Independent filmmakers Catalina and Michael Gonzalez build family while bringing dramatic light to AIDS, addiction and other impediments facing today’s LGBT youth through their own real-life experiences.
by Sean Black
Becoming a fan favorite, EKAJ is continuing its little-engine-that-could cruise up the Independent Film circuit-mountain. EKAJ (Jake in reverse, presumably named for the actor Jake Mestre portraying the gender-fluid teenage lead) is a raw, colorful, and all-too-realistic glimpse into the hazy lives of two drifters. Ekaj and Mecca, his hustler sidekick (played by actor Badd Idea), forge a friendly bond on the streets that ultimately comes a little too late.
The film chronicles the aimlessness of these two wanderlusts seeking respite and finding patches of trouble while Mecca struggles with AIDS. The film is poignant in its ability to tell their stories without judgment punctuated with interstices of artistic creativity, like an homage to twentieth-century figurative painter Egon Schiele, known for addressing sexuality in a brash manner and beauty in all of its flaws.
The melancholy and sad trajectory of the film is palpable and necessary, yet its creators imbue the journey with a faint and sincere sweetness.
“The film EKAJ is meant to be an opportunity for kids from the other side of the tracks to work in a creative project,” shares director Catalina (Cati) Gonzalez, an acclaimed fashion photographer whose talents radiate from the screen in rich, painterly colors and dreamy vignettes. She goes by the name “De La Gata Real” as the cinematographer of the film and is joined by partner and film editor Michael (Mike) Gonzalez, who lost his mother to AIDS as a child resulting in a number of years on the streets himself.
Interspersed with hazy self-reflective moments the art piece is furtive ground for pondering the dilemmas of this and future generations of youth, particularly those who identify as LGBT, with a subtle critique on our present day, ill-equipped health, welfare and educational systems, a situation compounded by a tremendous lack of guidance by parents, teachers and other responsible adults.
According to data published on the The True Colors Fund website, “In America, up to 1.6 million youth experience homelessness each year. The statistics for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) homeless youth are even more shocking, as this group represents up to 40% of all young people experiencing homelessness. Considering that LGBT youth represent an estimated 7% of the total youth population, these numbers are disproportionately high. While even a single young person without a home is one too many, the disparity of LGBT youth experiencing homelessness is unfathomable. Once they are out of their homes, LGBT youth are even more vulnerable. They are at a greater risk for victimization, unsafe sexual practices, and mental health issues than non-LGBT young people experiencing homelessness.”
EKAJ has been chosen recently as Official Selections of the Santo Domingo Out Fest 2016, Long Island’s Macabre Faire Film Festival 2017, and LesGaiCineMad 2016 Film Festival in Madrid, Spain, and was honored as “Best Film” at the 2016 NY Downtown Urban Arts Festival and “Best Film”, “Best Director” and “Best Actor” at 2016 Philadelphia Independent Film Festival 2016, “Best First-Film” at 2016 QCinema Fort Worth LGBT Film Festival, “Best Film” at 2016 Pembroke Taparelli Art & Film Festival, and nominated for “Best Feature Film” at the Blow-Up Arthouse Film Festival.
A&U had the honor and pleasure of corresponding with Cati and Mike, the creative duo behind this film:
Sean Black: Congratulations on the film and its mounting success. It addresses several major social woes impacting LGBT youth like homelessness and addiction. How do you hope to quell this problem and make an impact?
Cati Gonzalez, Michael Gonzalez: That’s the big question; problems resolve themselves better when you know the root [causes]….Feeling lonely, unloved might be the root. It sounds simple but [it] is not.
Everybody in this world begins as a kid, a beautiful kid first, innocent with hope and lots of love to give. If your family or social surroundings reject you at an early age it will bring depression, anxiety, even aggression, depending on who you are. Youth are craving love these days because there is none. It’s hard for kids to find it even inside their own families; everyone is [out] for themselves and kids have grown as tough as Teflon in order to survive. Many kids rely on the LGBT community to lean-on when they first come out, and that is not always as warm and welcoming as they hoped; many times [it’s] heartbreaking.
I blame depression, alcohol, [illegal] drugs, and prescription drugs because of their availability and social acceptability. They have grown to have them as part of their everyday lives. Rich kids suffer from depression too; it’s not just a problem for poor kids, although is much harder for the poor kid to survive depression/addiction without a support system to get back on his/her feet—that is why many end up homeless…..
These are the kids that I believe could be great artists but have a hard time surviving. Once on drugs they become an easy target since you are more likely to say ‘yes,’ to things you would never say ‘yes’ to sober. And AIDS is not forgiving. Most kids don’t think it’s going to happen to them and look at the ones that have HIV or AIDS as different or lesser beings but it can happen to them overnight. People with HIV and AIDS were those innocent kids yesterday and that’s what nobody sees.
And you explored this in your film….
In our movie Mecca is that kid; overnight his hopes and dreams were gone and ten years later he is just existing, drowning his pain to cope with his broken heart.
I see a lot of HIV people that are angry, bitter, and on drugs or alcohol because they feel betrayed by the disease simply because they might have gone out of their way and been very careful not to get [HIV] and then one moment unguarded and there they are. They feel an enormous injustice has taken place in their life and I can’t blame them for feeling that way.
There are no instant solutions; healing takes time but with a little love a wounded person can fight addiction and begin to love again. The problem is once you are an addict you feel hopeless; you stay stuck in the original problem and you blame everybody, your family, your friends, and until you come out of it you can’t heal. I have seen so many friends go through this; it’s painful to think about it.
Michael, you lost your mother to AIDS. I am sorry. How have you dealt with this loss? Do you feel that inner-city, urban youth experience more first-hand brushes with the effects of HIV/AIDS?
Michael Gonzalez: Thank you, Sean. Yes. The urban youth have more exposure to HIV/AIDS, most definitely. My mom passed away when I was just six years-old so I don’t think that I was able to fully understand the situation at the time but as I grew older curiosity kept biting at me naturally. I was always told that she died from a pneumonia infection so that’s what I believed.
It wasn’t until I was fourteen years-old that my aunt pulled me aside on the street one day and told me that she had died from full-blown AIDS. She tried to explain to me that they (the doctors) back then in 1982 didn’t know what it was. I do remember seeing her quarantined in a hospital room the day she died so that made sense.
After learning the truth about my mom’s disease, it was like the world took a whole turn on me. I couldn’t comprehend what I was just told, or maybe I just didn’t want to accept that she had died from this horrible disease for that matter. All types of thoughts invaded my mind like, ‘What? Do I have AIDS? How did she get it?’ I just couldn’t think straight. I went and got high on drugs immediately, anything to just make my mind drift away as far as possible. I even contemplated suicide several times.
I lived with a great aunt after my mom died and she threw me out onto the streets at thirteen and I found myself homeless. It was very hard for me to focus on anything from that point on in my life. I had to drop out of school, staying at friends’ houses here and there but mostly sleeping on city park benches for many, many nights basically trying to survive on the streets of New York City. It really took a huge toll on me. At eighteen Cati took me into her home and it took me years to become comfortable and trust people again. I started getting work here and there, learning carpentry. Meanwhile, Cati always encouraged me to learn photography but it would be video and editing/sound that really got me hooked. She always says I’m more organized than her. One thing is for sure though—everything that I suffered growing up made me a stronger person and defines who I am today.
Congratulations—wow! Why did you, Cati, ultimately decide to weave this thread into EKAJ?
Cati Gonzalez: I was writing a film with Midnight Cowboy in mind, but with Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) drifters, broke and discarded by life. Once I met Jake [who plays EKAJ] I thought he could be in the film; I already had met another young man that was related to Mike, that was also really beautiful in a rougher way, and I decided that the story would apply to them even better since I had not seen hot Puerto Rican hood gay boys featured in a lot of films.
I wrote the older character with AIDS in the film because I had quite a few friends that died of AIDS in the early nineties. I had just started to work as a fashion photographer and everybody I knew was gay. My agent Dennis, who lived in Horatio Street—I used to stay on his couch when I came from Philly to do shoots and he would always say that he was lucky; all his friends were dead but he was lucky because he wouldn’t share a needle.
And my friend Rommel Wilson, the most beautiful stylist, died of AIDS. Back then it was a shock, because once they found out they had it they would die fast.
I also found out five years ago that an old friend of mine was HIV-positive; it’s heartbreaking, I tried to see him but he’d always cancel. I think it’s because he doesn’t want me to see him changed by the disease. I knew him when he was young and on top of his game and I think it is hard for him.
From the beginning of writing EKAJ, I wanted AIDS to be silent in the film, as if it’s so common you don’t make a big deal or talk about it everyday; it’s just there.
From the film’s opening of Ekaj (Jake) giving himself a razor cut in a dank bathroom to the sequence of him relishing in his gender-fluid beauty and physicality while bathed in the light of golden hour, the cinematography really showcases Cati’s experience as leading photographer in the fashion industry. Is the exquisite beauty a replacement for dream-like escape?
Cati Gonzalez: It was just the raw beauty of Jake and NYC together, and wanting to show the truth that was my drive visually. All my photography work is pretty much the same. I just follow my emotions; it never changes as you can see here: www.catiandmikegonzalezfilms.com.
As an adjunct instructor at a local state college, I teach critical thinking and visual literacy in an introductory history of photography course. I feel that the ultimate educational power of your film resides within the film’s creative team—the ‘familyesque’ success story in creating this film. This is why I am very interested in bringing awareness to your film through A&U. What is the response that you are getting from young at-risk viewers?
Cati Gonzalez, Michael Gonzalez: Actually the best response is from young at-risk viewers, the kids that are living it for real. You don’t know how many times I’ve heard: “This is the story of my life.” We played the film at a youth LGBT homeless shelter in NYC called Sylvia’s Place and they were glued. They liked that the film didn’t have a preachy tone. Some I could tell were looking to criticize it, since they are homeless themselves but they didn’t. I could see they were surprised that it felt real, they liked it and stayed for the entire film.
How can creativity and the arts help us transcend and grow beyond our circumstances to new and brighter possibilities?
Cati Gonzalez, Michael Gonzalez: I think art is the best medicine. Art is the escape and the pride that no one can take away from you. When you take a picture and you love it, who can tell you it is a bad picture? When you paint your jacket or a canvas and you love it who can say it is not beautiful? And that is just the beginning once you are hooked on any art form and you love doing it, writing, music, it’s all relevant. Once you love it, it’s much easier to pursue to a higher level. In my opinion every kid that has suffered greatly can be a great artist, they just have to love it, that’s all. You have to work at it and you can get better and better but it begins with love.
What message or moment about EKAJ do you want to linger or stick in viewer minds?
Cati Gonzalez, Michael Gonzalez: The love between Mecca and Ekaj, the love between two lonely discarded souls that have to lean on each other in order to survive.
To view EKAJ and help its creators raise funds, the filmmakers have posted the film online for a limited time please log on to:
For more information about EKAJ log on to the Website: ekajthemovie.com
Sean Black is Senior Editor of A&U.