By David-Elijah Nahmod, June 2016 Web Exclusive.
There are moments of brilliance in Colin Rothbart's new documentary Dressed As A Girl. The British filmmaker focuses his camera lens on the denizens of the underground drag scene in London's East End.
In his latest film, which is similar to Jennie Livingston's acclaimed Paris is Burning (1990), Rothbart shows us his subjects in their dressing rooms, on stage and in their private lives.
Shot over a period of six year, the result final product is a revealing look at the psyches of people who might not always be having as much fun as it appears, but who nonetheless feel driven to dress up and perform.
The film opens with Johnny Woo, an outrageously made up queen covered in glitter. Woo speaks into the camera as he sprawls across the floor in a dramatic pose, his frightening looking high heels in full view. Woo introduces us to the drag world that he's a part of – a world in which he often receives top billing. As he describes the outrageous parties and performances that are a big part of his life, Woo admits to nearly dying from alcohol abuse. He speaks candidly about his inability to stop drinking and of his time in the hospital, suffering from organ failure.
Viewers also see Woo out of drag, visiting his parents in the small English town of Kent. Stripped of the glitter, we see a well dressed, handsome and almost shy young man who appears to be in his mid-30s. The difference between Woo's onstage and offstage personas is akin to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Rothbart's film fascinates with its up close and personal look inside the souls of the outrageous characters that have long been a pivotal part of gay culture.
Not all drag performers featured here are men.
Holestar, a biological female, takes great pride in her ability to look like a man in drag when she's onstage. Holestar refers to herself as "a tranny with a fanny." (Warning: some may find segments of the film’s raw language offensive.) As Holestar deals with health issues that are leaving her disabled she finds that the drag world can, at times, be disloyal.
Others are more fortunate.
Amber, who began her performing career as a gay man named Dean, has transitioned to female, and is honored with a "Boob-a-thon," a well-attended fundraiser for her transition related medical costs. Kudos to Rothbart for his careful explanation of the difference between dressing and gender identity.
Then there's Scottee, the most outrageous of the Queens. Scottee survived growing up in a household where he was not accepted for who he is. He cut his family out of his life at age 18 and never looked back. Scottee's deliberately obnoxious stage persona baffles audiences, which doesn't stop the ambitious young man from becoming a confident performer who's performed around the world.
Here, Rothbart allows his subjects to speak openly and frankly about their experiences, their loves, desires and fears. The brutal honesty of these performers can at times, be heartbreaking, and even embarrassing. They hold nothing back, perhaps realizing that this may be their only chance to speak as human beings and not as the characters they've created.
The film's only flaw is the director's lack of focus – he jumps back and forth almost randomly from one interview subject to the next, leaving some in mid-thought as he moves on to the next interviewee. By the time Rothbart returns to the earlier interview, the intensity of the scene is sometimes lost. Dressed as a Girl might have been a better film if the auteur had divided the film into six uninterrupted segments, one for each of the performers.
Dressed as a Girl is nonetheless a fascinating look inside a world that very few people truly understand. The film lifts the veil and reveals the whole person beneath the wig and lipstick. These are real people who struggle with a variety of issues that the audience never sees from the stage. The revelations of such issues will forever change how you see them.
Dressed as a Girl is now available on DVD and On Demand. For more information, or to see the film's trailer, visit dragmovie.com.