Cinema is a Death Mask: on Theo Montoya’s ‘Anhell69’

The act of mourning is itself an abstracted one: To mourn is to reach, with an embodied hand, towards what no longer lives in a body. For some, mourning is a way of living; for some, all that is guaranteed in a life is the very loss of it. Death is the assumed reality in Theo Montoya’s Anhell69 (2022), itself post-mortem. Montoya had intended Anhell69 to be his first fictional feature film — that is, until his friends die. In the heavy wake of grief, Montoya reimagines his film entirely. No longer fiction, Anhell69 becomes documentary, homage, and autobiography, cast somewhere between the realms of life and death, and between pessimism and hope.

The film begins in—and, against its best wishes—never quite leaves the city of Medellín. “I didn’t ask to be born,” says Montoya, who primarily embeds himself into his film as a voiceover, sinking and somber. A.D. might refer to the years after the birth of Jesus Christ; for Montoya, excommunicated from the church as a teenager after caught jacking off to Jesus Christ, A.D. is after the death of Pablo Escobar. Montoya was born, then, A.D. 2, to an absent father, the “son of this generation raised by women.” Anhell69 is, like Montoya and the other men it features, peripatetic in spirit, flitting between settings. The setting is Montoya’s childhood bedroom, Jesus and Britney Spears on the walls; the setting is the club, lights and noise and desire abound; the setting is a dark movie theater, lit only by the flicker of the projector; the setting is a gray, sterile casting room, where Montoya auditions men for his fictional feature film. We hear Montoya, standing behind the camera, as he asks his potential cast members questions like: “What’s your name,” “How old are you,” “What do you do,” “What do you think of the country you live in,” and “Do you like guys or girls?” To some men, his questions are piercing, deeper. To Sharlott Zodoma, a drag performer, Montoya asks: “Did your father commit suicide?” To Camilo Najar, waifish and femme and deeply cynical, Montoya asks: “What sort of boys does Camilo Najar like?” Unlike the other men, Najar sits for his audition with an empty chair next to him. He likes “bad and tall” boys, to answer Montoya’s question, and plans to be dead under a bridge in ten years. Montoya, speaking over video footage of Najar, confesses his immediate attraction to him.

Montoya casts Najar, whose social media handle is “Anhell69,” as the eponymous protagonist of the film-that-would-be. Set in a dystopian Medellín where Pablo Escobar “had become the father of a nation without any paternal reference,” Anhell69 is one of the few living humans in a land overrun by ghosts. Anhell69 initiates a new revolution by becoming the first person to have unprotected sex with a ghost. Spectrophilia, the attraction to ghosts, takes hold of the living youth of Medellín; at night, so as to escape the gaze of their annihilatory government, humans and ghosts clandestinely interact through parties and social media. However, when Anhell69 and the other young spectrophiliacs lead a protest for their right to love and fuck the dead, their government brutally exterminates them. Even fictional stories resemble the very stories we live: Before Montoya is able to tell Najar that he has cast him in his film, Najar dies from an overdose. The last shot of Najar we see in the film is from behind; he’s out of reach, like the tendrils of the past.

Many of Montoya’s other friends in the Medellín queer scene also begin to die: Daniel González, Julian Castro, Sergio González, Lola Dalthstrom, largely from overdoses and suicide. “At that time, I went to more wakes than birthdays,” Montoya says. Over soundless shots of men at the club, lights pulsing, Montoya describes that he fell into an “existential void,” causing him to numb out his feelings by partying until the “first rays of sunlight.” What dies with Najar and Montoya’s other friends is also the first iteration of Anhell69, becoming a ghost at its mid-point. Here, Anhell69 is neither dead nor alive, traveling between dimensions. So much of Anhell69 inhabits this in-betweenness, a resistance to simply one thing or another. Montoya is, for instance, hyper-aware of the facetiousness of screens; to exist on a screen is also to exist everywhere and nowhere at once. We meet Montoya’s dead friends only through their photos on social media, expressions static. An online existence is a false immortality, Montoya knows, who films these images from another screen, from another phone or a computer, so that we are reminded of our permanent alienation from the dead. Early in the film is a shot of people dancing at the club, charged with intimacy and energy— but, behind a sheet of plastic. Another recurring setting: the interior of a skyscraper, tall glass windows overlooking the tips of the Medellín. A man begins to bang his face against the window; later, another man begins to kiss the glass. Witnessing the dead online makes us feel like we are both these men, doomed to either bang or kiss a glass that will not break—and even if it does, so what?

Anhell69 feels intimately inspired by Apichatpong Weerasetakhul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010); openly inspired, too, as one of the recurring figures in Anhell69 is a red-eyed figure all in black, closely resembling the “monkey ghosts” from Uncle Boonmee. Some of the slower, still shots in Anhell69 remind one of a Weerasetakhul shot, luscious and lean in their substance at once. Montoya in his own film is akin to the character of Boonmee: Both are dying men, talking to their ghosts. Death, in both films, isn’t really the question; death is the given. “Ghosts aren’t attached to places, but to people, to the living,” the ghost of Huay, Boonmee’s dead wife, tells him. Before he dies, Boonmee has a dream of the future, where “the city was ruled by an authority able to make anybody disappear.” Boonmee’s dream in Uncle Boonmee, a film itself inflected by the clash between Communists and the Thai military in 1965, feels not so much like a prophecy, but the lived experience of the poor and queer people of Medellín today, who are hunted by death. Montoya visits a skate park he had frequented with Najar; a large graffiti lettering reads, “NOS ESTÁN MATANDO,” or: “THEY’RE KILLING US.” A skateboarder Montoya meets there describes how his friend back in his village was shot in his own home, eight times; Montoya’s camera drifts to graffiti art of the police as sinister skeletons. A shot of a pillar in the park is strewn with fliers that say: “Quién está detrás de las masacres en Colombia?” (Who is behind the massacres in Colombia?”), “‘La gente de bien’ no entiende de lucha popular” (The ‘good people’ don’t understand the struggle of the people), and “Todos tratan de matarte” (They are all trying to kill you). One of Montoya’s friends describes how his friend one day disappeared; on Monday, he was found impaled. “One can think, ‘No, that doesn’t happen here. We’re super chill, we can be super free faggots, yet bad things still happen… He was found in a fucking park. Impaled. Like, ‘for real?’” Death, too, is a function of the state. Montoya, camera as his weapon, films the police retaliation against thousands of protesters in Medellín against then-President Iván Duque; the scene ends with a gunshot and sudden cut to black.

But when death is given, death is also the beginning. “Death made me think about memory,” Montoya says over a sweeping shot of the city, lights of the buildings twinkling in the night sky. “I understood that Anhell69 was not just a feature film. Anhell69 had to be a film without borders, without genders, a trans film.” And so something does break; Anhell69 expands. Montoya’s film becomes, in its brooding and moribund way, a romance of hope. Here’s another recurring setting: The funeral car being driven through the night, holding a casket that is at times empty, at times occupied. Montoya reveals that the person driving the car is Colombian filmmaker Victor Gaviria, “who influenced me [Montoya] the most… [and] made me believe a cinema of non-believers was possible, a cinema of those who are left out.” Many of the men Montoya interviews in Anhell69 are shot separately; near the end, Montoya shoots them together, in moments of embrace in cemeteries, holding each other’s bodies while surrounded by all the dead of Medellín. When asked about the future, Sharlott Zodoma says that he hopes “to find love soon,” and is “open to uncertainty, because… you can make a lot of plans, but you may disappear today.” Zodoma dies shortly after filming; Montoya, in solidarity, figuratively dies with him, with Najar, and with all his other friends. The last person to die in Anhell69 is Montoya himself, revealing his face on camera for the first time in the film as the final occupant of the casket in Gaviria’s funeral car. Montoya, on camera only once in the film, rests finally in the casket driven by Gaviria.  “Death is the most beautiful thing a man has,” one of the men tells Montoya in the casting room. “I think death is the greatest prize of this life.”

Annie lives in New York.

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