RYAN BOWMAN, MyToba.ca
About 18 minutes into Stress Position, actor/director A.J. Bond looks co-star David Amito in the face and says, “It’s supposed to be weird. That’s the idea; it’s supposed to be weird.”
To Bond’s credit, his debut feature film is certainly that. But also to the Vancouver-born director’s credit, it is much more than that.
The film, which defies the definition of any existing genre and can best be described as part experimental docudrama-part thriller-part reality TV, opens with the two main characters (who play themselves) arguing over who is better suited to survive confinement in a Guantanamo Bay-style prison.
Before long, they have agreed to engage in an experiment: each man would willingly spend a week locked up in a cell while the other psychologically tortured them (the only three rules are no severe pain, no permanent physical damage and nothing illegal). Whoever lasts longer would be declared the winner – and the beneficiary of $10,000.
The premise for the film, Bond says, came from a real-life interest in what went on behind the closed doors of torture chambers.
“The idea for Stress Position was inspired by my fascination with psychological torture techniques in general, but specifically Stasi interrogation tactics and the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA and U.S. military post-9/11,” he said. “I’ve always wondered what these techniques would feel like, and began to develop an absurd reality TV-style competition based on the idea of physically painless torture.
“The film was improvised around this premise with a loose 30-page outline, but quickly veered into much more personal territory than I had anticipated. It soon became more about the behind-the-scenes process of embarking on such an irresponsible competition than any kind of “torture porn” genre film.”
As the film progresses, it studies the effects of psychological torture – from withheld bathroom rights to bouts of unwanted tickling – on not only the “prisoner,” but on the oppressor as well. It also raises uncomfortable questions about filmmaking and the blurry line between reality and art.
But despite some of the obvious themes that thread their way through the movie – from friendship and identity to obsession and truth – Bond says he didn’t make the film with a single message in mind.
“I don’t believe great films can be boiled down to simple didacticism,” he said. “I make films that are personal and raw, and I don’t always understand what I’m wrestling with until the film is long over. For me, it’s about exploring ideas, themes and questions that I think are fascinating and meaningful, and hoping that the film will provoke an interesting and illuminating experience and dialogue within the audience.
“My greatest hope is that the film engages the viewer to relate to the material and take something completely personal from the experience. Often the best interpretations of my work have been completely unexpected viewpoints that the viewer surprises me with. In this case, I hope the film gets people thinking about their capacity for evil, how we all manipulate the people around us in subtle ways, as well as the identities that we construct for ourselves, and whether those identities really match our true personalities.”
While Stress Position is certainly unique in its content and structure, Bond says he drew some inspiration from other filmmakers – and infamous psychology experiments – along the way.
“We looked at several films leading up to the production, particularly Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream,” he says. “All highly inventive films that tried to do something unique and stylish with the medium while exploring provocative, psychological themes.
“Given the somewhat experimental nature of the production, we also based the project on psychological experiments, such as the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority and (Philip Zimbardo’s) Stanford prison experiment.”
Filmed in an empty Vancouver warehouse over the course of 20 days in March 2012, on a budget of $50,000, the film has since been nominated for seven Leo Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for David Amito. It also won Best Supporting Actor (Amito) and Best Cinematography at the 2013 Las Vegas Film Festival and Best Experimental Film and Best Supporting Actor (Bond) at the 2013 Lady Filmmakers Film Festival.
To date, it has played to mostly favourable reviews in Toronto and Vancouver, and will premiere in Winnipeg on Wednesday, Aug. 13 at The Cinematheque (9 p.m.).
While the film may not be for everybody, Bond says people may be surprised at what they take from it and recommends it to “anyone who is interested in experiencing something new and unexpected, fascinated by the dark side of human psychology, cult film fans and particularly students of film and media.”