IFFR ’20: ‘Red Ants Bite’ Does a Lot With Little

Elene Naveriani’s Red Ants Bite was shown at IFFR alongside a collection of shorts in the strand ‘Redefining Guidelines’. Naveriani’s short was markedly successful in the collection in its account of unrelenting ostracisation. Red Ants Bite follows two Nigerian men, Obinna (George Imo Obasi) and Afame (Donald Acho Nwokorie), as they navigate Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The city is sleepy, but an imminent hostility pervades. The men are clearly unwelcome as racialised outsiders. They are in constant motion and as day turns to night it is apparent that it is too dangerous for them to settle. Obasi has laboured the urgency of the film: “I have already lost a friend, a brother, because of poor hospital care because he was black. I would not like to have to sit down and find out who will be the next one missing at the table. It is essential that this film be made now.”

There is a remarkable tenderness to Red Ants Bite as the film endeavours to endow the men with the humanity their surroundings deny them. As the short meanders through Tbilisi alongside Obinna and Afame, it reveals an urgent and binding relationship. Naveriani makes it clear that the men have no home in Georgia; Tbilisi seems to actively reject the duo. Obinna and Afame are held separate from surrounding discourse and, instead their understanding of Tbilisi comes filtered down through overheard conversations. In the zoo, a child asks her mother why zebras have stripes, a question the men repeat amongst themselves after the family are out of earshot. Naveriani includes recurring shots of screens and old video broadcasts. In this way the audience’s experience of Georgia is similarly mediated and second hand. A recurring video image is that from a news report about a flood which caused animals’ enclosures in a zoo to burst. Grainy television footage flicks through images of a distressed hippopotamus in the street, then a dead leopard among flotsam and uprooted trees. Naveriani labours Georgia’s in hospitability. However, the animals’ inclusion is uncomfortable.

It is clear we are meant to find similarities between the two men and the animals in distress. Both groups are struggling, lost in a dangerous environment. However, this is lazy storytelling which reinforces racist clichés which ask us to envision black people as ‘the exotic’. The beginning of the film figures the men so vehemently as outsiders they seem to have just arrived in Tbilisi. It is surprising then when it is revealed that Obinna has a Georgian partner and a young daughter. Naveriani makes it clear that no matter how long the men reside in the country, it will not accept them, even with a Georgian daughter Obinna is an outsider. 

Much of Naveriani’s work has dealt with these relationships on the fringes. Les Évangiles d’Anasyrma, or The Gospel of Anasyrma (2014) follows a young Georgian man, living in the suburbs of Tbilisi, who falls in love with Amaia (Bianca Shigurova), a trans woman. One of the opening shots of Les Évangiles d’Anasyrma sees Amaia trudging in a blue night towards the camera. A car drives alongside her before eventually pulling away. In this brief moment Naveriani captures a surveillance vibrating with both threat and fetishization. This overbearing hostility hovers over much of Red Ants Bite too. This surveillant presence permeates the piece even when the couple are entirely alone. In one scene the men enter a lift in Obinna’s building, Afame holding Obinna’s sleeping daughter to his chest. In the lift, they take it in turns to look at each other; whilst one man is looking the other hangs his head knowingly. In this extended moment, as the lift whirs downward, Obinna and Afame seek to consume each other. However, their gazes do not connect; despite the lift being in Obinna’s home, it is clear they have no ownership of the space. The couple refusing to give themselves up even when alone, each movement is planned and conducted with the hostility of surveillance in mind. Despite this, there is an overwhelming tenderness in the moment, as the men smirk as if they have covertly outsmarted their surroundings.

Travis Alabanza has previously written on the systemic dissolution of black queer identities. They write “Colonisation flattens out histories and possibilities. Representation is minimal for black people in this country [the UK], and is often very repetitive. Racism continues to present us as two-dimensional versions of who we are. But also, if I’m completely honest, history and the present had never shown me explicitly that the two could exist: That you could be both Black- and in whatever way- not straight.” Alabanza writes with a British context in mind, but their words can be fruitfully applied to Naveriani’s film. The urgency of the film is given a new weight when we consider Obasi’s comment alongside Alabanza’s article. Indeed, preceding the scene in the lift is a shot of Tbilisi’s cityscape at night, punctuated by the incessant ringing of police sirens. We are reminded of Obasi’s comment on the urgency of the piece. Being both black and queer, the men are doubly under threat. These moments of affection are poignant and vital; Obinna and Afame compromise and accept what they can of each other. 

In both Red Ants Bite and Les Évangiles d’Anasyrma, Naveriani allows her characters some respite on the banks of a river. Amaia bathes naked; first with her back to the camera, turning over her shoulder to look back at her lover. However, she comes closer, facing the camera naked, open and vulnerable. There is no spectacle made of her gender, the scene is a simple one in which Amaia engages in a normal task normally. Her identity is given a break from interrogation and the pair have room to exist as a couple. However, the spell is broken by a group of children. All but one of the children run past, paying the couple no notice. The one remaining boy stares, his smile is devoid of any hostility but it is enough to rupture the moment. Red Ants Bite features a double of this scene; Obinna and Afame are granted a similar display of vulnerability on the banks of the river. The men bathe themselves and talk openly about the weight of being constantly treated like fugitives. They candidly discuss their depression, asking each other “how do you keep going?”. A question to which Naveriani provides no answer. Lying topless beside each other on the bank, is the only time Obinna and Afame seem fully and comfortably alone. Obinna studies Afame’s bare chest, and in the following shot the audience see Afame through Obinna’s eyes full of gentle, burgeoning affection. As the couple begin to feel safe in this moment, a single eponymous ant wanders across Afame’s chest, drawing us back to the apparently omnipresent danger the men live in. They are forced back into the reluctant motion, seemingly through loss and hostility, that drives the film. 

Naveriani’s short does a lot with very little, as the morning breaks we apprehend a whole relationship without being prodded and told where to look. The acting is tremendous and as the film closes with the men, taking it in turns to rest upon each other’s shoulders and sleep on the bus, Naveriani allows for a brief hospice that we know can not last. 

by Joanna Mason

Joanna Mason (preferably Joey) is 22 and is studying in Glasgow, Scotland. Some of her favourite films are Lost Highway, Withnail and I, Frances Ha and Videodrome.

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