Pretext is not a film that relies on twists or dramatic swings of plot, yet it manages to upend expectations frequently, and rewards an audience that comes to it without preconceptions. Minhal Baig’s tight 8min drama on the aftermath of one woman’s sexual assault is, in one sense, very generic to this emerging genre, but its artful, powerful, and succinct handling of familiar beats touches upon a universality inherent to these experiences. I encourage you to watch the film now before reading further.
I had not heard of the concept of “pretext calls” before this film, an investigative tool in which a victim records a phone call with their perpetrator in order to solicit incriminating statements. The film’s director Minhal Baig had not either until a member of private woman’s Facebook group she belonged to posted her experience in making one. The concept delivers a strong open to the film as we dive directly into our lead’s emotional confrontation. Originally designed to be the climax, the structure of the piece was radically reworked in its edit, and rather than closing the film, this scene became its open.
This decision is indicative of a number of good decisions made by Baig and her editor, S/W alum Alexander Farah (Sahar), to propel a film that is essentially about the “stuckness” of its lead in the wake of trauma. She may be in an uncomfortable limbo, but the film never is, as it pushes through its scenes briskly. The restless critic in me saw the pretext call opening and thought “oh, they are going to make the police precinct setting the “surprise” reveal at the end of the film”. Nope, the reveal is banged out in 30 seconds. After a 2 minutes of awkward, painful conversation on the phone, I thought the entirety of the film would be a telephonic two-hander, but again, no—as soon as the momentum of the conversation flags and the victim and her perpetrator hit a wall over her accusations, the film cuts and moves on. Farah and Baig exhibit a keen sense for the limits of each scene and do not try their audience’s patience.
This lack of indulgence perhaps can be traced to Baig’s decision to shoot the film in 35mm, a rarity for shorts these days. With limited stock at their disposal, no scene had more than 3 takes, leading to an uncommon degree of precision.
The results are beautiful, as 35mm done well is still instantly recognizable, but every strength of a film has a corresponding weakness. The lack of takes, and the regimented nature of the scenes leads to a clinical feeling on screen, as though the script is ticking off boxes of a generic aftermath to a traumatic experience, and the lead performance, especially in the initial call feels slightly tight.
Yet both these critiques can be viewed charitably as well. Is the phone call a bit wooden? Sure, but that because it is a performance, the on-the-nose dialogue a result of the fact that this is not an organic attempt at catharsis, but a calculated play for incriminating evidence. The bluntness of her script is purposeful, and it backfires. She is not loose nor natural, because she is having this wrenching, intimate conversation in the presence of police investigator, and the stakes are high—her ability to achieve justice and ultimately, resolution, is tied into this performance.
Similarly it’s an easy critique to say that there is no character development within Pretext, that the character is a cipher who does not really exist outside of her victimhood. Yet, again, that’s kinda the point. As we view more and more films that tackle this subject of trauma and pursuant grief, its becoming clear that the structure of these works, films like Laps or And Nothing Happened, necessarily must upend standard narrative structures because the nature of these stories, what lends them their tragic power, is their unresolved nature. The messiness of their protagonist’s emotional and mental states in the wake of the crime is as great of a violence against them as the initial act.
This point is powerfully brought home in the close of Pretext, as our lead is doing something mundane—washing her clothes at a laundromat. Out of the blue she hears his voice. He’s there, with a new woman, and the unexpected contact is traumatic all over again. She rushes out from the scene to cry in her car. To some the scene will play as anti-climactic, but what close could have done justice to this story and still be true to innumerable true experiences? Without justice, how does one move on, especially when a triggering event is always just around the corner? That is the challenge of this movement and the challenge of the filmmakers who choose to dramatize these stories, and it is becoming clearer to me that the resolution we seek is extra-textual—that it takes place is the minds of viewers in the audience struggling with these same feelings of irresolution, and whom hopefully find communion and comfort in recognizing themselves on screen and knowing they are not alone.