“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” quipped Oscar Wilde. This adage is certainly borne out in writer-director Adrian Todd Zuniga’s thought-provoking and memorable film, ‘Hold Me, Don’t Touch Me.’
It is a winter evening in London. Aidy, a Black British woman (Anniwaa Buachie), has not turned up to a grief counselling session and is wandering the narrow streets, lost in melancholy. She enters a pub, orders a whisky and takes a lonely seat. She ignores the bartender’s half-hearted attempt to be kind by giving her fries (“the kitchen made a mistake … going to go in the bin otherwise”). It isn’t long before Stella (Tessa Bonham Jones) rocks up to Aidy’s table. Blonde, wearing a red polka dot dress, she announces that she has come to cheer Aidy up.
“I’m not here,” protests Aidy – at a loss for words.
Stella prattles on about her favourite ghost movies while helping herself to the fries. Aidy tries in vain to extradite herself, but Stella insists she should stay.
“I’m all about ‘do good, be remembered fondly,’” as she whittles through a list of pop culture do-gooders.
Treating Aidy like an adoring girlfriend clinging to her every word, she typifies the “manic pixie dream girl”: vapid, self-absorbed, entitled – and in this context, unwanted. Aidy can barely look at the crass intruder. When she finally snaps, we share her outrage with conviction.
“What do you get out of this? To go round hounding people? Egging them on until they fucking burst!”
Stella flinches, mumbles an apology, gets up and collapses to the floor. A leaflet marked “The Dying Process” falls out of her pocket. Aidy helps her sit down and fetches her water.
“I might have brain cancer,” is her all-too-English way of revealing that she is dying. “I’m way too vain to have all my hair fall out,” is her jokey way of saying that she only has weeks to live.
In asking her about her condition, contemplating this young woman’s “terrible” fate and trying to make her feel better, Aidy is momentarily taken out of her solipsistic grief. Other people have problems and pain too. Eager for a moment of levity, they both eat fries and agree that they are awful. The ensuing laughter belies a profound moment; Aidy has taken her first small step on her journey towards dealing with her grief. Stella has achieved her goal in helping her after all.
The camera pulls back, and a wide shot reveals the two women face-to-face, no longer isolated at the far sides of the frame as they were during the opening sequence. They are bound by a shared understanding of the fleetingly beautiful nature of life.
Adrian Todd Zuniga, who hails from America, reminds us that London is often best seen from outwards looking in. We could easily imagine this as part of an anthology about life in the city, such as Robert Altman’s tribute to Los Angeles, ‘Short Cuts’ (1993). The film also goes to show that people and situations are rarely, if ever, black and white, and that superficial stock characters can be given life in imaginative and emotive ways.
One senses too that Zuniga has an in-depth understanding of “complicated grief” and the way it makes us isolate ourselves. He is also the author of a novel ‘Collision Theory’ in which the protagonist must deal with a suicide he has witnessed.
“When my mother passed away 11 years ago, it was a seismic event in my life,” he writes. “One that caused me to put up barriers as a way to hold on to the pain. Creating this film helped me pull down walls in relation to my mother’s passing.”
We feel sure this film can also help viewers pull down some of their walls.
‘Hold Me, Don’t Touch Me’ screens at 4.30 – 7.30 pm on 24th July 2022 at Rialto Theatre as part of BRIFF’s 14th screening programme.