Launching this year’s London Short Film Festival, an evening of alternative drag took over the theatre of the ICA. Pairing up with the Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest, this was set to be an evening celebrating the brave cross-dressers who have graced the screen, along with those working the scene today. Creating a conversation between a drag past and a drag present, four short films were followed by performances from four of London’s boundary-pushing performers. With host Baby Lame at the helm, it was clear that this evening was going to be about a lot more more than “Just A Pretty Face”.
The screening kicked off with Tom Rubnitz’s infamous ‘Pickle Surprise’ which truly set the tone for the evening of bombastic celebration of alternative drag. Following the quick-cut and colourful scenes of Lady Bunny and RuPaul chomping on pickles were three short films, each distinct in their approach to the subject
In Jesse Hultberg and David Wojnarowicz’s Beautiful People, we see Jesse making herself up in her cramped Manhattan apartment. Prostrate across her bed in a pair of Y-fronts like a William Etty painting, she gets up and sits at her vanity table and paints her face. Defiantly taking to the Manhattan streets, she hails a yellow taxi cab. Seeing the city’s skyline disappear behind her, the film follows her as she returns to nature, before slowly submerging herself underwater. The film is a sensitive portrayal of the gender non-conforming experience, while also overtly tackling its perception of being unnatural.
Then came the John Waters-esque Beauties Without A Cause from David Weissmann where four queens wreak havoc. The four beauties (Tommy Pace, Teena Rosen, Theresa McGinley, and Lulu) steal, car-jack and abuse their way around town in a slapstick, slap in the face to normative society. Splashing dollar bills and bouncing to the jaunty jazz soundtrack, you can’t help but grin along with these outlaws.
Finally, it was time for the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to take to the screen. In this 1994 Tom Stephan mini-documentary titled 21st Century Nuns, we meet the habit of queer nuns who were a staple of the gay activism of the 1990s. From campaigning for safer sex education, the habit gave ritual to the gay population, with a view to “expiate all stigmatic guilt and promulgate universal joy.” A delightful insight into the valuable work being done by activists of the time, this short documentary gives a lasting taste of the social currency of cross-dressing to make a statement.
Following an intermission, it was time to get the wine flowing and sit back to enjoy the exciting work of trailblazing collective Drag Syndrome, an impassioned spoken-word piece by That Ray, swoon at the tantalizing moves of Wesley Dykes and finally the though-provoking Lilly Snatchdragon. Each performer, distinct in their own performance style, shouted out the legacy of an alternative drag history, but more importantly of its future. In a world inundated with Insta-beauties and catchphrase-spewing Drag Race queens, it’s hopeful to see performers give that industry the middle finger.
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