people, all the time. Even actions not as big or traumatic as what takes place here.

We can’t worry about them all the time, but while we are a product of all the people around us, they are a product of how we treat them, and by understanding others’ experiences and being empathetic to them, maybe we can become an ounce more gentle, an ounce more respectful, and more understanding to other experiences.

More Work
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First Day Back: Opening the Veins of Bogotá

I write this perched on the fourth floor of an improbably slim restaurant in the La Candelaria area of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital and largest city. On my plate is Calentado, made up of beans, rice, onion, plenty of sausage, and a big fried egg.

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