Set in the somewhat dark side of the streets of New York, EKAJ is the story of a young, gay homeless man, and the people he meets along the way whilst just trying to find a bed for the night. It studies the issues of the homeless youth and the cruelty they and the gay community often face, and how the relationships built with people along the way can sometimes be crucial for survival.
More of a study of the gay homeless underbelly of NYC life than the telling of a traditional story arc, the film uses intense close ups and brutally honest and unafraid depictions of homeless life to paint a bleak picture of the lives of its’ characters, whilst also showing that having a connection with someone else in a similar situation can often be the only light in an otherwise gloomy life.
The film follows two core characters, Ekaj and Mecca, who have a Midnight Cowboy-inspired relationship which first blooms as as friendship born from mutual despair and loneliness, and hints too at a sweet and gentle romance.
From photography to film
This gritty, urban indie film is directed by Cati Gonzalez. Despite it being her first feature film project, she is an acclaimed fashion photographer who has shot huge names such as David Kronenberg, Chloe Sevigny and Pharrell Williams. Cati says that the move to cinema was ‘a natural transition for her’, due to her love for the medium from an early age, and the fact it enables you to communicate messages in a more impactful way.
“Photography was an accident in my life. I enjoyed it very much, and still do to this day, but I wanted to tell stories that had a social impact and shooting fashion and portraits could only go so far. Also, when you are shooting documentary photography your work gets viewed in galleries and is considered art, and it often doesn’t have the reach that film does.
“I guess I love Film because the subject becomes as important as the director, and you can really give it a voice.”
Shining a light on less than mainstream messages
Watching EKAJ, you can feel that giving a voice to the subject was an important part of this film being made. It tackles a range of subjects like homelessness, death, AIDs, homosexuality, prostitution and drug addiction, and it tackles them head on in a way you can’t avoid – and in a way you don’t often see in mainstream cinema with such visceral realness.
“I live in NYC and I photographed youth in the streets for a long time.
“I started writing a story reminiscent of Midnight Cowboy, about two drifters and I wanted them to be New York Puerto Ricans. I met an in-law of Mike my partner, that had that cool look that I would love to shoot and the rawness that attracts me, and from there I decided to make the characters gay.
“I then found Jake, the lead character, on Facebook, and the rest is history.
“I find these homeless kids have enormous potential, especially creatively, and it’s insane that they are roaming the streets with no support system to help them. Yes, there are a few Youth Centers but not nearly enough to get these kids off the streets.
“Most of them left home because of rejection from their families or bullying in their schools, and they are young and naive. They jump from their bad situation straight into one that’s even worse. They start doing drugs, drinking to forget, just to cope, and then they end up with HIV in the morning. It’s terrible. Some of these kids are as young as 13- 14.”
One of the key characters casually yet heartbreakingly reveals his diagnosis of AIDs during the film, and we see his condition deteriorate. Speaking of her choice to include this in the film, Cati says “I had some friends die from AIDS in the 90’s so I decided to put it in the film as a silent partner. Just like today, it’s every where in the LGBT Community and no one is talking about it.”
But, it seems, despite the film being packed full of things to say about the state of homeless in NYC, there are some things still left unspoken.
“I guess you always feel you can show more, that’s just the nature of a story told under an hour and a half. It’s probably why the film doesn’t have a conclusive ending, since there are no conclusive answers to the problems it depicts.”
Real life inspiration
It’s hard for anyone to imagine life on the streets in NYC as a member of the LGBTQ+ community unless you’ve been there yourself, let alone capture it on camera. What experiences does Cati have of this way of life that informed her in creating this feature film?
“My partner Mike was homeless when I met him. He was 18, a Puerto Rican from New York’s Lower East Side. His mother died of AIDS in the 80s and he went from family to family ending up in the street at 13.
“I myself have slept on couches as an artist. You don’t always make enough money to survive and pay the rent in NYC. Sometimes I would have a great spread in a magazine but not the money to pay rent, so I guess I pretty much knew the subject.”
What is the film trying to say?
“Be aware! I am a mother and I feel for these kids. They don’t have a lot of hope left. Maybe it’s a message to the parents of LGBT kids who are on the edge of leaving home; try to fix the problems before they run away, be there for them. Teenagers can be impossible – believe me, I know – but think of the alternative.
“For the kids the message is to be careful. It’s not all glamour: if you run away there are many dangers. A lot of kids think that the LGBT community is going to be there with a red carpet ready to save them but as I’ve been told by Jake and others, that this is not true.
“Ekaj is every runaway’s experience, and whether a part of it or all of it, it’s far more common than it needs to be.”
EKAJ is currently being shown in film festivals across the world to great reception, and is in the process of being fully released to the public. Until then, here’s the trailer: