(Portugal, USA 2021; Dir: Catarina de Sousa, Nick Tyson)

Tracing Utopia

Chasing acceptance

review by Līga Požarska

Tracing Utopia

original title: Tracing Utopia

length: 27

year of production: 2021

country of production: Portugal, USA

director: Catarina de Sousa, Nick Tyson

production: Catarina de Sousa, Nick Tyson / UnionDocs

director of photography: Catarina de Sousa, Nick Tyson

editing: Catarina de Sousa

cast: Asher, Chase, Mars, Jay, Raphael

festivals: International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen 2021, Vienna Shorts 2021, Moscow International Experimental Film Festival 2021, KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival 2021, Uppsala Short Film Festival 2021

© images: Tracing Utopia (Catarina de Sousa, Nick Tyson)

Via their online avatars, five New York adolescents make their vision of a safer world for LGBTQ+ youth come alive. Their queer utopia is presented here as a manifesto, which left me wondering about contemporary differences between generations, as the bright minds of GenZ are pro-actively mine crafting their way into a better world.

The director-writer duo Catarina de Sousa (also the producer of Pedro Neves Marques’ queer short film ‘The Bite’) and Nick Tyson brings us a documentary about Asher, Chase, Mars, Jay and Raphael: queer teens discussing and insisting on more inclusive communities for LGBTQ+ youth. During the run of the film, we see them mainly interacting through Zoom and Discord, as vis-à-vis meetings are only shown through footage filmed back in the day when the filmmakers and teens met, shortly before the lockdown changed the rules of the game.

The teenagers, and main characters of this research documentary, are also credited as screenwriters, marking the collaborative aspect of this, and thus their, endeavour. De Sousa and Tyson treat their conversation partners as equals and friends rather than perceiving them as a focus group, illustrating the tight bond they’ve established with the group prior to the filming: they have become fairly involved in each other’s on-and-off-line realities — which results in one of them even calling in from a physiotherapist’s gym.

Though the main topic remains LGTBQ+ youth’s aspirations, ‘Tracing Utopia’, deliberately or unintentionally, is equally about the generation gap between millennials and GenZ. De Sousa and Tyson have enthusiastically thrown themselves into a GenZ universe where teenagers are more woke than we (millennials) — forgive me this generalization — ever were at that age. For them, Minecraft is a video game, not Hitler’s prison memoir (not so long ago this misunderstanding was trending). I might sound a hundred years old here, but these filmmakers seem to have understood the gist of Minecraft (a bizarre marriage of Sims and Lego for modern youngsters) and the significance it carries for the group.

The ideas of Asher, Chase, Mars, Jay and Raphael are solid and mostly aim-focused: tackling gender segregation, ending deadnaming, making therapy more accessible, creating queer hubs in each neighbourhood and introducing LGBTQ+ studies as early as possible. However, the foundation of their “Queer Utopia” is a conceptual one, a need for safe spaces. Enter Minecraft: it is their escape and fictional opportunity to build a desirable environment for each of them to thrive in. Bowie’s Life on Mars and Lemon Demon’s Touch-Tone Telephone share the honour of serving as their anthems. Finding a resort in a virtual and adaptable space is a coping mechanism less practiced amongst my fellow millennial peers. GenZ might be on to something: their avatars already inhabit the utopian world others just dare to dream of. What reality fails to provide, their imagination and the internet deem possible.

This need for a safe environment tickles one’s curiosity: have they grown up in a hostile community that is not accepting of their queerness? The film does not answer this, leaving the viewer hanging. But in all fairness: the film does not ask this question to begin with, opting to focus on the fivesome’s thirst for action, not their background stories. Only Asher touches upon his parents' struggle to acknowledge his pronouns. Not dwelling on the past is a clever and progressive approach, yet a little insight about what has brought them here could have been beneficial — not to pry but to simply better understand the reasons that have made this longing for a safe space the central axis of their manifesto.

Luckily, their personalities shine through the choices made when constructing their virtual safe space. By putting each individual preferences together, they have created an imaginative world with a queer centre (per Raphaels wishes), an aimal shelter (Chase), endless forests which nurture the connection between humans and nature (Jay) and a lemon-lime greenhouse filled with bees (Mars). In addition, Mars speaks about video games offering non-binary and gender-fluid characters, therefore normalizing different gender identities online. The directors’ position is mainly interactional and they are prone to take action. Together they participate in the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ protests — screening the 8mm footage on a screen located in the common room they all share in Minecraft: creating a link between past activism, present-day reflections and a hopeful outlook for the future. This switch of time perspectives, temporality if you will, goes hand in hand with mixing different visual media.

By blending diverse techniques — Zoom call recordings, video game graphics and performance elements — the film aspires to find a common ground with these teens. Given the last (almost) two years that the industry has had, it is praiseworthy that De Sousa and Tyson have manoeuvred between the lockdown obstacles and technical possibilities of making ‘Tracing Utopia’. The screen captures of Minecraft feel very real, as if De Sousa and Tyson’s camera was actually inside this fictional world. All in all, despite the feel-good atmosphere and praised technical and logistic efforts, it does not quite come together as one integral piece, resembling more a crossbreed of a Zoom call and a video installation than an actual piece of art.

Nevertheless, the group’s openness and awareness are refreshing, as is the director’s duo’s heartfelt bond with them. The film leaves a hopeful aftertaste: these youngsters are keen to take action even by means of curating their personal fantasies on a computer, for now. If that particular utopia doesn’t pan out, be sure: they’ll have a plan B.