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Sundance 2024: ‘Desire Lines’ Proves That The Medium Is The Message

Two shirtless trans men standing in front of each other
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

There was a Canadian philosopher named Marshall McLuhan, whose work primarily revolved around media theory. Studying the histories of various media, their function (and functionality), their effects on their audience, and everything therein, McLuhan coined the famous phrase, “The medium is the message.” Here, he asserts that the form the media takes is as crucial as, if not more important than, the content it contains, for it is only in how a message is relayed that we fully understand the what and why.

Apart from academics, authors, and even artists, McLuhan’s work isn’t exactly the most widespread—indeed, the mere mention of the word “philosophy” can raise eyebrows and draw ire from many folks today—but in our increasingly technological and digitized world, the medium we are using (from Instagram reels to three-hour movies) matters just as much as what we are using it for. And Desire Lines, the latest film from trans filmmaker, scholar, and artist, Jules Rosskam, is a testament to that truth.

Part-narrative feature, part-documentary, Desire Lines is, at once, a steamy and insightful investigation of the space where gender expression and sexual orientation intersect. Starring Aden Hakimi and Theo Germaine, the film follows trans Iranian-American man Ahmad (Hakimi) whose work at an LGBTQ+ archive sends him on a time-travel journey through queer history. Punctuating Ahmad’s deep-dive into his investigative research, Rosskam inserts real footage of American author and activist Lou Sullivan and other queer rights milestones. 

There are also interviews with real-life, present-day trans men discussing their sexualities and bodies, all of which run parallel with Ahmad’s burgeoning chemistry with Kieran (Germaine). Between archival footage, dramatizations of gay history, screenlife motifs, and a will-they-won’t-they romance storyline, Desire Lines eschews tradition, effectively deconstructing film form as an allegory for the gay trans male experience.

A man sits on a floor with a box of archived materials.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Perhaps the best part of Rosskam’s film is the access we are given to the real trans men being interviewed. Generous with their time and vulnerable with their answers, they hold nothing back when discussing everything from sex and transitioning to online dating and even their relationships with their genitals. With transphobia on an exponential rise in the Western world, there’s something seismic about seeing how these men have come into their own and are living vibrant and sexy lives. That their interview segments are juxtaposed with Lou Sullivan’s archival footage, where he is often alone, offers an interesting display of progress: there’s much to be done where queer rights are concerned, but there is also a lot to celebrate.

Where Desire Lines stumbles is its execution of the narrative following Ahmad and Kieran. Since the aforementioned interview segments are so lively, and the men legitimately larger-than-life, it’s especially glaring how underdeveloped the fictional elements of the film are. Hakimi and Germaine make the most of the paper-thin script they were given, but their characters become eclipsed by nearly every other element of the film. In the documentary portions of the film, Rosskam demonstrates a keen instinct for mining a sense of shared intimacy and vulnerability between subject and viewer, so it’s somewhat of a let-down that the romance between Ahmad and Kieran feels forced. Indeed, in a contrarian move to everything the film is and stands for, the narrative portions feel like a paint-by-numbers reproduction of every popular love story.

Nevertheless, its ability to stand more strongly as a historical document than a piece of surface-level entertainment ultimately works in its favour. Specifically, Lou Sullivan’s work on behalf of trans men, at a time when the vocabulary, advocacy, and breadth of knowledge around gender identity paled significantly in comparison to what’s available today, is not lost on Rosskam or his film. In fact, it’s foundational: “Our best weapon in coping with our situation is our imagination,” Sullivan maintained throughout his activism. It’s a statement—perhaps an ethos—that permeates Desire Lines. In terms of message, recording LGBTQ+ history is an act of survival and therefore a rebellion against those who would rather we were invisible, silent, or dead. And in terms of medium, storytelling is king.


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