“I think film is the most precise way to touch someone’s heart,” says Christopher Cunetto. “I love art, but engaging with a painting or an image or sculpture is much different, and much less controlled than film, which is more direct in terms of your intentions as an artist.”
A mainstay on the D.C. art scene for over a decade, Cunetto, whose distinctive, vibrant paintings are instantly recognizable, not too long ago entered the collaborative world of filmmaking. (Full disclosure: Cunetto has created several cover illustrations for Metro Weekly over the years.)
During the pandemic, the Missouri native joined forces with producer Mauricio Pita and writer Eva von Schweinitz to devise the short film Safe Word. It screens Saturday, Oct. 21, at 11 p.m. at Reel Affirmations, ahead of the 1970s French erotic film, Le Beau Mec.
Starring Pita and Jonathan Adriel — both of whom give magnificent, deeply felt performances — and ravishingly photographed by Fernando Rocha, Safe Word boasts a story that is narratively surprising and psychologically probing. It’s a gripping use of 15 minutes.
“[You] find yourself on the edge of your seat,” wrote Will O’Bryan in his 5-star review of the film in last week’s issue. “Your imagination will immediately begin to autofill scenarios, but Safe Word will likely veer off course of whatever you’ve plotted.”
“The things the film brings up are specific to the queer experience, the experience of gay men, of queer men,” says Cunetto. “One of the struggles that the character, Cesar, has is with his body. He compares himself to the other character in the film, who’s just larger and muscular. There’s a lot of baggage in the gay community around bodies, just in general. We grew up in a world where we’re positioned as the other in every way, in terms of our bodies, in terms of who we love. And I think that that’s an experience we can transcend.
“And that doesn’t stop with cis gay men,” he adds. “It also has to do with gender expression and gender identity. And so I hope that the film illustrates a kind of queer masculinity that is more about vulnerability and bravery in your emotional life.
“It’s called Safe Word, but it’s really not a film about sex. It’s a film about emotion and intimacy.”
The making of Safe Word comes on the heels of several shorter works directed by Cunetto, including a sci-fi adjacent piece entitled Gateway. Safe Word is his next step into serious filmmaking with a budget. He dove in without fear.
“I didn’t know enough to be afraid,” he laughs. “It’s scarier looking back because I realized what a mountain we all climbed together.”
He attributes Safe Word’s success to “having good collaborators and having good people around to do the work together. Our writer, Ava, who worked with me and let me keep pushing the story, and Mauricio for bringing me in, and for his great acting work, and Jonathan, for his wonderful work, and our crew. We wouldn’t have done it without our crew. It really is a collective art form and it is expensive, both personally and monetarily, and I’m just really grateful that it exists and that we get to show it to people. I’m so excited about that.”
He’s getting ready to direct his next project, again co-produced with Pita through Tepui Media. Crystalline, he says, “is about the power of drag…and the ways in which that art form is transformative for individual lives.”
Crystalline is especially timely, he notes, because drag “is a form of art that is literally under attack, being outlawed.”
“It seems to me to be a really important time to tell a story about how drag can save a queer life,” says Cunetto. “And that’s at the core of this film. It’s about a drag queen who is haunted by addiction, has to battle hallucinations to nail a life-changing performance, but in the course of the story, they’re really challenged to recontextualize what they think they want out of life and what they think they want out of drag. And it’s the art form that gives them the power to find a more profound sense of freedom.
“I certainly believe that drag does that for nightlife artists,” he continues. “And I know that art does that for me as a human being — it gives me a really deep sense of purpose. Even though it’s very hard to make anything, when I’m in the pocket of my artistry is when I feel the most spiritually free.
“And I think that is universal. I think we all have things in our lives where we have these glimmers and, all of a sudden, things feel like they’re a little bit less shitty. For some people, it’s art. For other people, it’s making a meal for their family. But there are definitely universal themes in Crystalline. It’s another queer story that also has a political element that I feel very strongly has to be told.”
Safe Word plays at Reel Affirmations on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 11 p.m. at the Eaton Hotel, 1201 K St. NW, in Washington, D.C. It will also be part of the virtual festival from Oct. 23 to 29. For tickets, visit www.reelaffirmations.org.
To learn more about Crystalline, visit www.tepuimedia.com/films.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!