Siavash Minoukadeh on Theo Montoya’s Anhell69
In the early 1990s, with his health steadily declining, Derek Jarman set to work on the garden of his Dungeness cottage. Of the cottage, he said: ‘There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon.’ Faced with a terminal AIDS diagnosis, a hostile public and a culpable state, Jarman’s work did not withdraw into itself but instead threw its arms wide open.
Theo Montoya’s ANHELL69 closes with one of the filmmaker’s queer friends and collaborators describing their ideal house: ‘without walls … without windows … without furniture … without beds … with nature.’ When, in a voiceover, Montoya calls his film a ‘trans’ film this lack of inhibition is what he was getting at. ANHELL69 transes our understanding of film. It sprawls across binaries – of gender, yes, but also of fact/fiction, and the world of the film and our own. The film does not move cleanly across these boundaries – being, for example, documentary until it becomes speculative – but inhabits both sides at once. From this uneasy state, it synthesises its own approach, one that accepts what we may find to be the exact inverse of valuable, and holds it close.
Be it Jarman and 90s England or ANHELL69 and contemporary Colombia, there is a queer urge, when backed into a violent corner one can neither fight nor fly out of, to choose a third option: embrace entirely even the terrifying, the undesirable, the unthinkable. Ultimately, this embrace reaches the most sacrosanct binary, life/death, and embraces both sides. Why not, when life has failed to deliver on its promises, look beyond it? To me, ANHELL69’s most dramatic act of transing is in calling the value of life itself into question.
We are supposed to cherish life, to fill it, to take as much of it as we can. But life does not treat the subjects of ANHELL69 with the same respect. If a person is to be judged by the content of their life or its length, this group of queer youth are being set up to fail: because of their age, their geography, their identity. The taboo nature of seeking death, not wanting more from life or wanting more life, presumes that life holds some promise for someone and it is evident that Montoya’s peers do not feel this way.
They repeatedly refuse to say where they see themselves in five, ten, fifty years. What choices do they have? Admitting they could be dead is a depressing thought. Articulating desires for a career, family, wealth that they know will be denied them is as depressing. When there is nothing to be found in life, can they be blamed for looking for dignity in death?
It may seem a perverse strategy but for Montoya and his circle of Medellinense queers, there are few other options. They pass their time with the threat of violence never far away: from the state, from a lack of opportunity, from bigotry. Indeed, our introduction to them is as already-dead figures, many of their faces and voices originating from bodies that, as the in memoriam intertitle reveals, have already been buried. Striving for a life worth living is a futile, humiliating act – at least in death you may have agency.
Is this the situation Montoya’s comrades would have wished to find themselves in? I would presume not. A life that supports queerness would be desirable. But here is an example of how, when relegated to the inhospitable, queers can make wilderness their source of strength. Here, they might find the value denied to them in the centre.
If the film ends with a dream of an expansive, encompassing structure, what precedes it is a vision of what this structure can enable. Death is shown as a place where ghosts float amongst us, party with us, fall in love with us. It is a world not burdened by the mundanity of the real with fiction and fact lying together. Death is not feared but taken as a relief from the violence of living. The film’s first frame is of a funeral cortege driving onwards into the fog. Death, very literally, is where we start in ANHELL69.
This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of ANHELL69 (2022, dir. Theo Montoya) at Bertha DocHouse, 7 September 2023.
SIAVASH MINOUKADEH is a curator and writer working with moving image. They have produced projects with institutions including LUX, London Film Festival and Watershed. In 2022, he was shortlisted for the Michael O’Pray Prize for new writing on experimental film and moving image.