Brothers of the Night
(Austria, 88 min.)
Dir. Patric Chiha
Merging set-up, staged scenes with more or less straight doc style, Patric Chiha’s Brothers of the Night follows a group of Bulgarian Roma hustlers eking out a living in Vienna. Whereas Rodrigue Jean’s National Film Board doc Men for Sale emphasizes the trauma and dehumanization of the sex trade, Chiha’s film, as its title implies, depicts connection rather than alienation. The movie builds to an almost celebratory dance as the boys, some of them shirtless, wiggle, gyrate, and engage with a stripper pole, bathed in their favourite bar’s stardust light. A couple of females, probably hookers, join in the fun.
The dance music that runs through this quite musical film is chalga, which, my friend Maria Vasileva tells me, “Became very predominant and associated with an over-sexualized culture, a type of Balkan machismo. Sexy young voluptuous women gyrating to Middle Eastern inspired music were despised by people of my parents’ age who still despise the 500-year Ottoman Empire occupation.”
When chalga is not cooking on the soundtrack we hear a lot of Mahler’s 5th, giving a tawdry world melancholy dignity. Visually, the film is lit like Fassbinder’s Querelle: smoky deep blues and yellow highlights, jukebox greens and reds. A guy wearing a European sailor hat is an obvious Fassbinder reference. Some viewers also flash on Pasolini’s films and Kenneth Anger’s sensibility in Scorpio Rising. As RIDM wound down, the festival jury gave Brothers of the Night its Best Cinematography Award for the doc’s “brazen go-for-broke visual style.”
While Chiha gives the film’s atmosphere a romantic kick, his approach to character is uncompromising candour. In a dialogue-driven movie, much of the talk focuses relentlessly on money and sex. Right off the top, we tune in to a negotiation for sexual action, and throughout the film, the boys relate what they do and for what to fees: how much for a blowjob, for getting fucked, for fucking. Everything with a condom. Chiha doesn’t moralize; the boys don’t wince with disgust. In fact, they giggle over their stories and compare notes about favourite techniques and clients they’ve serviced.
One guy explains how he stops and starts, demanding more Euros for each resumption of a hand job, or whatever he’s doing. Another boy recommends putting one’s cock in the client’s mouth first, so that he gets really hot for the hustler. There are people who want to take a piss or shit in their open mouths. One hustler did feel a little disgusted with a “grandfather” in his 60s who kept going soft and hard and took a long time to come.
Like the studs who hang out with Queen Georgette in Last Exit to Brooklyn, the brothers of the night don’t consider themselves gay. But a slender, lipsticked trans woman who has breasts and dances for the boys, laughs, “We’re all gay here.” There’s plenty of ambiguity in the house. The boys talk about sex with female whores, and they send money to wives and children back home. When they arrived in Austria, hustling was the only work they could find.
In a definitive scene, the trans woman dances seductively to a chalga beat. One of the boys sits in chair both leaning toward the dancer and pushing her away with flicks of rebuff. It’s a dance of ambivalence. In some scenes, the brothers of the night show strong affection for each other, and seem on the verge of making love. But that never happens. And despite all their bravado, confessional scenes reveal a sense of shame and a wistful desire to be home, or be doing some other kind of job. Brothers of the Night immerses you in an off-centre world offering a frank look at young men trying to stay afloat in a sea of contradictions.