“Strangerland” came from a fascination with the central theme of how we act out in times of crisis. About 22 years ago, my father faced a horrible drawn out battle with AIDS. I found myself assailed with grief and quite traumatized by it all. Back in the late ’80s and earl ’90s, HIV had no cure and I watched helplessly as it ravaged away at my childhood hero. Plus, there was a lot of stigma and bigotry attached to the disease, which was horrible to witness my dad endure and for me to experience secondhand as his child.
After my dad finally passed away, I moved to New York for a year where I knew no one, so I could grieve in private. I could barely function. And from that very dark place I found myself wanting touch, wanting connection, wanting to fuck, to make love, anything but to feel the dark cloud of death shrouding my heart. And so I acted out sexually with a couple of strangers. I felt so at sea with all the loss, and sex gave me the illusion that I was back in control. But it was momentary and then the grief just flooded right back in — only alongside it, came an onslaught of shame… even though I only slept with a couple of men in that time, I remember feeling so guilty about how I had acted out. I internalized it, but it festered away for a few more years until I met other people along the way who shared similar stories of sexualizing their grief.
Eventually, I came to understand what I had done and the intrinsic link between sex and death. The primal need to feel alive in the face of loss and uncertainty. And I realized I was not alone. It’s just something that mostly happens behind closed doors so people don’t talk about it – that and because of all the repressed societal and religious taboos we in the Western world seem to have around sex. And so, from here came the idea to explore this behavior and how we act out in times of crisis on screen.
Some people have asked me – why does Catherine (played by Nicole Kidman) so desperately want touch? What’s funny is, people don’t ask me, why does Matthew (played by Joseph Fiennes) drink alcohol? I think there are many potential reasons why people sexualize their feelings.
When a baby cries, they often want to be picked up and simply holding them abates their tears. So there is something innately intuitive about gaining touch to soothe painful emotions. Sometimes, young children are consistently told they are pretty or beautiful or handsome and so the child learns that their physicality gains them positive strokes and attention. And some children are molested and learn sex is love (or a distorted version of love) and this too can also lead to acting out sexually in order to gain acceptance and or to relieve pain. So, there are many reasons.
As well as healthy love making and joyous sex, people also sexualize stress, grief, loneliness, anger, longing, fear… we deal with crisis in many different ways… and sex is just one of them that we address in “Strangerland.”
We also look at how people grasp for things… alcohol, pills, work, isolation, violence, blaming others… anything to numb the pain of uncertainty. And then it examines how people judge each other in their acting out. Our tragic flaws seem to surface when we can no longer conceal our primal fears and needs with our public personae – our masks of “everything’s okay” when it’s not. And this is what I love about Nicole’s portrayal of Catherine. She is so raw and broken that she can no longer make her excruciating pain palatable for others. She is completely stripped of any defenses and some characters in the film find this very difficult to witness.
Often when we see this kind of vulnerability in others, it inevitably triggers our own and this can be unnerving just to sit with… just to be with our pain and not to try and to shift or to fix or avoid it. I think deep down, we feel if we let go into the feelings, they will never stop. Or we won’t be able to control them. And so we flee, grasp, act out… and so the cycle continues… forever running and hiding from ourselves.
“Strangerland” shines a gentle light on the parts of ourselves we deem unlovable and in doing so, hopefully normalizes these behaviors a little and therefore, encourages people to have more compassion for others and most importantly, for themselves. Watch the trailer below:
Alchemy released “Strangerland,” starring Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes and Hugo Weaving, in theaters and on demand on July 10, 2015.