With the outbreak of Covid-19, many filmmakers have resigned themselves to disappointment as their intended festival premieres have been cancelled outright. For many of the filmmakers behind the projects set to make their world premiere at BFI Flare, the largest LGBTQ film festival in Europe, news that the festival would be cancelled was only confirmed a couple of days prior to the start date — by which point, they’d already resigned themselves to the knowledge that their films would be sat on the shelf for a while longer.
Credit has to be given to the BFI Flare team for rushing to set up a digital festival that gifted a selection of films set to premiere for an online audience, complete with satellite Q&As by the filmmakers themselves. But a more unusual case would be that of The Lawyer, the third feature by Lithuanian writer/director Romas Zabarauskas. Unable to be streamed due to an already inked distribution deal, the film was still made available to press and billed as a Flare “World Premiere” to drum up hype, all before any festival audience gets a chance to see what the fuss is about.
Eimutis Kvosciauskas plays Marius, a corporate lawyer in Belgrade who puts his work and relationships with younger men ahead of more important things in life. One day, his mother, with whom he has an estranged relationship, calls to tell him his dad has passed away. His natural instinct is to call Ali (Dogac Yildiz) a Syrian refugee he met in a gay chatroom. He flies out to Belgrade, where Ali’s refugee camp is located, and attempts to see if his obsession can transform into something more meaningful.
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The Lawyer isn’t the first film to recontextualise the plight of LGBTQ Syrian refugees through the eyes of their romantic partners once they’ve headed west. One of the more underrated romance films in recent years is Mikko Mäkelä’s 2017 directorial debut A Moment in the Reeds, a film I imagine was largely overlooked due to superficial comparisons with the far higher profile God’s Own Country, even if it was more insightful at probing the cultural identities of the two protagonists without detracting from their burgeoning relationship. The Lawyer, on the other hand, is at its best when appearing to tackle notions of white saviourism, with the partnership between Marius and Ali often feeling like the result of one-sided lust on Marius’ part — their early meetings are awkward, and not just because of a language barrier that leaves them scrambling to make a connection using their second language.
If there is a problem with The Lawyer, it’s the fact this apparent commentary eventually becomes muted, so the narrative can easily become moulded into something far more representative of a conventional romantic story arc. Marius is an intriguing character because of what he represents — a “white saviour” who thinks he can easily rescue somebody he has no deeper connection to beyond an aesthetic appreciation. This is a trope rarely displayed within LGBTQ cinema, but here is used to great effect to establish his position within the city’s gay community; Marius’ only friends are people noticeably younger than him, and the people who he has helped (such as a young trans man whose coming out video he helped fund) all have struggles he can’t fully comprehend. Marius is a character who casts himself as an outsider and refers to himself as a minority, even though his limited worldview is far more conservative than he would allow himself to believe.
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Even when Marius flies to Belgrade to meet Ali, this is only happening because of his privilege — the luxurious interiors of his central city hotel contrast sharply with the refugee camp and ageing tower block apartments he only ventures to in order to see Ali. Zabarauskas makes this barrier between the two subtle, as the tension between their two different places in the social pecking order is largely unspoken, resigned only to awkward, stilted conversation on their initial meet ups. In the third act, the writer/director stumbles somewhat; Marius starts probing Ali by demanding traumatic stories from his past so he can build a case to help him move elsewhere in Europe, but this proves to be the start of their relationship strengthening, rather than a way of further illustrating the gulf between them. The fact that the relationship feels awkward at first, because of its origins in an online chatroom where Marius displayed a one sided obsession, suggests that The Lawyer may be giving way to a far more cynical arc than the more obvious one which eventually materialises. A commentary on white saviour narratives ends up just becoming one.
Zabarauskas’ film is about how stereotypical signifiers of identity (be they race, class, profession or sexuality) can often overshadow characteristics that speak to a person’s true self. But The Lawyer doesn’t fully grapple with its weighty white saviour theme, and ends up becoming as simplified as what it was setting out to subvert.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.