The perfect love affair is one which is conducted entirely by post.
-- George Bernard Shaw
Epistolary stories are fascinating to me given what's in the collected correspondence and what's left out. As letters go back and forth, as thoughts and passions are exchanged, we know there's life outside the writing of the letters. I usually wonder how much of that life is disclosed inadvertently by the letter writers in their choice of words.
Hank and Asha provides a novel approach to the epistolary story. Rather than letters or emails, the film is told through videos sent between two would-be lovers -- Asha (Mahira Kakkar) in Prague and Hank (Andrew Pastides) in New York. There's so much about reality and idealization bubbling in this film that hits the right spots in my head, but what really captivated me was the film's honesty. There's a genuine heart beating in this film, and also a genuine loneliness.
[For the next two weeks, we will be covering the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival, which runs from May 31st to June 9th. Check back with us for reviews of features, documentaries, and shorts playing at the fest. For more information and a full schedule, visit brooklynfilmfestival.org.]
Hank and Asha Director: James E. Duff Rating: TBD Release Date: TBD
Asha sends the first video. She's an Indian film student studying in Prague who saw a documentary that Hank made at a film festival. She just wants to let him know how much she enjoyed it. Hank sends an awkward reply back. He's a New York transplant from North Carolina, and he's not the crusty old documentarian that Asha expected. From there, they strike up a rapport that becomes a friendship that could become something more.
Kakkar and Pastides have a charming chemistry together even though their communication is technically done in monologue. Somehow screenwriters James E. Duff and Julia Morrison create a sense of conversation between these two characters, and it's not just that they're responding to each other's questions. Intimacy and familiarity gradually develops, and their back and forth feels like exchanges people might have in person. And yet days may intervene between responses rather than seconds. Sometimes the time between replies gets mentioned, and it reminded me that this isn't just Skyping.
The performances and the screenplay understand the privacy of this correspondence. These videos, like love letters, are things that only Hank and Asha will see, and they get to be themselves in these private exchanges, not necessarily acting how they would in public. They'll sing songs, they'll do embarrassing skits, they'll make fools of themselves, but that's just the nature of friendships and romances in private places, whether on paper on in pixels -- when deeply felt, love letters have no room for irony, shame, or embarrassment.
The idea of time in the movie brings me back to the idea of lives existing outside of the letters in epistolary stories. For Hank and Asha, their lives outside of their videos present certain complications to their relationship. While they might appreciate each other for who they are, I got the feeling that they also appreciated each other for what they represented. They are embodiments of escape, both from the real-life complications they face and the loneliness of big cities. Maybe the second issue is more important.
What becomes clear early on is that both Hank and Asha are lonely. They don't seem to have many friends outside of work or school, and their living situations may only be temporary. I sensed that outside of these videos they're unable to meet or connect with people naturally. Whatever there is between Hank and Asha, it's a space of comfort, which may explain why they're so quick to connect. At the end of many of their videos is some unspoken, "Somewhere, finally, someone gets me." If they were in the same city, maybe they wouldn't have ever met, or if they did run into each other, they may not have even said hello.
A few weeks ago our own Liz Rugg brought up the idea of meeting people you know online in real life. If you only know a person through online interactions, they may seem great (or awful, depending on who you know). So much of what appears on social media is an idealization of the self. We present our best aspects and censor our worst to a point where the persona presented is not necessarily the real person. I couldn't help but think of this as Asha and Hank's relationship began to grow given what winds up in the videos, and especially since they're presenting idealized versions of themselves to each other while viewing each other as ideas of personal connection.
I wondered how many versions of one video Hank or Asha might have done before making the one they sent. Or with the videos they send and regret sending, I wondered what they would have done if they took a few minutes (hours, days) to cool down. Again, that weird play with time in the film -- even though epistles should give us a chance to smooth out jagged feelings, those emotions come through even if we regret them immediately after. Sometimes emotional truths cannot be contained by manners or by time.
But these questions only come because the film is so lived-in, and because those intervening hours are undisclosed, only hinted at. I might never know exactly what Asha thought of Hank riding his bike across the Williamsburg Bridge and screaming with joy, but I get a sense of it and that's enough. (Hank probably felt the same way.) Similarly, I wondered about what happens to Hank and Asha after this film, but no one possibility presents itself.
We know only what's given to us and that's enough because these characters feel so real even if they are, like online personas, just inventions. But maybe there's no shame in certain acts of invention. Like writing and filmmaking, living is based on revision. Through a little honest refinement, maybe we create a persona that feels natural. Even if the persona is better than the real thing, it's an aspirational figure that represents who we really are if only we were able to be ourselves completely.
I'm reminded of something Roger Ebert wrote about John Cassvaetes's A Woman Under the Influence: "...in life we do not often improvise, but play a character rehearsed for a lifetime." Here in Hank and Asha, the lives are so well played that they slip through the run time and exist outside the film, away from our watching eyes.
Hank and Asha screens Saturday, June 1st and Saturday, June 8th. For tickets and more information, click here.