The democratization of filmmaking technology has meant that it’s now affordable for anyone to have a voice in modern cinema, whether or not they have properly funded distribution or production values to back them up. Films like Creep, Primer, and Tangerine, while benefiting from traditional modes of distribution, have been exciting reminders of just how much a no-budget indie can accomplish with the right players & screenplay. The recent found footage dark comedy Damascene, which saw its world premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, isn’t nearly as high profile of a release as those shining examples of minimalist digital filmmaking, but is just as worthy to be lauded for the effect it accomplishes with severely limited, available-to-anyone means. Detailing a single, hour-long conversation shot on two bike helmet-mounted GoPros, Damascene boasts the bare bones storytelling of a one act stage play. It makes the best of its limited resources it can, though, reaching into the discomforting dark humor and emotional trauma typically reserved for deep-cutting stage dramas. It’s an exciting reminder that a great film doesn’t necessarily require a great budget, that a handful of people and a commercially-affordable camera are enough resources to produce top tier cinema in the 2010s.
Two old lovers reunite by accident after a long absence while biking to a mutual friend’s party. They film each other in conversation with their own helmet-mounted GoPros while cruising the streets, parks, and back allies of a sunshine-drenched London. The conversation starts amicably enough. The woman is guarded & perhaps even annoyed by the intrusion of her old boyfriend on what was a solo bike ride, but they find enough common ground to casually discuss as they leisurely make their way to the party: making fun of their friends for treating romance like a social media meme, reminiscing over half-remembered anecdotes and a shared political interest in war-torn Syria, pop culture touchstones like Friends, Event Horizon, Bukowski, etc. Thiis protective shield of social niceties eventually corrodes, however, and their rapport takes a dark turn. Picking at the barely-healed scabs of their failed romance uncovers a long-buried trauma and an unresolved act of violence that can’t remain undiscussed forever. The darkness at the heart of Damascene gradually creeps in with a casually tossed-out sexist joke or an alcoholism-blurred memory of an nonconsensual public groping, chipping away at the pair’s apparent camaraderie. Once the guard wall is fully breached there’s a full, unstoppable catharsis in the film’s tragic streak that poisonously overpowers any kindness or illusion of healing that came before it.
It’s initially tempting to view Damascene as a Before Sunrise descendant, if not only for its structure as a single conversation contained mostly between two romantically-linked characters. The film is so much more caustic than Richard Linklater’s melancholic romance series, however. Its thematic explorations of unchecked privilege, toxic masculinity, and lingering trauma sit heavy on the audience’s conscience, especially as they’re brushed aside with playfully dark social humor. It makes total sense that one of the two main players is a former playwright, since this mix of comic & tragic tones combines with the conversational storytelling to amount to a very distinct stage play aesthetic. Staging this conversation through hydraulic-smoothed GoPro footage makes this dialogue-based work feel inherently cinematic, though. The camera operators build tension by squeezing between cars in London traffic and offer an eye-level version of drone footage of the city that feels unique to its productions style. Better yet, it’s often easy to forget you’re watching GoPro footage at all, once the dread & mystery of the dark places the conversation is going commands the back half. Damascene is proof in itself that there are great films to be made out of less than ideal equipment, even if it is never distributed wide enough for most audiences to see that proof for themselves.