Gay for Pay?
“Label Me” asks the audience to analyze the bruised emotional state of its Syrian protagonist, demanding he be defined in a way he stubbornly refuses to. Although he is nominally a gay for pay hustler, Waseem (Renato Schuch) has complicated feelings with regards to his own sexuality and has outbursts of random violence and verbal homophobia every time he gets close to realizing that a version of himself doesn’t conform to the values he was raised with. Kai Kreuser’s film is a reminder that living in a tolerant country doesn’t count for much when one has been raised with self-loathing deeply engrained in the DNA. The emotionally brutal nature of the character study lingers for much longer than the length of the film.
Waseem seems detached from his chosen line of work; he makes money having sex with men, but appears repulsed if it deviates from his own strict criteria. Kissing is not acceptable, and there’s a stark revulsion towards bottoming. He also displays a performative disgust at the end of most hook ups, struggling to conceal the nagging truth that he reserves most of his loathing for himself. This feeling only heightens when he meets Lars (Nikolaus Benda), an affluent man who becomes a regular customer, but eventually starts giving money in the hope of forcing Waseem to get out of his comfort zone. But he cannot do so because he’s still living in an accommodation shared with other immigrants, whose views on homosexuality appear to be far to the right, and allowing himself sexual freedoms is something he cannot handle.
The film gets inside Waseem’s head without reducing him to stereotype, or attributing his self-destructive, self- loathing worldview to a presumed religious upbringing. Waseem is a rich character study that feels authentic. After all, sex work is just a job and only idiots imagine that those they hire to do it will really be attracted to them. But there’s an additional stigma, an awkward set of assumptions when somebody engages in sex work that doesn’t accord with their sexual orientation. Waseem (Renato Schuch) is a pragmatic man. He’s run from Aleppo, an experience he doesn’t want to talk about. He has found temporary sanctuary in Germany and he’s willing to do what he has to do in order to make ends meet. However, there’s a long list of things he won’t do, some of them rooted in Middle Eastern attitudes to sexuality and some of them, like his reluctance to engage in conversation, about trying to keep his distance emotionally. He has no friends in the area and tells himself he doesn’t need any. But when he meets wealthy client Lars, his boundaries are tested.
Lars has a spacious loft apartment, designer clothes and a quietly expressed loneliness of his own. Though disappointed by Waseem’s rules he respects them. He suggests playing a game and after some haggling they agree that Waseem will get 20 euros each time he answers a question. Somewhere along the way, the ice is broken. There’s a hint of genuine fun, the possibility of friendship, and as Lars continues to pursue Waseem night after night the latter is gradually comes out of himself. However, in the shelter where he lives, rape and blackmail are the price of being identified as queer and any sign of emotional vulnerability puts him at risk of attack. Men have suffered unimaginable things and cope with their stress by finding others to victimize.
Is Waseem discovering another side of himself? That doesn’t really seem important here. There’s no evidence of him developing a sexual attraction to Lars. What matters is whether or not he can accept friendship and a means of escape from his trauma. Lars, meanwhile, has to be willing to give up the control usually associated with buying someone’s company as he finds himself unable to get Waseem out of his head. The power dynamic between the two men keeps shifting throughout, neither altogether willing to surrender control although they both want closeness.
The performances are quiet and restrained by the two leads and this makes the film much more affecting than it might have been. There are some fairly explicit sex scenes which are justified by the subject matter. In the end the smallest of gestures conveys a great deal more.
The film opens on two trains passing in the night, their bright lights coming from different sides of the screen and meeting briefly in the middle before continuing on their journey. It serves as a transition to a subway where Waseem sits on a bench, watching people as they get on and off the train. This is a subtle metaphor for the way Waseem views his trade: two people passing each other in the night, sharing a brief moment, before continuing on their way.
His phone buzzes and he looks up to see a German man named Lars smiling at him before heading up the stairs. A moment later, Waseem follows. We move to Lars’ flat where he wants to get right to the action and have sex with Waseem, but Waseem has rules. Waseem only does the giving until his client gets off then he takes the money and leaves.
Once the rules established, Waseem masturbates to get hard and Lars comes over to help. It’s an awkward moment as Lars wants eye-contact and to make a human moment while Waseem sees it as an exchange of services and wants to keep it cool and detached. Afterwards, Waseem goes home to the communal Syrian refugee shelter where he shares a communal shower and deals with bunkbed roommates.
The difference in situations is immediate. Waseem probably thought his encounter with Lars was their one moment of passing in the night, but something about Waseem intrigued Lars, who purchases his services again. Lars wants to get to know Waseem and over the course of the film, they start to slowly become friendly, if not outright friends.
When Lars finally breaks down Waseem’s walls enough to have somewhat of a conversation, they discuss their fears. Lars is afraid of being alone with his thoughts and Waseem says that he is afraid of everything. It’s the fear of his thoughts and of being himself that terrifies him. The lifestyle between the two men could not be more different and Kreuser’s script really digs into this dichotomy. The only autonomy that Waseem has over his body and life is through his sex work. Yes, his body is still a commodity in a world of shared everything, it’s his to give. This is why he must have rules.
He says he’s not gay, but the truth is a bit more complicated, wrapped up in homophobia, both societal/cultural and internal. The film shows Waseem’s life as a refugee in Germany and doesn’t pull its punches. It takes some dark, dramatic turns showcasing the very real problems facing him. While there’s a hopefulness to the evocative and powerful final shot of the film, “Label Me” shows that it’s not something that can be easily won but something to be won.