Dressed As A Girl ***
Starring: Jonny Woo, Scottee, Amber Swallows, John Sizzle, Holestar, Pia Director: Colin Rothbart
There's no doubt that some drag collectives can be called artistic movements. While Manchester's is currently in full-flow, the documentary
follows a group of London queens whose prominence has been felt for the last ten years. Emerging from the gay scene as a raucous and irreverent group of performers, there seems to be little that unites them but their love of the bold and profane, but together their trashy-chic aesthetic forms something akin to a movement... but a movement that just wants everyone to have fun. Following a group of seemingly disparate figures, the frocumentary was presented as part of POUTfest, HOME's LGBT film season, and casts Jonny Woo as its lead, who casually affirms himself as their ringmaster. Supporting is Scottee, a made up and sensitive performance artist; Amber Swallows, a trashy but lovable t-girl; John Sizzle, a self-declared "reluctant" queen; Holestar, the intense "tranny with a fanny"; and Pia, a gender-bending and deep party-girl.
In its opening, Woo declares himself as the leader of the group, as early footage of the his event Gay Bingo shows the drunken carnage that appears at their hands. But as the film goes on, there is little that binds Woo to the rest of the queens, all of whom seem deeper and more genuine than him. As the film shifts its focus between each of the performers, we see their struggles and triumphs as they party, celebrate, reconnect with loved ones and fight with personal demons. But for Woo, this seems little more than a prestige piece to affirm his position at the forefront of this collective. Though clearly the most well-known of the group, he bemoans the elusiveness of success for him, even after he has hosted a music festival and filled a London theatre for the Gay Bingo reunion. As such, he comes across somewhat conceited and where the other queens show real humanity, he appears as a one-track party machine whose real personality seems as wooden as the vignettes he delivers to camera. The most telling moment about Woo and his supposed collective comes from Holestar, who falls during a performance to find herself hospitalised and wheel-chair bound for months after. Though obviously this incident had affected her both physically and mentally, she received barely any support from her "group", who seemed to forget about her until she could return to the party. For Holestar, this was clearly hurtful, but there was no sign of any assistance from Woo. Later, when Amber is raising money for her breast surgery at "the world's first boobathon", they claim to be coming together as a community to help someone in need, but there was no sign of this for Holestar. Because she was physically unable to get up and party, she was completely left behind by her seemingly fair-weather friends. Which did nothing to endear us towards them. However, that's not to say the film doesn't cast these figures in a good light. It finds its most poignant moments as it delves into the personal lives of the queens. For Amber, this comes in her reunion with her father following her transition. Though Amber had been painted as a voracious party-girl, these moments of genuine humanity showed a heart beneath her projected trashy facade. Sizzle's reflections on his HIV diagnosis are heartfelt and affecting, Pia's descent into paranoia is dismaying to watch, while Holestar's discussion of her battle with depression is both genuine and moving. But though Scottee is the youngest of the group, it is he who provides the most insight for them as a collective. He reflects on their early days with nostalgia, but adds "I wish it had always been like that". Because as egos grow over the course of the film, it becomes clear to Scottee that everyone is "competing for a golden ticket", that there's only one place for the role of top drag queen. And in the making of this film, Woo has clearly decided that role belongs to him and as a result, the piece comes off skewed as you question the legitimacy of his claim. Drag queens being drag queens, the competition for the limelight is relentless. As the characters repeat throughout the film, they've become queens because they all love attention, but in a battle between competing personalities, casualties are created along the way. Pia falls to the wayside, Holestar seems to become the outcast, while Scottee's success elsewhere means he becomes excluded. So for a film that seems to be attempting to demonstrate the power of a collective, it falls flat on its face. But as a film that champions the creativity of several individuals, it soars in its depiction of multiple grand personalities with ideas and questions and personal ideologies that really do challenge as much as they entertain. It's just Woo's ego that distracts from that.
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