Premiering earlier this week at SXSW, “Wildness” serves as a portrait into the world that is the Silver Platter, Los Angeles’ oldest trans Latina bar, as it becomes home to a group of newcomers in search of a place to call their own. Director Wu Tsang — a trans-identified queer 30 year old artist/performer of Chinese and Swedish descent — took some time from his busy schedule at SXSW to answer a few questions for xQsí.
XQSÍ: As someone who is not Latin@, when producing this film, how did you ensure you were being culturally competent in covering the stories of a community that is normally marginalized because of race, gender (identity), class and immigration status?
WU TSANG: I tried to tell the story from my perspective, as someone who came to the Silver Platter as an outsider, who became very involved through organizing a party at the bar called Wildness. The film tries to deal directly both with points of cultural understanding and difference, especially in language. Both in life, as a person who hangs out in that space, and as a filmmaker, I try not to be anyone other than who I am, with contradictory layers of race/gender/class identity. I’m not much of an ethnographer; my background is as a performer, which makes me inclined to wanna participate and collaborate — to learn by doing more than observing. So the film is actually more like a patchwork of many creative hands and voices. That said, I don’t claim it’s an accurate “representation” of everybody involved. The magical realism of the talking bar for example, was conceived to make it obvious that the story is subjective. Over time, I’ve even been told by some that I “got it wrong” but that kind of folds into the question of what community is, and what the limits are of being able to fully/accurately represent through film.
XQSÍ: As story tellers, we often have responsibility to those whose stories we are telling. Is there any particular reason why the film is not translated to Spanish in the same way that it is translated into English?
WT: Actually my intention has always been to subtitle the film in both languages, so that it can be viewed simultaneously. But we were literally so pressed to finish, I wasn’t able to incorporate Spanish subtitles for this version (so secretly what’s screening in Austin is the almost-finished version). As soon as I return to LA I’m going to finish subtitling before the LA premiere. I’ve been kind of fascinated by what it means to actually “finish” a film. The other day someone said “films are never finished, they just stop.” They get cut off, freezing a moment in time. I’ve been screening rough cuts of Wildness to different audiences for over 2 years, seeking dialog about the core representational issues. It’s far from perfect, but I hope it creates the possibility for continuing those dialogs.
XQSÍ: Unlike many documentaries that are limited to a single story arch, “Wildness” covers a diverse array of topics ranging from gentrification, immigration, safe spaces, appropriation, etc. Why did you feel it was important to tell the story in this manner?
WT: Around the time Wildness started 4 years ago, I remember being into the idea of trans resistance, and basically asking myself, “what could this movement look like?” I was inspired by images of past civil rights movements, gay liberation etc — but at the same time I had no way to connect those images to my own experiences. As Wildness grew and developed into a living thing, life sort of took over, and real political urgencies sprung up that were immediate and personal. I began to see/feel a different understanding of my situation, and the situations of my friends at the bar, whose struggles around trans and immigration stuff were so interconnected, there was really no way to separate those issues. And then in trying to represent them through film, my position as the filmmaker, and as an artist working in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, those positions were also inseparable from telling the story. So I try to weave all these things together, hopefully in a way that’s true to how they’re complicated in real life.
XQSÍ: There are moments in the film when I just cringe at the outward manifestations of cissexismThe system of attitudes, beliefs, and biases where cisgender/cissexualIdentifying with the gender assigned at birth. (Not transgender) gender identities and expressions are normalized and valued, and transgender and gender-variant identities and expressions are erased and pathologized., transphobia, and transmisogyny by the Wildness clientele. Why did you choose to include these moments?
WT: Including the uncomfortable parts was essential to bring audiences on the journey with me, and enable them discover and make their own conclusions as I once had to do for myself… At a certain point in the editing process, my strategy became about including whatever I had initially (often unconsciously) wanted to hide. Some of these parts are still even hard for me to watch. But that kind of self-evaluation and honesty is what drives the story.
XQSÍ: If Wildness had not reached the level of popularity it had, would you still wish for it to have continued?
WT: At this point, I’m not able to do any more alternate-universe fantasizing about Wildness, because making the film was so much about opening my eyes to the material and dealing with the reality of what the party was, what happened, the aftermath, etc. When Koky got his job back, they did ask us to come back. I still sometimes talk to him about doing Tuesdays again. But I know it is sort of a dream, because all of us Wildness organizers (including myself) have really different lives now. We travel a lot for art & music projects, we’ve had some amazing opportunities. It’s painful to admit that, but it also feels important to admit that, like following through on all the metaphors and implications of the story. That’s also not topresumethat our lives are somehow better, but that the conditions are so different, and were so different to begin with. The Silver Platter opened up a space for unlikely coalitions and meaningful relationships. It was fragile, tenuous, and real. Without that space, it’s hard to recreate those possibilities, but I hope that the film will create similar crossroads in a different way, for other people, living in a lot of different places.
Wildness will screen for the final time at SXSW on Thursday, March 15 at 1:15 pm at Violet Crown. For more info visit the SXSW schedule.