Hard Paint: An Authentic Queer Panopticon

Hard Paint (2018)

A sleeping boy is the subject of the grainy first shot of Hard Paint (2018), Berlinale’s Teddy Award winner (the prize for best queer movie). Slowly the camera zooms out and it turns out that the grainy quality is due to the fact that we watch the boy as captured by his webcam. Next to his image a chatroom appears. Onlookers debate about the boy. They pay to see him dance, strip and cover himself in neon paint. By choosing this point of view, directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon show this movie is about looking and being looked at, making the viewer aware of their own position in the process. In Hard Paint, main character Pedro’s world is defined by the way others look at him.

At the start of the film the viewer learns that Pedro is caught up in a trial because he has hurt someone. He’s stopped going to college and is living a reclusive life making money by doing webcam shows. When his sister, with whom he has a close bond, leaves Porto Alegre, Brazil, he meets up with Leo. Leo has ‘stolen’ his idea to use neon paint during webcam shows and Pedro makes him promise to only use paint when they do a show together. They start working together and over time become a couple. Pedro is introduced to Leo’s friends, where he, for the first time, encounters a safe space with many queer people. That safe space is completely different from how Pedro experiences the world in his daily life.

When Pedro walks on the streets of Porto Alegre, Matzembacher and Reolon insert shots of people looking through their windows several times. They watch what happens outside from the comfort of their own home. They are mostly dark silhouettes, and with the big flats everywhere it is impossible to escape from the idea that someone might always be watching. This recalls Michel Foucault’s theory about the panopticon effect. It’s enough to know people might be looking to make other people regulate their own behaviour. In the case of Pedro, who’s struggling with being himself in public spaces because he’s shy and queer and gets told to look the part of a good guy so he will receive a lesser punishment for his crime, being watched signifies danger. That makes him conscious of his every move.

Hard Paint (2018)

In a key scene of the film, it becomes clear that there’s a difference between being looked at and being seen. One night at a party with Leo, Pedro is confronted by some of his old classmates. They want an “eye for an eye” and start a fight. While anonymous people watching from their windows do nothing, Leo comes to the rescue. The two escape and end up at home together. That’s when Leo starts to tell a story he read in the newspaper, about a boy who’s hurt another boy. Leo’s story is full of the details that haven’t made it into the newspaper, but show exactly how important it is that people see the whole story and not just the ‘facts’ as told by a news source. It’s Leo who understands that Pedro’s probably been bullied because he’s queer and insecure. He understands Pedro one night just lost it when being drunk and again being looked down upon at a party for being different. While the classmates want to take his eye as revenge and blind him too, it’s Leo who offers the chance of being seen.

Just like the people in the flats watch from anonymity, there are people watching Pedro’s webcam shows. They are even more unreachable, with their fake names like “married voyeur”. Yet, when Pedro is in his room and performing erotic dances and covering himself in fluorescent paint he has control over the people watching his webcam show. He can close his laptop and walk away if he wants to, giving him the authority about what happens. There he is the subject and not just the object of desire. However, the real world and that of his webcam shows aren’t completely separated. One time Pedro comes out when he’s asked to meet up by someone named “married voyeur”. He does so, but “married voyeur” doesn’t show himself and just remarks that he’d expected someone bigger.

In a sense, the position of the viewer is comparable with both the people behind their windows and the people behind their laptops. The viewer in the cinema is also a voyeur, though they don’t have the risk to become involved in someone else’s story. However, by showing how looking does uphold societal norms and systems, it actually implies that people who watch movies (or anything else) are complicit. This is interesting when looking specifically at queer representation. Matzembacher and Reolon are part of the queer community themselves and have talked about working with queer artists, for example by using music by mostly queer makers, in interviews. They show that authenticity matters to them and that they want to convey the right experience. By doing so they create content that is close to their hearts and to that of queer audiences. They create a kind of safe space. By making a movie with graphic sexual content they also help to normalise showing queer sex. Those explicit scenes thus are twofold in nature: they place the viewer into the same position as the voyeurs of the webcam shows and secondly, they make for some necessary representation.

All these elements shine a light on a different aspect of looking and being looked at. They form a piercing look at the way people can move through our society. It makes clear how being seen can restrict one in the way they move. Hard Paint emphasises how being looked at can be an intimidating experience, but being seen can give one the confidence to take up the space they need.

This Essay article was published in November 2021