After establishing herself as an award-winning fashion and street photographer, New York-based Cati Gonzalez is now delving into the world of film. Her first venture with the medium is the award-winning, Ekaj. The writer-director’s experience as a street photographer is palpable in this crime drama about two gay Puerto Rican men in New York. While both are eagerly trying to survive amongst the city’s ruthlessness, their age difference offers an enthralling dynamic between two strong souls at different stages of their lives.
The titular character Ekaj (Jake Mestre) is an androgynous sixteen-year-old who looks every bit a classic rock star, from the skinny jeans and leopard print to the 70s Jagger haircut. Despite this seemingly extravagant persona, the teenager is trapped within toxic relationships: from his father who would rather accept his plight with crime and drug addiction than his homosexuality, to his emotionally and physically abusive boyfriend Johnny (Scooter LaForge). A harsh reality faced by a great number of LGBTQ+ youth, Ekaj faces homelessness, hunger, rape, and loneliness. In order to get by, he resorts to prostitution, further positioning him in the hands of danger.
The teenage vagabonds yearn for a loving and meaningful relationship is resolved by an unexpected meeting with Mecca (Badd Idea), an older New York hustler who lives each day with spontaneity and abandon, undeterred by his ongoing battle with AIDS. Mecca takes Ekaj under his wing and does his best in guarding and taking care of the vulnerable teenager. Together, they steal to get by, and bond over shared experiences – their escapades are captivating and, at times, comical. Despite their unquestionable chemistry, the loving friendship between the two drifters does not develop into romance. Mecca admits he would have wanted a deeper relationship with Ekaj if they ‘met a long time ago’, further confessing that he does not want to make Ekaj ‘sick’.
The non-professional actors inhabit their characters seamlessly. Most notably, Jake Mestre and Badd Idea prove themselves as equal forces to the uncompromising nature of the city – which Gonzalez establishes as a character in itself through montage sequences featuring the streets and its people. The relationship between Ekaj and Mecca encapsulates the very best of humanity: the forming of strong bonds amidst danger and uncertainty, turning unfortunate circumstances as a flaunt of unwavering resistance.
The film’s noticeably low production value emphasises the gritty, documentary-like feel of the film which, again, alludes to Gonzalez’ background in street photography. This emphasis on realism and vérité never really feels intrusive, rather it highlights the director’s empathy and compassion towards the characters and their complex situation.
At times, the story feels rushed and disorientating but when gauging the film as a whole, it fits somewhat perfectly; it offers an unpredictable glimpse into the world of those overlooked by the mainstream. Like the film’s protagonists know all too well, life in the city does not wait or stop for anyone, so neither should they.
Gonzalez’ feature debut is an empathetic and up-close portrait of two strong, wandering souls in the hustle and bustle of New York City – its rawness and honesty a reminder of the power and importance of independent film-making. While the low production values of the film may come across jarring at first, it morphs itself as another entry into the world Gonzalez manages to encapsulate in just 80 minutes.
EKAJ is streaming on Amazon Prime as a part of the Outfest Festival Favourite selection.
by Graciela Mae
Graciela Mae is a Filipina studying Film, Television and Digital Production at Royal Holloway, University of London. When she’s not watching films, she’s probably attempting to make films herself. She swears she has other hobbies. Her favourite movies include Rushmore, Cléo from 5 to 7, 20th Century Women, and Carol. You can find her on twitter: @notgracielamae