Following the recent World Premiere of Dressed as a Girl at the BFI Flare Festival, we caught up with Director Colin Rothbart.
[FRR] What was the catalyst to make a documentary about drag performers?
[CR] I was on holiday with Holestar – one of the stars of the film – back in Goa in 2009 and she said we should make a British version of ‘Paris is Burning’ as there hadn’t really been a film about the UK underground, alternative scene. (The film i’ve made is obviously very different with a much more British sensibility, humour and self deprication). She got me tickets to Glastonbury and we hung out with all the crew and performers at the Downlow stage, shot some footage and tried to see who’d be interested in followed around by cameras for a bit. We didn’t realise it would be six years until the film got finished!
How was your experience of working on the film?
It took a long time to get everyone’s trust. You always see loads of cameras at the big events, but nothing much seemed to happen to the footage apart from being posted on facebook and i really wanted to document this fabulous scene at this moment in time. We had zero budget and i started out using my battered old PD150 camera as we couldn’t afford to pay crew. I also didn’t really know what the story was but as time progressed that became self evident, as all of our characters lead such interesting lives. The temptation was to just make a home video for the scene, to keep everyone happy, but i knew that would have limited appeal. Without sounding like a cliche, i wanted to get to know the characters behind the mascara and it took a very long time to get them to open up. I wanted everyone from my parents to hairy arsed builders to realise that they have more in common with the stars of the film than they would initially think. We all go through life’s trials and tribulations and put on a front in our own unique way. I also met Jonny by working on the film and we’ve now been together five and a half years! And i also know that making an indie film/doc is very expensive and all consuming – especially when you have a full time job. But hopefully it’s all been worth it!
The film highlights how there is still a huge negativity surrounding transgender and cross-dressing in this day and age. What do you think this negativity stems from, and what do you feel is the best way to tackle it?
Hopefully films like this, which expose people everywhere to different scenes and cultures can only serve to open minds. I think there is much more acceptance of cross dressing these days due to drag queens on TV and it seems drag performers are a fixture of many hetero club nights around the UK these days. I do think there’s a long way to go with understanding transgender issues though.
In the film there is a lot of reference to personal tragedy. Many of the performers featured in the film have suffered a traumatic relationship with their family, and several state they have often contemplated suicide. Was it difficult to encourage discussion about these intimate topics?
Yes – very. It took a long time to get everyone in the film to open up and understandably so. Once it’s out there, it’s out there for good – there’s no going back. And I think everyone in the film has been incredibly brave for different reasons. Scottee’s relationship with his parents has now come full circle and amber wanted her transition to give hope to trans people everywhere, so that even a kid in a small village in Africa could maybe see her story and realise they were not alone. Jonny took a long time to open up on camera as he hated being interviewed by me!
There is currently a big surge of transgender protest against the laws governing public toilets, with a trending protest tactic being to post public toilet selfies with the hashtag #wejustneedtopee. What is your take on this issue?
Ideally, it would be good to have gender neutral toilets, where no-one feels threatened.
Do you believe that a person is born in the wrong body, or is undergoing a sex change a decision they reach due to a lack of acceptance over the course of their life making them feel trapped?
Having talked to many transgender people, i do believe that most feel that they were born in the wrong body from an early age. Just as being gay is genetic, in my opinion – like having blue eyes or ginger hair. I first realised i might be gay when i was around 13 and fought those feelings for many years as i was brought up in a religious family and thought it was a sin. I think it’s only recently that people developed a greater understanding of the issue. I’d like to think that as time progresses, society will become more liberal, but as recent history has sadly proven (in places like Russia, the American mid-west and the African continent) there can also be a backlash when society tries to liberalise too quickly. Education / information is the key! It’s harder to be prejudiced when you see everyone as a human being.
Saturday 18th April 2pm
Rio Cinema, 107 Kingsland High Street, London, E8 2PB