(The Netherlands 2019; Dir: Stefanie Kolk)

Eyes on the Road

Marginal empathy

review by Līga Požarska

Eyes on the Road

length: 17

year of production: 2019

country of production: The Netherlands

director: Stefanie Kolk

production: Miel van Welzen, Thomas den Drijver, Julius Ponten, Sander Verdonk

director of photography: Martijn Melis

cast: Frieda Barnhard, Sinem Kavus, Olivia Lonsdale

festivals: Vienna Shorts 2020, Locarno International Film Festival 2019, Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) 2019, Glasgow Short Film Festival 2020, Filmfest Dresden 2020, Encounters 2020, Short Waves 2020, Uppsala Short Film Festival 2019, Go Short 2020

© images: Eyes on the road (Stefanie Kolk)

Through an intelligently written script Stefanie Kolk confronts different takes on a tragedy and friendships being tested. Menna, Indy and Alex are driving back home from what seems to have been a music festival. The three girls carelessly mention a couple from their inner circle – Tim and Nisa. What starts off as harmless gossip transforms into a serious discussion about this couple, that is dealing with the rape of Nisa. The trio faces this complex situation indirectly, speculating and imagining how said couple must feel now. We learn that they have separated because Nisa’s mother subconsciously holds Tim responsible.

Exchange of opinions jeopardizes their views about each other. According to an interview with the director, something similar happened to her own group of friends, damaging some friendships. The conflict initiates when Indy states that the situation is worse for Tim and that he is in more need of support, since Nisa’s support system is already so professional and diverse. As soon as she takes his side — claiming that his pain is equal or even harder than the pain his raped girlfriend must be going through — disagreements are caused.

It’s easy to ask “how dare she” and the girls are quick on doing so, but there might be reasons why Indy is more concerned about the boyfriend. Why does she acknowledge him as the victim? Maybe she is closer to him? Maybe she feels for Tim’s sorrow about his loved one being violated? This collision of opinions passes by quickly, though the next one will linger on.

A big argument follows when Indy suggests that rape is still cheating and she doesn’t know how Tim can overlook the fact that his girlfriend had sexual intercourse with somebody else. Instantly she becomes an unsympathetic character, reminding us of Catherine Deneuve’s statements regarding the #metoo-movement. Is it really what some people think? Sure, we’re aware of the fair share of the victim blaming “she provoked it”-comments out there, but the “it’s still cheating” argument doesn’t come up so often. The other girls treat is as an act of violence. Period.

Even though Indy’s notion has turned her into some sort of villain, she bounces back to being a good friend when she comforts Alex. While being controversial, she does make some valid statements about traumatizing effects on victim’s close ones. But (how) can they relate? What to say in this particular situation? Can they ask uncomfortable questions? “Is it tough to be with your girlfriend after she was raped?” The question comes off as a bizarre joke at first, but somehow this direct approach seems to be the right take on it. ‘Eyes on the road’ makes one think about the boundaries of empathy.

Each girl has a clearly assigned role: Menna is the driver and the mediator, Indy introduces turmoil while Alex is keeping her distance from the back of the car. There is an inarticulate tension between Alex and the front-seat girls, making her a bit of an outsider, who is speaking up mostly to disagree with Indy. Will these major disagreements wreck their friendship? Doubtful. But it can surface back, challenging them to confront other serious topics and their views on them.

Kolk has masterfully written a dialogue-driven film, delivering a natural, everyday conversation with a great deal of tragedy and character arches encoded within. Between being informative, playful and sometimes trivial, the conversation is filled with heaviness, morality, rage and sadness. Intense gossip tend to offer this sort of dramatic richness, meanwhile urging the gossipers to understand or explain the given situation.

Resembling a small-stage play, performed in the tiniest and darkest hall in the theatre, the car is its stage. Apart from a brief toilet stop all the action unfolds in this confined space. This proximity is reinforced by using close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots — a technically logical choice, considering the filming conditions in a car, yet this framing also add to the effect of being cramped with the girls. The intimate conditions turn the spectator into a voyeuristic witness, eavesdropping on a strictly private conversation, inviting us to reflect simultaneously with the protagonists.

‘Eyes on the road’ highlights the traumatic effect of rape, also contemplating on its resonance outside the victim’s perspective. Kolk’s chamber play asks uncomfortable questions and isn’t afraid to shed an uncomplimentary light on its characters.