Only The Brave gaze queerly
A group of teenage girls light a match and set fire to a hedge. Cut to black. The flame, like an elemental force, takes hold, building its own unstoppable momentum after being released from the girls' grasp. We don't see the fire grow in intensity but we certainly hear it. The sound is overwhelming. The visuals resume with a gang of teenage girls looking on at the hedge engulfed in flames. Positioned between the cool darkness of the night and the heat of their own wildness, their adolescent bodies are rendered as silhouettes. This is the opening of Ana Kokkinos' Only The Brave (1994), a short but intense film that follows two teenage girls Alex (Elena Mandalis) and Vicki (Dora Kaskanis), best friends growing up in Melbourne's industrial western suburbs. Both girls have a troubled home life and find solace in one another. They drink together, set fire to things and dream of moving interstate to find Alex's estranged mother.
As Glenn Dunks argues, Only The Brave is "quite unlike its contemporaries" because it foregrounds "not only a queer female voice, but an ethnically diverse one, too."1 Kokkinos is known for her focus on Greek–Australian migrant life and, as Lisa French argues, her films regularly deal with:
outsiders who are frequently othered, painfully aware of their difference due to their sexuality (as gays or lesbians); their ethnicity (as Greek immigrants within a troubled multicultural Australia); their socio-economic status (as working class, and often disenfranchised youths); and their place as sons and daughters battling familial tensions (particularly as 2nd generation migrants).2
Kokkinos once suggested that cinema "has the power to provoke a visceral response and it is the role of the artist to provoke and question."3 This assertion is at the heart of Only The Brave. The film opens with teenage wildfire, a bright orange blaze within a cool blue mise en scène. It is most interesting to me for the way it represents queer desire and for the way it renders visible a queer girl's desiring gaze. This gaze is present throughout the film but is firmly established in the opening minutes as Kokkinos shows the point of view of Alex, one of the film's protagonists and a member of the gang of teenage girls.
Alex steps away from the pyromaniac girl gang and is reframed by the camera. A close-up of her illuminated face is followed by a medium close-up of Vicki's silhouetted body. We don't see Vicki's face until later in the film, so in this moment she exists only as Alex sees her: a shadow in front of a roaring blaze. Vicki runs her fingers through her hair. Her fingertips graze her forehead and gently tease backwards. This gesture begins in real time but Kokkinos soon slows it down, rendering the moment through Alex's distinctly queer point of view. This is the first glimpse of Alex's desiring gaze. Here her lust is paralleled with the uncontrollable fire. The movement of Vicki's body becomes increasingly erotic and the flames in the background seem to lick at her edges.
Most films about queer youth feature a dramatic coming out moment. To come out is to acknowledge one's innermost feelings (romantic feelings, sexual desires, gender identity), it is to claim the identity of being LGBTIQ, it is to act on these feelings, and it is to publicly declare this identity.4 Coming out is a complex internal process but its representation in film relies on external conflict.5 This is typically achieved through spoken declaration expression of sexual identity that is followed by a conflict that arises "between the gay person and her or his family or peer group."6 In many queer films, this moment is also frequently entangled with coming of age, which means that queer characters seem to grow up when they act on their desires or reveal their truth.7
Kokkinos rejects this typical framing of queer youth by privileging seeing over saying. Alex never reveals her desire in a climactic coming out moment. In fact, she never explicitly speaks about her sexuality. Her feelings are instead rendered visible through gesture and framing, and most explicitly in shots like this one of Vicki in front of the fire. This stylised point of view captures beautifully the visceral nature of Alex's queer desire.