The writer/director/producer Theodore Collatos, along with his wife/producer Carolina Monnerat, founded Brokenhorse Films, a production company that creates microbudget films.
Collatos shoots in a raw style that shines a light on people and themes that are underrepresented in cinema. The appeal of his work is not just the filmmaker’s up-close-and-personal approach to the characters he studies, but his absolute empathy for them as they grapple with hardships. The protagonists in his features and documentaries are tough and resilient, weary, but scrappy—and they are endearing.
Collatos’ achievement is that he really sits with his characters when most folks might be more inclined to get up and walk away. The filmmaker is asking audiences to sit with them as well, and he creates the space to really observe and get to know his protagonists. They can be joking one moment, and ashamed the next, but they are always fascinating to watch. This is why his films are special—his uncompromising style asks viewers to accept, not judge his characters. By seeing these people through his lens, audiences come to appreciate them more fully.
Here are three films that highlight Collatos’ singular vision.
Collatos’ sophomore feature, Dipso (2012), is a compelling portrait of Tom Collins (Matthew Shaw) who is first seen getting out of prison. (Scenes from Dipso are included in — and taken from—Collatos’s short documentary, Time (2014) which depicts various conversations between prisoners.) Heading to a sushi restaurant, there is a quiet dignity in Tom enjoying his first meal on the outside before he sets off, hoping to stay clean and start life anew.
Why Tom was in prison (and for how long) is left vague, but what is revealed is that he had an epiphany while behind bars to do stand-up comedy. Tom tries out some amusing jokes, such as, “We were so poor, our Monopoly set had no money,” but his routine in front of an audience is painful and discomfiting. One gig, at a punk club hosted by a naked emcee and full of rowdy patrons is particularly fraught. Another set, in a more appropriate venue, features an equally unappreciative crowd.
Viewers absorb Tom’s pain in this and other situations because Collatos does not shy away from showing the more difficult moments in Tom’s life—such as having to ask a favor from his parole officer. Tom hopes to get back together with his ex-girlfriend, Sarah (a terrific Rebekah Frenkel), who has had a child since their relationship ended. However, his affection is one-sided. Tom understands when she tells him she already has a kid, but that doesn’t make him any less lonely or heartbroken.
Tom’s family is not much better at offering love. He has an awkward encounter with his estranged mother at a bar, and it hints at the cycle of alcoholism in his family. Tom still has trouble with sobriety; he frequently overdrinks and is seen waking up passed out on someone’s lawn, or inside a stranger’s house, hence the film’s title.
Tom’s efforts to keep busy with work is also challenging for him. He briefly does a landscaping job with his brother, Patrick (Rick Roucoulet)—a character that was featured in Collatos’ narrative short, Wartime (2012). He later agrees to help his other brother Ant (Tony Shaw) steal an antique table, even though it puts him at risk for returning to jail.
Watching Tom try to get his life together is fascinating because he makes a series of bad decisions that reveal his true nature. And Collatos films Tom drinking, fighting, and even vomiting with an unflinching eye that draws viewers in—it may be hard to watch, but one can’t look away.
Whenever he is asked how he is doing, Tom replies, “I’m good,” inasmuch as to convince himself as the person he is talking to that things are fine. But viewers can feel the palpable sadness, the lack of self-esteem, and the crushing despair percolating beneath the surface. Matt Shaw’s fantastic performance contains moments of self-deprecation as well as outbursts of frustration.
Collatos’ film delivers a potent look at a man who endures so much pain, but also brings much of it on himself.
Tormenting the Hen (2017) was shot in six days and yet, even with a small cast and few locations, the film’s minimalist approach is an asset.
The story has Claire (Dameka Hayes), and her fiancée Monica (Carolina Monnerat), going to the Berkshires for Claire to direct a two-man play she has written. While Claire goes to work and encounters resistance from her actors, Joel (Brian Harlan Brooks) and Adam (David Malinsky), Monica stays home and is troubled by her neighbor, Mutty (Matthew Shaw), who mows the grass relentlessly. The women also come into conflict discussing their wedding as well as Monica’s fears about Mutty. When the couple fights one night, Collatos shrewdly drowns out the sound of their arguing, ratcheting up the tension with chirping crickets.
Tormenting the Hen is a claustrophobic psychodrama where Collatos fixes his camera on the characters as they experience levels of discomfort. There is a strange sequence involving a hen in the house, and Mutty exhibits some unusual behavior, that is unnerving. But as this hypnotic film unfolds, Collatos addresses issues of mental health—Mutty is said to have Asperger’s syndrome—as well as xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and misogyny.
Perhaps because they are outsiders, Monica and Claire are confronted with microaggressions from the moment they arrive. Sarah (Josephine Decker), who picks them up at the train station, makes some borderline offensive comments in the car. There are equally distressing exchanges with Mutty, and Joel and Adam articulate their hostility in a post-performance talkback. Collatos creates layers of meaning as he shows how the women process and understand what is being said to them and about them. Words do matter, as evidenced by a debate Claire and Monica have about calling children “stupid.” Moreover, the women repeatedly feel unsafe, and their insecurity is captured not just in the strong performances by Monnerat and Hayes, but also through Collatos’ transfixing handheld camerawork.
With its distinctive style, Tormenting the Hen is engrossing and anxiety-inducing.
Queen of Lapa (2019), which Collatos codirected with Monnerat, is an award-winning, observational documentary that profiles Luana Muniz, a 59-year-old transgender sex worker. She is first seen posing for photographs in the hallway of the hostel she has managed for two decades. Smoking and confident, she plays to the camera, and enjoys the attention. She is instantly ingratiating.
Muniz is a tender, caring “mother” for the young trans sex workers who live with her. She also says, at one point, that she is “a lioness.” It is clear she does not back down from injustice. As if to illustrate her point, a TV clip shown in the film features her taking a potential client to task—physically beating him—for wasting her time. She also talks about fighting against racial, social, and sexual discrimination.
Muniz is an indomitable force and Collatos clearly admires her strength and tenacity. His camera fixates on her long fingernails that resemble talons. She talks about taking Botox, and she displays her breasts which have been (re)constructed 14 times. Images from her past performances hang on the wall of her hostel, and Collatos includes a nightclub scene of her performing to Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” to show viewers that she still has “it.”
Muniz is inspirational, a role model, and it is gratifying when one of the trans youth mentioned that she had seen Muniz, but never thought she would be living in her hostel.
Queen of Lapa depicts Muniz interacting with the various young sex workers. She teaches them self-defense and offers encouragement and life lessons. She also chastises them when she finds something foul in the trash area. The filmmakers capture many of these scenes as if they were eavesdropping, and the intimacy of the film is its strength; viewers feel like they are sitting in the room as the participants talk or go about their business. (No actual sex work is shown).
The youth are given copious screen time, and they are seen preparing for work, talking about clients, money, and their dreams, as well as telling stories—including one horrific incident where a sex worker describes nearly being raped at gunpoint.
Muniz, however, is the best raconteur, and her tale of confronting a thief, or her experience with the police are great. But she is perhaps most revealing talking about her mother—Muniz was adopted, which may explain why she helps others like her—or finding inspiration from Barbra Streisand.
Muniz, who died in 2017, claims in the film that her legacy is to be determined. But she adds, she was born to shine, not be pitied. With Queen of Lapa, Collatos and Monnerat have given her an appropriate showcase.
© 2022 Gary M. Kramer
Dipso, Tormenting the Hen, and Queen of Lapa from Theodore Collatos are now showing on Fandor.