“You may find the following scenes upsetting. But that doesn’t always mean you should turn way,” filmmakers Arron Blake and Darius Shu warn us at the beginning of their latest collaboration I AM Norman. Like their Tribecca screening short His Hands, their newest creation is an unsettling watch which tackles issues likely to resonate with the LGBTQ+ community – in this case, mental health struggles and the damaging cruelty of gay conversion therapy.
Opening in a rural woodland setting, we are introduced to Norman (Arron Blake), a man who has been living in his car for four years. Being interviewed by a filmmaker, Norman reveals how he spends his days in the woods – revealing an unsettling pastime.
Written and performed by Arron Blake, I AM Norman. sees our titular character discussing the events which have lead to his current living arrangements. Blake packs a brooding intensity into the role of Norman, whilst also showcasing the character’s fragility, giving us a sense of the mental health issues that plague him.
As Norman meanders around the countryside with the filmmaker, hunting for a lost dog (lost several years prior), it becomes clear that this is a man who has been exposed to some form of trauma. Norman’s unsettling musings to the camera reveal a past of conversion therapy – he delivers a traumatic account of men being forced to fight, rocks used to carry the weight of the apparent burden of homosexuality, and both sexual and physical abuse at the hands of conversion counsellors. The subsequent abandonment by family members and loved ones – a genuine fate that affects countless victims of conversion therapy – is another of the factors leading to Norman’s mental health battle.
Blake crafts the character with an inventive level of precision; Norman is a character who enjoys the solace and safety of living in a locked car, someone who finds the most peace and self-worth in a troubling hobby of filming those come into the woods with the intention of suicide. His contribution to society is a disturbing attempt to bring calm to the loved ones of suicide victims. Norman’s film footage is often shot with eerie black and white aesthetic, injecting the short with a further sense of unease.
Shu and Blake direct with a claustrophobic intensity, Norman is always framed somewhat uncomfortably close to the camera. The sound of harsh breathing and wind intertwine to craft a brooding, nightmarish energy, adding a further level of intensity to the project. Yet an intelligent portrayal of our lead character, allows us to feel a sense of compassion for Norman, someone disregarded by society and abused by the hypocritical violations of conversion therapy.
Ending with the startling fact that gay conversion therapy is still legal in the UK and that LGBTQIA+ people 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide or develop mental health issues due to family rejection, further adds to the powerful resonance of I AM Norman. This impressively crafted short should be commended for further shedding light on these damaging truths, in a hard-hitting, deeply engaging manner.