The Perfection: Film Review

What are a few severed limbs lost in the service of dismembering oppressive patriarchal institutions?

Publication: Sissy Screens

I thought Allison Williams had achieved peak ‘crazy’ in Get Out’s denouement, her ponytailed Rose quietly snacking on dry Froot Loops and sipping milk through a straw while searching for her next suitor/victim online to the soundtrack of ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of my Life’. The Perfection sees the actor continue to blaze down a post-Girls psychological horror path, dragging Marnie’s bloodied corpse behind her.

The Perfection sees Allison Williams continue to blaze down a post-Girls psychological horror path, dragging Marnie’s bloodied corpse behind her.

The Perfection’s success rests on the strength of Williams’ portrayal of Charlotte, a former cello prodigy who quit her music training to care for her sick mother. Now an orphaned adult, she reaches out to former mentor Anton and joins him and the staff of his prestigious music academy at a scouting event in Shanghai. It is here she is introduced to Lizzie (Logan Browning, Dear White People), her heiress apparent who went on to achieve the acclaim and fame that eluded her.

The black swan to Charlotte’s lily-white one, the flirtatious Lizzie seduces her and the two forge an unlikely romantic connection. One of the film’s strongest scenes intercuts the pair’s performance of a duet with moments from their tryst, culminating in an orgiastic crescendo. The ensuing pillow talk prompts Lizzie to invite her fellow alumna to accompany her on a two-week, no-frills tour of rural China. This is where the horrors (and, warning: spoilers) start.

Charlotte casually producing a cleaver and telling a delirious Lizzie “You know what you have to do” as bugs envelop her arm, ranks as high in the annals of preludes to filmic amputations as Nicole Kidman beckoning “bring me the anatomy book” in The Beguiled.

A nightmarish bus trip—replete with maggot-filled vomit and other abject horrors—ushers in a searing commentary about the abuse of power in the arts. Using a heady mix of flashbacks, misdirections and religious symbolism, director/co-writer Richard Shepard crafts a taut and darkly entertaining film. While the narrative ploys he uses may not be sophisticated (such as key scenes literally rewinding to reveal another character’s perspective), the film isn’t striving for high art or subtlety. In fact, the viewing pleasure derives largely from the camp-ness of the violent sequences (Charlotte casually producing a cleaver and telling a delirious Lizzie “You know what you have to do” as bugs envelop her arm, ranks as high in the annals of preludes to filmic amputations as Nicole Kidman beckoning “bring me the anatomy book” in The Beguiled).

If you’re not a fan of body horror, nor familiar with rape revenge film tropes, this movie may prove too macabre. For everyone else, what are a few severed limbs lost in the service of dismembering oppressive patriarchal institutions?

Hollywood: TV Review

Cue camp’s death knell: Netflix has released a new Ryan Murphy miniseries.

Publication: Sissy Screens

Cue camp’s death knell: Netflix has released a new Ryan Murphy miniseries.

While his latest offers discerning viewers another chance to decry the demise of the Susan Sontag-coined sensibility, the truth is that its corpse had been buried and exhumed long before the producer/writer/director pitched his megachurch on its resting grounds. As filmmaker Bruce LaBruce argues, camp is no longer marked by sophistication and secret signification since queer culture has been co-opted by the mainstream. The result: “…the whole goddamn world is camp.”

The truth is that camp’s corpse had been buried and exhumed long before the producer/writer/director pitched his megachurch on its resting grounds.

Enter Hollywood. The show’s brand of oft-earnest, alt-history wish-fulfilment is highlighted by its opening credits: the diverse main cast helping each other ascend the rafters of the Hollywood sign, led by all-American aspiring actor Jack. He’s flanked by black screenwriter Archie, his actor boyfriend Rock Hudson, self-described “half-Asian” director Raymond, his black actor girlfriend Camille and Claire, the white actor daughter of a studio magnate. They reach the top and marvel at the sun rise over the hills. So far, so subtle.

They’re joined throughout the series by a cast of veterans working in and around the fictional ACE studios. Their paths converge on the production of ‘Peg’: a film based on the true story of an aspiring actor who flung herself off the Hollywood sign in 1932.

While the show features some entertaining subplots involving a gas station-cum-brothel (based on Scotty Bower’s real-life escort ring catering to the glitterati) and a party at queer director George Cukor’s house (with a guestlist boasting Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead and a cavalcade of naked young men), these excursions dwindle as the series progresses.

What we get instead are characters delivering long, didactic monologues. The most insufferable is director Raymond (played by Murphy acolyte Darren Criss), who declares in the pilot: “Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be and if we change the way that movies are made, you take a chance and you make a different kind of story, I think you can change the world.”

It’s hard not to see Raymond as a stand-in for Murphy: a wide-eyed creative intent on shifting the narrative on sexism, racism and homophobia. And there is no refuting Murphy’s contribution to culture-making: his shows feature countless LGBTQIA+ characters and storylines; he co-created Pose—a series starring, written, directed and produced by mostly queer and trans people of colour; and has helped elevate trans creatives such as Janet Mock (a co-executive producer here) and Our Lady J up the producorial ranks. His career pays testament to the fact that minority cultural production and expression matter; so why the need for Hollywood to preach?

Murphy’s career pays testament to the fact that minority cultural production and expression matter; so why the need for Hollywood to preach?

It’s the show’s penchant for positive representation that results in an unforgivable lack of nuance. The character of Henry Willson (Jim Parsons delivering a deliciously villainous performance) is a case in point: a Weinstein-esque agent and “star maker” who preys on young men, suddenly and incredulously redeems himself in the show’s finale. A number of other characters meet similarly tidy and boring fates.

For all its virtue-signalling, Hollywood peddles platitudes and delivers a pat happy ending. But with Murphy just two years into a five-year Netflix $300 million contract, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for redemption. Or at the very least, more chances to bitch about his debasement of camp.

Nakhane: Hymns for the Apostate

“Anal sex is really under-represented in hymns,” Nakhane Touré muses on stage between songs at his gig a day before our interview.

Articles, Interviews,
Publication: Sissy Screens

The 32-year-old, London-based musician, actor and novelist should know: “I grew up around choirs. My mum and aunts all sang in choirs.” Raised in Port Elizabeth, “a [South African] metropolis that’s not given its dues”, Nakhane was a devout Christian and active in church life until his mid-twenties.

Though his religious devotion has waned, his love for sacred music hasn’t. “I love hymns. There’s this sense of finality about them. [They’re] not art for art’s sake. They were written because this person really needed to write this music.”

Nakhane explains that his sophomore album You Will Not Die‘s initial mantra was ‘hymns for the lost, hymns for the apostate’. The album explores his struggle to reconcile his faith with his desires. When he was writing the songs he wanted to imbue them with the feeling of sacred music, but with an autobiographical twist. “When I wrote the song ‘Teen Prayer’, I knew I couldn’t write a straight up hymn because I wasn’t that person anymore, I wasn’t Christian… I had to have a version of who I was at the time, and that version was queer.”

“I don’t feel the burden of being a role model. If my visibility is for anything, it’s for someone else to be allowed to be themselves.”

The tension between tradition and queer desire is a prevalent theme across the artist’s oeuvre, including his role in 2017’s The Wound. The film centres around the sacred initiation of a group of Xhosa teenage boys into manhood, which includes ritual circumcision and a series of endurance tests in the wilderness. Nakhane portrays Xolani, a repressed factory worker that serves as a mentor to the boys while hiding his sexual relationship with a fellow male leader.

The film’s director and co-writer John Trengove initially asked the artist to write the music for the film. After they met for a coffee to discuss the project, Trengove asked him to audition for a supporting role, and eventually altered the story and offered him the lead. “To ready myself for the role, I went to all the spaces I promised myself that I’d never go to again—shebeens, taverns, places where men drink. And I’d watch all these men, watch how they sat, how they drank, how they smoked.” These excursions into ‘hyper-masculine spaces’ helped him prepare to embody Xolani, a sullen character who seems worlds apart from the cheerful multi-disciplinary artist. “On some level I do relate to him. Not myself now, but myself a few years ago when I was fighting my desires and fighting my identity. I understand that self-hatred.”

But mining the recesses of his past was only part of the challenge of the role. When the film was released in its native South Africa, it sparked controversy and was originally granted an X18 rating usually reserved for hardcore pornography. Nakhane, along with other members of the crew and cast, even received death threats.

“The response to the film was extreme for a number of reasons. One—the film is about a secret and sacred rite of passage… people were outraged because we’d made a film about it and they assumed that the film was some sort of exposé.” He clarifies: “This was not a documentary. This was a fictive story less to do with initiation than with a tragic love story.”

“Two—was the fact that it had queered this space that is supposed to be emblematic of ‘manhood’.” He elaborates: “[In this culture] queer people are seen as a germ or virus, something that is there but everyone wishes wasn’t. And in this film they take centre stage, and they don’t only exist but they exist loudly.”

This amplification proved to be a double-edged sword. In addition to the fiery backlash, the film garnered a lot of support from South Africa’s black feminist and queer communities and international audiences.

“I wanted to be George Michael, without the backlash and toilet sex.”

Among the movie’s plethora of fans was director-performer John Cameron Mitchell. Nakhane and his partner were having lunch at a friend’s house and discussing Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus, when Mitchell DM’d him on Instagram: “At first I didn’t think it was the real John Cameron Mitchell, I thought it was Apple listening to our conversation.” The director expressed his admiration for Nakhane’s work and invited him to New York to record an episode for his musical narrative podcast Anthem: Homunculus, featuring such luminaries as Glenn Close, Laurie Anderson and Patti LuPone.

Originally conceived as a TV sequel to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the project evolved into a ten-episode podcast series about a sardonic shut-in, Ceann Mackay, who launches the world’s first online telethon to crowdfund for his brain tumour treatment. Nakhane plays his fiercely independent lover Jairo, a young man who “struggles with a host of demons”.

“At first I didn’t think it was the real John Cameron Mitchell, I thought it was Apple listening to our conversation.”

Apple, if you are spying: Nakhane is keen to work with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. “I think he’s a genius, I’ve stolen from him for years and I shall continue to steal from him.” His music video for ‘Clairvoyant’ pays homage to Kar-wai’s Happy Together, with the singer and a co-star taking on the roles of turbulent lovers played by Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung. “Wong Kar-wai’s films are so aesthetically pleasing that sometimes you have to rewatch them to really understand how beautiful the stories are, how beautifully lit they are, how gorgeous the framing is. Happy Together is almost like the messier sibling to In the Mood For Love. It’s much more interesting to me because it’s over-saturated, it’s queer, and it’s funny.”

While Nakhane is clearly well-versed in queer culture, this wasn’t always the case: “Growing up I didn’t have much access to it, because I didn’t know what it was. I left Port Elizabeth when I was 15 and this was the time that I was starting to understand my desires.” It’s at that formative age that he became obsessed with pop star George Michael. “I wanted to be George Michael, without the backlash and toilet sex”, he quips.

While he’s weathered his share of fallout, Nakhane has transformed into an artist with his own dedicated following. Given his experiences with The Wound, you’d expect him to feel reticent about the attention, but that isn’t the case: “I don’t feel the burden of representation. I don’t feel the burden of being a role model. If my visibility is for anything, it’s for someone else to be allowed to be themselves.”

Zackary Drucker: Histories of Survival

Talking trans authorship, TV & culture wars with the multimedia artist and Transparent producer.

Articles, Interviews,
Publication: Sissy Screens

“Humour is the great unifier,” asserts multimedia artist, producer and advocate Zackary Drucker during our recent conversation in Melbourne. “I think it’s a common denominator—a way to reach people that maybe aren’t sympathetic to the cause.”

While she’s a celebrated artist whose photography has exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and whose production credits include the Golden Globe and Emmy-winning Transparent and the Emmy-nominated series of docu-shorts This Is Me, Zackary continues to sell personalised doormats featuring her face via her website (tagline: ‘For only $100 you can wipe your feet on my face for a lifetime’).

“Trans people have become a lightning rod because we represent a modernising world.”

It’s this brand of unassuming humour underpinning trans authorship and representation that punctuates Zackary’s work. Her last short, Mother Comes To Venus, is a case in point. Presenting a quasi-futuristic, post-tipping point Hollywood where trans and gender diverse people have seized the means of cultural production, Mother boasts an almost-exclusively trans and/or non-binary cast and crew. It stars Alexandra Grey as Venus, a black trans powerhouse agent, and queer rapper Mykki Blanco as the universe’s most celebrated pop star. The only cisgendered character is Venus’s hapless assistant: “her gender and sex are synonymous,” she explains to a chorus of pitying replies, “she’s been that way since birth.”

A gentle antagonist, Zackary has spent her career at the front of the culture wars. “Trans people have become a lightning rod because we represent a modernising world. I feel like this is a moment when people who’ve always been on the margins are becoming more empowered and accessing tools of cultural production… [T]here is a resistance to that and the status quo feels threatened by it, as if our empowerment takes something away from them.”

It is in this climate, she stresses, that it’s important to nurture talent across the gender spectrum. “I think it’s crucial that we encourage and promote trans and non-binary people to create as much content as possible because it takes all of us putting our voices out there. Our community is not a monolith by any means, we all come from such different positions.”

“It’s crucial that we encourage and promote trans and non-binary people to create as much content as possible because it takes all of us putting our voices out there.”

And as Zackary’s work highlights, it is a community built on the backs of elders: “Knowing that this path has been blazed for us and that we’re continuing work that’s been done by previous generations of feminists and trans and gender diverse people empowers us in the present.” Fittingly, her work often pays homage to matriarchs both familial and ‘transcestral’. She has collaborated with her mother, Penny Sori, on a number of projects; most recently the short Southern For Pussy, where they trade bon mots and continue a playful, intergenerational dialogue established in an earlier video work FISH: a Matrilineage of Cunty White Woman Realness.

Considerable reverence and screen time is also given to her ‘fairy godmothers’ Flawless Sabrina, Holly Woodlawn and Alexis Delago: “I think of them as artists in the medium of life, moving through the world in ways that were unprecedented.” Flawless occupies a special place in this pantheon; Zackary met the pioneering drag artist and activist as a teen and the two remained close friends and collaborators until Flawless’ death in 2018.

Another formative influence was author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein. Growing up in Syracuse, a small city in New York State, Zackary read Bornstein’s seminal biography Gender Outlaw at fourteen: “Kate’s writing and her expansion of the category of transgender allowed me a way of seeing myself that I didn’t have.”

The impact this had on a young Zackary was powerful and has informed both her gender politics and her art practice. From an early collaborative photographic project Relationship, documenting her six year relationship with then-partner Rhys Ernst while they were both transitioning, to recently authoring The Gender Spectrum Collection, Broadly‘s stock photo library featuring images of trans and non-binary models, Zackary’s photography has expanded the representation of trans and gender non-conforming people. It’s this art-as-advocacy approach that also marks her curatorial work, including a stint guest editing the ‘Future Gender’ themed issue of photography journal Aperture in 2018, a landmark edition dedicated to the representation of transgender lives, communities, and histories in photography.

“My most tangible offer to the community was creating a pipeline for trans and non-binary people to work in Hollywood.”

But it’s Zackary work in television that has arguably left the greatest impression on the cultural landscape, particularly her work on Transparent. She met the series creator Jill Soloway at Sundance Film Festival and Jill then reached out to Zackary and then-partner Rhys for film recommendations to pass onto their parent who had recently come out as trans. Shortly after, they were re-introduced through mutual friends while Jill was writing the Transparent pilot. Zackary asserts: “It was definitely a paradigm shift. It was clear from the first page that the story had the power to really impact our culture. And it did.” Originally brought on as consultants on the pilot, the pair signed on as the Associate Producers when the show was ordered to season. Zackary worked her way up the producorial ladder, finally landing as supervising producer on the show’s finale.

In addition to working closely with the show’s writers to create an authentic rendering of trans life—not only of retired LA college professor Maura Pfefferman, but of her wider circle of friends—Zackary helped implement the Transfirmative Action Program: “My most tangible offer to the community was creating a pipeline for trans and non-binary people to work in Hollywood which doesn’t [normally] happen… Employment discrimination is one of the biggest impediments to our advancement so it seemed crucial to create an inclusive set and to bring at least one person to every department.”

A landmark for trans representation and production, Transparent also offered a nuanced portrayal of a secular Jewish American family and reconnected Zackary to her cultural heritage. “My relationship to Judaism was totally rebooted by my time on the show,” she asserts. “[Growing up], I became more entrenched in my identity as a queer and trans person and forgot about how my Jewish values were informing everything that I was doing. It wasn’t until I worked on Transparent that I returned to that cultural identity and began to reincorporate those aspects into my life.”

“There are so many parallels to my transness and my Judaism and the history of both. I think that both communities have relied on assimilation and visibility for survival because our identities make us vulnerable to persecution.”

She now sees her Jewish and trans identities as complementary and bound by histories of survival: “There are so many parallels to my transness and my Judaism and the history of both. I think that both communities have relied on assimilation and visibility for survival because our identities make us vulnerable to persecution. I believe, too, that Jewish people in the twentieth century represented modernism so the Jewish emancipation act of the nineteenth century allowed Jews to move from the outlying shtetl communities in Eastern Europe into cities, at which point they modernised very quickly because they existed in these autonomous eco-systems and knew how to manage their own villages and communities. They quickly gained political and economic power in urban Europe and after about two or three generations were scapegoated for ultimately being so successful at modernisation that they had surpassed some of their non-Jewish counterparts.”

The artist’s rekindled relationship to her heritage was tested when it came to producing season four of Transparent, which sees the Pfeffermans travel to Israel. “It was the biggest challenge of all, taking on Israel and Palestine where there’s thousands of years of history. How do you accurately convey all of that complexity in an under 30 minute episode? It was daunting and I think there was a tremendous amount of education that happened behind the scenes for everybody. All of our preconceived notions about the Middle East were really tested.”

While the season was originally slated to be shot in East Jerusalem, the Transparent team decided to shoot in Los Angeles following rigorous consultations with Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) advocates. “There was a lot of healthy intellectual debate and a lot of people weighing in and a lot of feelings. It was challenging but I felt like we really persevered and created a season that could never have happened on another show. And it was because of the sensitivity and the integrity and intellectual rigour of what was happening behind the scenes.”

And, she notes: “The advantage of telling a story with many characters is that you’re able to present multiple positions. I think that Ali’s story in particular where she travels to Ramallah and experiences the West Bank and, experiences American and Western activists doing peace work and human rights activism was an accurate representation. It is one of the things I hear most often.”

“I became more entrenched in my identity as a queer and trans person and forgot about how my Jewish values were informing everything that I was doing.”

Shooting in LA proved a challenge for the art department who were tasked with recreating ancient monuments in an urban setting. They built the Western Wall in the Paramount Parking Lot, and shot key Dead Sea scenes at Universal Studios. The results are astounding but as Zackary concedes: “It would’ve been much easier to shoot in Israel.”

Not that the show has ever treaded a light path, or as Zackary understatedly puts it: “Each season presented a new challenge.” Arguably the biggest one was when lead actor Jeffrey Tambor was accused of sexual misconduct by co-star Trace Lysette and assistant Van Barnes and was duly fired from the show. This left Transparent without its trans parent, and the decision was made to kill off Tambor’s character Maura off-screen at the beginning of the feature-length ‘Musicale Finale’. This was a risky move with a risqué soundtrack (including musical numbers titled: ‘Your Boundary Is My Trigger’ and ‘Joy-a-caust’) but it worked; the Pfeffermans farewelled their beloved ‘Moppa’ with the song and dance she so deserved.

With the curtains drawn on Transparent, Zackary has moved on to other pursuits. “I am retiring to focus on being a mother and wife,” she jokes. In reality, she has a number of projects in development including a limited series for a major network. But, she modestly maintains: “my focus is creating my own work and pushing myself, as an artist and a writer, in new directions. I feel like I’m just starting to hit my stride. I think the opportunities I’ve been fortunate to find have not come too soon. I do feel like I’m ready and stable and confident in who I am and I come to every day with gratitude.”

Asis D’Orange: The Carrot

"I regard my performance as ritualistic, kind of like a shamanic performance."

Publication: Sissy Screens

“In Hebrew, asis means nectar. Like something dripping from the fruit when you take a bite… And in English, you spell it A-s-i-s, as is. Which really connects, for me, to like it as is. When I eat fruit, I eat it as is; without cooking, without heating. And I want to accept reality as is. I want to accept myself for who I am and I want people to accept me for who I am. So my name is a sort of spell, an incantation to be as is and to be asis.”

Being in the presence of the Israeli artist, and long-time fruitarian, Asis D’Orange is an entrancing experience. It’s hard not to be bewitched by their boundless energy and presence, especially on the stage. “I regard my performance as ritualistic, kind of like a shamanic performance,” explains Asis during our interview on a sunny afternoon in the backyard of their friend’s share house a few months back.

“I want to stretch people’s boundaries, but not in a painful way.”

Asis was in Melbourne to perform a number of shows, including a headlining gig at the Festival of Jewish Arts & Music (FOJAM) at the Melbourne Recital Centre. The show is veritable worlds away from the living room performances they once staged at an Israeli eco-urban community when they first started to dabble in drag. That was six years ago and while they’ve graced grander stages since winning the inaugural drag competition at the 2017 Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival, they insist: “My perception of drag hasn’t changed that much—the core remains the same. It’s a radical self-expression of everything that I am.”

A few days earlier, they performed their show The Carrot to a mostly cis-het crowd at FOJAM. This would prove a daunting task for some drag artists but not Asis, who strives to connect with wider audiences. “I want to stretch people’s boundaries, but not in a painful way,” they assert. “I want it to be ‘Oh, okay we’re stretching here’, but not ‘Oy, yoy, yoy, this is too much’, because afterwards, people close up, and I don’t want people closing up. I want people to feel it.”

“It makes me mad that Israel takes its LGBTQIA+ community, a persecuted community, and uses it like a fig leaf to hide its occupation policies.”

The Carrot is certainly an affecting experience. Originally conceived as an assignment for a queer performance course, the show explores and explodes sex and gender politics though its creator insists that its meaning is open to interpretation: “Let’s say that you’ll watch it and see work that deals with sex and sexuality and masturbation. Someone else will see something that involves self-infliction, and self-flogging. And someone else will look at it and view it as depicting gender-confirmation surgery.”

Despite their work’s avant-garde aesthetic, Asis D’Orange’s art and activism revolve around a simple precept: respect and love for humanity and the planet. This extends beyond their ‘politics of nutrition’ to a conscious choice to only purchase pre-loved clothes—“it is possible to be a fashionista that wears secondhand”—and a past decision to travel by ship, rather than fly, from Israel to a gig in Portugal, to reduce their carbon footprint. However, their most bold political action was refusing to serve in the Israel Defence Forces: “I refused to enlist, because I didn’t want to confine myself and I didn’t want to confine other people.” This is a defiant action in a country where military conscription is mandatory for most, and Asis served jail time for “disobeying military commands”.

“I refused to enlist [in the Israel Defense Forces] because I didn’t want to confine myself and I didn’t want to confine other people.”

Their show Tainted Love grapples with the complex politics of their homeland. Dressed in military garb, Asis dance-strips to Marilyn Manson’s goth cover of the Soft Cell classic. As the show progresses, audiences cover them with pink paint that they salaciously wipe off using the Israeli flag. This act provides a potent commentary on pink washing, a term used to describe the deliberate appropriation of sexual liberation movements towards regressive political ends. Asis explains that in the context of Israel, “this ‘pink wash’ is used to show that being queer in Tel Aviv is a lot easier than it is to be queer in Syria, Jenin, Lebanon etcetera and is used to present Israel as an enlightened nation. And it’s not right because it’s not reality. It makes me mad that Israel takes its LGBTQIA+ community, a persecuted community, and uses it like a fig leaf to hide its occupation policies.”

Despite their firm beliefs, Asis doesn’t want their work to be prescriptive or didactic: “I don’t want to be perceived as a preacher, because I am not. I am just sharing my personal story. And if it touches someone’s heart, and they choose to be inspired and to take action, fabulous. And if not, next. (Laughs).”

Ponyboi: An Interview with River Gallo

With its neon colour palette, wistful soundtrack and visions of kitsch Americana, Ponyboi feels like a halcyon dream.

Publication: Sissy Screens

The nostalgic aesthetic belies the grit of the life of the titular character: a Latinx, intersex sex/laundromat worker from New Jersey. It’s a stylish and accomplished short but what transcends the artistic merit of Ponyboi, is that it’s the first narrative intersex film created by, and starring, an out intersex person.

Sissy Screens Editor Tali Polichtuk spoke to writer, co-director and star River Gallo about the origins of the film, the ‘queer miracle’ of Stephen Fry’s involvement in the project and the importance of promoting intersex visibility and awareness.

Q: How was Ponyboi conceived?
A: The film was my thesis film for graduate school at USC in LA, but the origin of the film dates back to when I was studying acting and experimental theatre in New York at NYU. I developed a character who was a sex worker and a runaway. At the time I didn’t know I was intersex, but I made him a queer person. And then I couldn’t shake off the story. Five years later when I was in grad school I found a need to bring more of my personal life into it.

It was through that need to connect to it on a more personal level that I started researching the condition that I was born with, which is called anorchia, meaning that my testicles were absent at birth. And in the process of research and finding out what new information there was about it, I discovered the word ‘intersex’ and that I am intersex.

And so the journey of the film took on a deeper level of a character who is trying to come to terms with some of the shame and trauma that he experienced growing up being intersex, and not accepted, and how that manifested into a lack of self-worth and finding himself in a situation in life where he wasn’t really giving himself that kind of love and support to achieve his dreams. He’s trapped in this toxic environment. That was the inspiration.

And also growing up in New Jersey. Often people in suburbs that are close to big cities have this feeling of being close to a culture where they might be more accepted, but really they’re still so far removed from it. I wanted to tap into that feeling.

“Gender is such a significant part of who we are and to have that be controlled by external forces is such a crime.”

Q: Given there’s little representation of intersex people in popular culture, did you feel pressure in creating this character?
A: Yes, definitely. I felt a ton of pressure because first of all finding this out about myself and my body and this word that encompasses an identity and a community—it happened at the same time as, ‘Oh, this is the first narrative film that’s doing this’, and also [coincided with] me coming to terms with how I felt about it and how I felt telling people that I was intersex.

I didn’t speak about my body for a long time and now I’m speaking about it but not only for myself. I’m speaking about it in a larger broader cultural, human, historical sense. I was scared at first and I went back and forth about whether I should include it in the narrative or not.

But then my co-director Sadé Clacken Joseph and my producer Seven Graham, who is also intersex, really inspired me to be bold and take up that space. I think a lot the trauma that intersex people experience is because there’s been so little visibility forever, and even now it’s not enough. It’s so easy to hide in the shadows and feel like our stories are not worth it. But for me, I felt like I had this duty to this community to show that we can be brave and put our stories out there in a narrative format that uses the poetics of filmmaking to convey our experiences.

Q: There’s so much more to Ponyboi beyond his gender identity. As you mentioned, he’s from New Jersey, he’s Latinx, he’s a sex worker. Was it important to show these facets of his character?
A: I felt that my purpose as an artist is to create confessional, personal narrative that really comes from my own experience. This is my first major film project, so I wanted to put all my chips in—this is my entire me, this is bringing my Latinx background, my intersex background. I wanted it to exude me as much as possible.

I think people watch the film and they really understand my sensibility as an artist but also who I am as a person. It turned out to be not just a work of art that I’m really proud of but a great calling card that’s had so much attention from the industry. And I feel like it’s the perfect step forward for my career as a filmmaker and as an artist. It’s really exciting to me that including those parts of myself, that I generally don’t speak about, has been advantageous for my career.

Q: The flashback sequences in the film give you a glimpse into Ponyboi’s experience with the medical community. Was it important for you to show how the character was mistreated and pathologised by that community?
A: I think that minute of those few scenes really amplifies the atmosphere and the rawness of what that experience is like, to feel like your body is not yours. That as an intersex person, your parents and your doctors have control over what you’re going to look like and who you’re going to be and your entire sense of self. Gender is such a significant part of who we are and to have that be controlled by external forces, that don’t let you have your say or your opinion, is such a crime. It was so necessary for me to express that in the film.

Despite how small that part is, it really becomes the heart of the film. It all culminates in that moment where you are like, ‘Oh my god, I get that. I get what it feels to be like a kid who feels powerless’.

Q: Some big name producers worked on the film. How did the likes of Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson come to be involved?
A: My Executive Producer Seven’s friend Ela Xora was holding a panel with Stephen Fry at the Royal College of Art on intersex deities in Roman and Greek mythology. Seven was going to Skype into that phone call and asked me to join in.

So I met Stephen via Skype. We had a talk about all the things that are happening in the intersex community now as well as the history of intersex people. I told him about Ponyboi and he was really interested. We had a meeting two weeks later and he loved the project so much that he came on board as an Executive Producer. Stephen reached out to a few friends for support and that’s when Emma Thompson expressed interest.

It was a little bit of a ‘queer miracle’ that we were able to connect with these British icons—their star power and influence helped us realise the power of our story. I felt like people wanted to be a part of not just the film itself, but an important moment in intersex history. It was wild—I still can’t believe it.

I had lunch with him [Stephen Fry] recently and we recapped on what a crazy year it has been. And now he’s really interested in the feature film version of Ponyboi, which I’m currently working on.

“I felt like I had this duty to this community to show that we can be brave and put our stories out there in a narrative format that uses the poetics of filmmaking to convey our experiences.”

Q: Tell us more about the feature.
A: I’m currently writing it and there are so many people who want to read it. As an artist, there’s a balance between the business side and wanting to strike while the iron’s hot, but art takes the time that it takes—if you want it to be good.

The feature is taking on a bit of a crime/drama element with a drug dealer/mafia situation, which is an interesting development from the short. When do you ever see queer people in car chases? It’s interesting because I never thought I’d write anything close to the action genre, following the presumption that it’s for ‘Hollywood men’ to write. But now I think I want to challenge myself and lean into that because I think the world of Ponyboi lends itself to that narrative of small-time crime.

Q: Are there any other projects you’re working on?
A: I’ve been making a lot of short film content with my production company GapToof Entertainment. We’ve been doing a lot of music videos for indie artists. I’m also auditioning for a few acting roles, but mostly I’m trying to get the feature done because I’ve realised that after people watch the film, people want so much more. The world needs the full thing. If that was the appetiser, I really want to give people the whole course.

Festival of Jewish Arts and Music Pays Tribute to Rebel Reed

While the Jewish musician’s reverence for guitars over grace hardly sings of piety, his illustrious life and career exemplify the Jewish cultural tradition of transformation and rebellion.

Publication: Creative Victoria

It’s fitting then that Victoria’s newly rebranded Festival of Jewish Arts and Music (FOJAM) has lifted the theme for its 2019 event from Reed’s musical ode to ‘70s New York underground culture, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.

FOJAM’s Artistic Director Lior Albeck-Ripka explains, “this year’s theme is about giving space to those who don’t fit in the box.” She invites participating artists and audiences to heed Reed’s call and walk their own wild sides, urging: “Leave your armour at the door and be open to the unknown”. After all, as Melbourne musician and FOJAM Patron Deborah Conway points out, “the name Israel translates as ‘wrestling with God’—it’s what [we] Jews do well.”

FOJAM’s Artistic Director Lior Albeck-Ripka explains, “this year’s theme is about giving space to those who don’t fit in the box.”

Formerly known as Shir Madness Melbourne, the one-day festival’s name change to FOJAM marks a shift in approach with Albeck-Ripka and Festival Director Jesse Lubitz broadening the scope of the event to include theatre, dance and spoken word. On Sunday, 8 September the new look FOJAM will feature over 135 artists converging across four stages at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Musical headliners include international icons such as former-Deerhoof member Chris Cohen, Israeli EDM darling Noga Erez and British punk stalwart Vivien Goldman, as well as local luminaries Paul Kelly, Clare Bowditch, Alice Skye and more.

The program also features more subversive fare, such as a performance by the gender queer, Arab-Jew drag artist Asis D’Orange, a solo dance work – carrying a full nudity warning – by Israeli choreographer Israel Aloni, and an address by Zackary Drucker, a multimedia artist and LGBTQIA+ activist who will speak about her work as a producer on the TV series Transparent. All three artists will join author Dr. Lee Kofman in a panel discussion exploring the intersections of art, identity and nationhood. It is one of the many robust conversations slated to take place throughout the festival and an example of FOJAM’s commitment to showcasing Jewish expression in all its nuance and diversity.

Harking back to the theme, the day’s festivities culminate in the headline show ‘Transformer – A Tribute to Lou Reed’. Indie-pop artists Gabriella Cohen and Kate ‘Babyshakes’ Dillon serve as musical directors to a motley crew of musicians paying homage to Reed’s seminal album. The duo handpicked artists such as Chris Cohen, Deborah Conway, Alex Gow and Spike Fuck to perform tributes to Reed’s songs. Explaining their curatorial approach, Gabriella Cohen offers: “We were interested in selecting musical individuals who were not just familiar with his work, but who would inject their own flavour to compliment Lou’s.”

According to Gabriella, these musical fusions should appeal to both ardent fans and newcomers to Reed’s music. However, for the artists paying homage to Reed, his punk attitude transcends the tunes. “He knew how to not deliver,” quips Alex Gow. “He encouraged an expectation and then gave them something else.” The Oh Mercy frontman chose to cover ‘Satellite of Love’, explaining: “I like these naive songs Lou wrote. They mean very little, transport you nowhere and one section from the next barely have anything in common. He’s being playful, ridiculous. And why not? I want some of that. Leave ‘Hallelujah’ to Leonard Cohen, at least for a little while.” On her song selection, Deborah Conway offers: “I chose ‘Vicious’ but I could have chosen any of them. I always responded to Lou Reed’s no-singing singing style. It speaks to a completely ‘couldn’t give a rat’s ass’ attitude which makes the songs live eternally.”

Conway’s contribution to this year’s program is vast and varied. In addition to performing at the ‘Transformer’ event, she will be appearing in conversation with Vivien Goldman discussing women’s involvement in punk, performing a set with partner and collaborator Willy Zygier, and co-curating the festival’s centerpiece event Song of Songs, a tribute to Jewish songwriters and composers.

As the Festival Director of the 2015 and 2017 iterations of the festival, Conway is well-versed in the history of Jewish cultural contribution. “[It] is a deep, wide, millennia-old and extraordinarily diverse project,” she explains. “When the Jews of Europe fled the pogroms and the Holocaust and emigrated to New York and beyond, so many of these sons of Cantors became the backbone of the American Songbook, writing their idealised life of American freedom and making it catchy.” It’s a sentiment that Gow succinctly echoes: “Most of the best musicians were Jewish, right?”

What the Fuck is a Blue Corn Moon? An Interview with Anthony Hudson

Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon? No? Neither has multi-disciplinary Confederated Tribes Grand Ronde artist Anthony Hudson.

Publication: Sissy Screens

Pocahontas and her florid lunar descriptions are just some of the popular representations of Native American culture that Anthony deconstructs in the solo show Looking For Tiger Lily. Originally conceived for, and performed at, the 2016 Risk/Reward Festival of New Performance in Portland, Anthony reprised the production for the 2019 Yirramboi Festival, the Melbourne-based First Nations arts festival.

The Tiger Lily referenced is Sondra Lee’s blonde, blue-eyed ‘Indian Princess’ featured in the 1960 musical production of Peter Pan. The show uses the titular character as a springboard to explore what it means for a queer mixed First Nations person to experience their heritage through the lens of white normative culture. The production is at turns reflective, funny and melancholy. It transcends traditional autobiography, putting a queer and modern spin on the ancestral traditions of storytelling through song, dance, drag and video.

Sissy Screens Editor Tali Polichtuk spoke to Anthony and discussed the artist’s influences and career—from the prolific output of drag clown alter ego Carla Rossi to Anthony’s co-hosting duties on the queer horror podcast Gaylords of Darkness and presentation of the Queer Horror screening series in Portland.

Q: Looking For Tiger Lily deals with questions of your mixed identity. Is this an important theme across your work?
A: Mixed identity is something that fascinates me because I think it shows that there’s no such thing as ‘purity’. There’s this idea in the United States of blood quantum—Native Americans have to prove our descendancy and lineage to actually qualify as Native Americans… we have to prove our percentage to be able to enrol in a tribe. If I was to have kids through some weird curse or something [laughs], then my kids wouldn’t be able to be enrolled in my tribe because their blood quantum wouldn’t be high enough, even though their grandmother would’ve been tribal whip woman for them. This doesn’t make any sense to me. I think whiteness relies on this idea that there is such a thing as a whole or pure race and that’s not true, it’s a misnomer.

Q: Your show also reflects on the genocide of Native Americans and how you use your art to stymie it. Can you elaborate on that?
A: My show is about coming to consciousness. I grew up without traditions for a whole bunch of reasons. My grandmother would come over and share stories with me and I would learn some basic traditions through her, but otherwise I was off on my own. As I got older, I started to understand my identity and really embrace nativeness—especially seeing that nativeness was so much more accepting of queerness than the white world that I was existing in and the Catholicism that I was raised in.

I found that I could re-appropriate the terms of our traditions, even if it wasn’t traditional in the most traditional sense. I don’t know how to drum or dance or bead or weave, but what I’ve discovered is that I do know how to clown. So telling this story by looping in video and song and dance and standup comedy and personal storytelling—that’s my way of putting a queer spin on my ancestral traditions and keeping that oral tradition alive.

Q: Are there any First Nations queers or queens that have influenced you?
A: One of my favourite First Nations queens is from San Francisco and her name is Landa Lakes. I love Landa so much—her looks are amazing, and she does a great Pennywise from IT. I also love that name—Landa Lakes, after the butter.

I also just performed at the Talking Stick Festival in Vancouver, BC and it’s an all-indigenous First Nations festival. It was so inspiring to get to go and be there with First Nations people from Canada and watching fancy dancing happening and watching dancers perform dances of male dancers as well as female dancers but as queer people, shifting which role they played and shifting their regalia and appropriating both sides—it was incredible to me.

It’s really amazing seeing what Two-Spirits are doing. Two-Spirit is the pan-Indian term for gender-variant people across countless tribes. But seeing how we’re able to use this now and to bring our queerness back into our traditions, and vice versa, and watching people do things from drag at pow wows to whole Two-Spirit pow wows. It’s just wild and so inspiring to see us all reclaiming our traditions and also reasserting our personhood.

Q: Why do you opt for the description of drag clown over drag queen when describing your alter ego Carla Rossi?
A: I prefer the term ‘drag clown’ instead of ‘drag queen’ because I’m not trying to emulate ‘woman’, whatever that is. I’m less interested in drag that’s about appropriating these cues of high femininity and I’m more about confusing and hacking the signals of gender.

I think gender is a language, it’s something that we step into, that we walk into, that we wear. And when I do drag, I want people to be as confused looking at Carla as I am about myself.

Q: When you perform as Carla, you don white face. What’s the reason behind this?
A: I started out doing drag when a friend asked me if I wanted to go to a drag party. We both put on pillow cases and had white face paint on because I’d just done a zombie film. After a while it just kind of took. I kept doing it and more and more people would ask us back to do shows and then I realised that this could be a way for me to perform and talk about everything that I was interested in.

I’d always wanted to be a writer, an actor, a comedian, a director… and Carla was a way for me to be all of that. As I brought her into art school, I realised that the white face, this kind of clown mask, was a way that I could talk about being mixed race, and I could talk about wearing white face almost as a critical inversion of black face, where I’m able to negotiate the whiteness that people put on me as a white-passing native person and as someone who is half-German and also half-Indigenous. So I was able to use her to navigate and to mock and to lampoon and to wear all of this whiteness, all of this gender confusion and everything that had been put on me by society.

Q: You co-host a queer horror podcast. Could you tell us about that?
A: Gaylords of Darkness is my podcast with Stacey Ponder. It is one of my very favourite things to do besides running my Queer Horror series in Portland, Oregon which is the only ongoing exclusively LGBTQIA+ horror screening series in the United States.

With Gaylords, I get to spend every week just as myself, not in clown face, behind a computer sitting at a microphone talking to a great friend about horror movies. We look at the silliest movies from Lurkers and The Sentinel to Meg Tilly in One Dark Night or the entire Child’s Play series, which is my personal favourite. There is nothing queerer on this earth than the Child’s Play franchise, I promise you.

Q: Another influence on your work seems to be musicals.
A: Musicals turned me gay [laughs]. I love musicals. I’m not exactly a Broadway musical type, like the Broadway musical Rent kid that is always singing at school, although my partner would argue that I’m always singing at home so maybe I’m a giant liar.

I love Cabaret. It really shifted my life as a teenager because when I saw this musical, it was so unlike anything else I’d ever seen. I’d been growing up with Disney movies which are also a deep gay root for me. I mean every Disney villain is a drag queen, even Jafar.

But being able to see Cabaret and see this total shift from the Rogers and Hammerstein kind of vibe was mind-blowing. There are abortions, there’s homosexuality, there are Nazis, there’s Liza Minnelli—a true queer icon; it melted my mind. And I saw that you could use musicals to be funny and to be incisive and to be dark and to talk about politics and to really rope people in. So it went from Cabaret to Chicago, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and now I’m obsessed with The Cher Show about my all-time favourite diva.

Q: Finally, what is the blue corn moon that Pocahontas sings about?
A: Time and again, the elders and the children have asked: “What the fuck is a blue corn moon?” I have no idea what a blue corn moon is. Why don’t you join me on my petition to dethaw the severed head of Walt Disney to ask him personally: “What were you talking about in Pocahontas?” I would love the answer.