Matthew Fifer makes an auspicious feature film debut with “Cicada,” screening at qFLIX, which is now delayed until July 12-19. The out queer Fifer, co-directed, wrote, produced and stars in this potent romantic drama, which is “based on true events.”
Ben (Fifer) is a man haunted by a trauma from his childhood. After a series of sexual encounters with both men and women, he embarks on a relationship with Sam (Sheldon D. Brown), a handsome and closeted African American guy. Sam has his own complicated backstory, and how things progress in their lives and relationship create this absorbing film’s drama.
In a recent phone interview, Fifer explained that the film was, “Born out of necessity. It’s sort of the secret I never wanted to tell. I was tired of seeing trauma on screen for the sake of seeing trauma. [Making] this was the thing that allowed me to move forward.”
The writer and director readily admitted that he is not an actor — despite having met Kieran Mulcare, the co-director of “Cicada,” in an acting class. The guys bonded, and when it came time to make the film, Mulcare told Fifer, “You need to play this part.”
Fifer demured, “It was more pragmatic than, ‘I feel I’m an actor, and I can do this!’ It was more the confidence of my co-director” that made him play Ben, the biggest thing he has done, acting-wise. To his credit, he plays the role well, alternating between shyness, mischief, and forthrightness.
Ben is a bit of a smartass in the film, and Fifer admitted that in real life he, too, is, “A bit of a clown, always getting into trouble.” Ben uses humor (and sex) to deflect his trauma, and not expose his vulnerability. Fifer’s performance is strongest in these moments; Ben’s coping mechanism is to avoid getting too intimate — something that slowly changes after he meets Sam, who is closeted and has his own troubles to process.
Fifer explained, “The scariest part of trauma [or even coming out] isn’t facing rejection, but that it becomes real once it comes out of your mouth. I was pushing anything real away and dealing with intimacy with a quip or a joke.”
The filmmaker insisted that what exactly happened to Ben in the past is less important than what happened after the fact, “Nothing was processed. It is the moments of being alone and being isolated that real trauma runs rampant.”
“Cicada” wisely keeps the specific event indistinct, which allows viewers to imagine the truth for themselves. It is effective, and Fifer and Mulcare employ some visual and aural cues to create dream sequences that distort Ben’s reality or provide triggers for his behavior.
“We wanted to say enough without saying too much,” Fifer emphasized. “I think this is dangerous to say, but I like experimental films. That sounds like a dirty word, and it has a negative connotation, but by letting the film become moodier, and have less dialogue, I wanted it to be a framework for others to project their experiences on to what they see.”
Another reason for this ambiguous approach was, Fifed confided, “This is closer to my life than I’d like. I needed to maintain some level of privacy. I feel very naked in this film — in more ways than one.”
As for baring his body along with his soul, Fifer acknowledged that, “I was not comfortable with the film’s nudity, but It was more awkward not to have it. It is hard to do sex scenes without nudity.” One of those sex scenes, however, is deliberately awkward as it involves Sam’s colostomy bag. Fifer claimed he wanted to feature this messy moment, “Because it was important for me to have a scene like that in a queer film; because no one talks about it.”
Yet the two leads in “Cicada” look good sans clothes. Fifer even confessed about his attractive co-star, Brown, “I don’t know how anyone is looking at me when he’s on screen!”
The two men first met five years ago, and they have some palpable chemistry on screen. Scenes of the couple together, flirting at the Strand bookshop, or spending time together in the city, are very romantic and charming.
Fifer added that Sam’s story is, “inspired by Sheldon D. Brown’s own experience.” While Sam has some issues that go beyond being closeted, the filmmaker wanted to address the difficulties LGBTQ people of color have when they come out.
In contrast, Ben identifies as bisexual in the film, in part because at this point in his life, Fifer observed, “He doesn’t know what he likes, or who he is more comfortable with. But he knows he has never been allowed to love a man.”
“Cicada” artfully presents the healing power of love as its flawed characters learn to love themselves — and each other — as they grapple with past trauma and a possible future together.