Trauma, Clowning, and Telling One’s Truth

Sheldon D. Brown and Matthew Fifer in "Cicada," which the two actors wrote together and which Fifer co-directed with Kieran Mulcare.
Courtesy of NewFest

Actor, co-writer, and co-director Matthew Fifer makes an auspicious feature film debut with the potent romantic drama “Cicada.” The film, “based on true events,” has Ben (Fifer), a white man haunted by a childhood trauma, embarking on a relationship with Sam (co-writer Sheldon D. Brown), a handsome and closeted African-American guy who his own complicated backstory. How things progress in their lives and relationship creates this absorbing film’s drama.

Fifer chatted about his film in a recent phone interview.

GARY M. KRAMER: This is a very personal story. What informed your decision to make this your feature film directorial debut?
MATTHEW FIFER: Well, it’s sort of the secret I never wanted to tell. It was born more out of necessity. I’m tired of seeing trauma on screen for the sake of trauma. The more I talk about it the more people talk about it. I think that it was a leap of faith. It came down to my co-director saying, ‘You need to play this part.’ This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done acting-wise.

Matthew Fifer’s romantic drama, his debut, “based on true events” from his life

KRAMER: Ben is first seen being a bit self-destructive. He also cracks wise with Sam, which can be frustrating for his partner. Can you talk about creating and playing the character?
FIFER: This is closer to my life than I’d like. I feel very naked in this film in more ways than one. I’m a bit of a clown and am always getting into trouble. I felt if I was intimate in any way it would lead to questions that I didn’t want to answer, so that’s my coping mechanism. The scariest part of trauma isn’t facing rejection but that it becomes real once it comes out of your mouth. It was pushing anything real away and dealing with intimacy with a quip or a joke.

KRAMER: Can you talk about your approach to telling the story, narratively and visually. The film is very tactile, sensual, and uses sounds and silence effectively.
FIFER: That’s a good question for my cinematographer. For the dream sequences, we wanted to say enough without saying too much. I think this is dangerous to say, but I like experimental films. That sounds like a dirty word and it has a negative connotation. So, letting the film become moodier with less dialogue, I wanted it to be a framework for others to project their experiences on to what they see.

KRAMER: Ben’s sister says he’s “back on the dick,” and there are a few quick scenes and references to Ben dating women and Theresa [Jason Greene] who is non-binary. Do you want to talk about Ben’s sexuality?
FIFER: Yeah, I think that it shouldn’t go in a box for the sake of our synopsis. We’ve written bisexual more than gay or queer. When I say I’m gay, it’s political to stand with everyone. But at this moment in Ben’s life, he doesn’t know what he likes or is more comfortable with. But he knows he’s never been allowed to love a man.

KRAMER: Sam is closeted to his father and uncomfortable displaying affection in public or being out at the office. Can you discuss his character?
FIFER: A few of my exes have been not out, and that’s a product of dating in one’s early 20s. Sheldon brought something cool to the project. His story is inspired by his own experience. He was raised by his grandmother. It’s different for a white man to come out than for a person of color. It’s more of a stigma in the church, and Sheldon and I both came from the church.

KRAMER: You and Sheldon have some real palpable chemistry in the film. Can you talk about creating that?
FIFER: I don’t know how anyone can be looking at me when he’s on screen. I guess that’s all I’ll say about that.

 KRAMER: What did you learn about yourself and about filmmaking doing “Cicada”? It must have been cathartic to some degree.
FIFER: The more open I was, the more people were open with me. This was always supposed to be the thing that allowed me to move forward. One scene — the montage of me coming out and telling friends and strangers — the last girl couldn’t get the lines out. So, I said my line, and she looked at me and told me her story. That was why I made this film. She says she hadn’t told anyone that. That took incredible courage and strength that at that moment made me feel we were doing something right.

CICADA | Directed by Matthew Fifer and Kieran Mulcare | NewFest | Available for screening Oct. 16, 10 a.m.-Oct. 27, 11:59 p.m.; also screening at the Brooklyn Drive-In, Brooklyn Army Terminal, 80 58th St. at First Ave, Oct. 24 at 6:30 p.m. | Tickets are $12 for streaming; $45-$85 for drive-in ; $95 for a full festival pass | newfest.org/event/cicada

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