In late 2013 and early 2014, HuffPost Gay Voices Associate Editor James Nichols spent six months exploring the explosion of drag culture in northern Brooklyn through a 25-part series called "Queer New World."
Now, a documentary that elevates the voices of this community in a different context is in post-production and engaged in an Indiegogo campaign in order to fully fund the project. Titled "Sisters of the Wicked Wig," this documentary follows three prominent members of the Brooklyn Drag Community, Horrorchata, Merrie Cherry and Elle Emenope, as well as historical queer nightlife icon Penny Arcade.
Having already completed a nuanced exploration of drag culture in northern Brooklyn through "Queer New World," HuffPost Gay Voices was interested in considering how a film-based medium would contribute to the historical narrative being built around this queer performance scene and community through this project. HuffPost Gay Voices chatted with filmmakers Gayatri Kaul and Adam Golub about "Sisters of the Wicked Wig" this week.
The Huffington Post: Why did you decide to embark on "Sisters of the Wicked Wig"? Why is this film so important?
Gayatri Kaul: Adam and I were in the documentary film program together at the Columbia Journalism School. We were initially working on separate -- but similar -- projects, but mine fell through and we decided to partner up.
I remember the first time I'd seen pictures of Horrorchata. Adam had shown them in class. I knew what drag queens were, but that wasn't it. It went far beyond what usually fit the definition of drag -- and that's why it seemed important to me: it’s distinctiveness
For someone who'd just begun exploring the complexity of gender and sexuality, it was the most visually compelling and representative form of a challenge to where we're at as a society today -- how gender and sexual norms are taking on a whole new set of boundaries.
As someone who grew up in India, where we're still dealing with the "coming out" of a culture, it completely transformed my views on LGBTQ issues. It's very, very difficult to look at people as "boys" or "girls." I think the kind of drag they're doing in Bushwick does a wonderful job of really bringing you out of your comfort zone and just viewing people as people. That's really what this story is about, at least for me. Everyone's got families with issues, hardships and break-ups -- we just have different ways of expressing and dealing with it and, if so, what better way to express yourself than through art?
Adam Golub: I came to New York City at a pretty emotionally turbulent, but also exciting, time in my life. I have always been intrigued by gender play and had felt really constrained in my expression before moving here.
I was invited by Matty (Horrorchata) to the first Bushwig Festival in 2012 when I had only been in New York for a couple of months. I was starting my graduate program at the Journalism program at Columbia and was thinking of stories and getting a grasp on the pulse of this megalopolis.
This was a really serendipitous confluence for me because I was so intrigued, personally, by what I saw at Bushwig that having a camera in my hands gave me a really good reason to get closer to something I really longed to be closer to. And Matty and the other characters in our doc so generously agreed to let me into their lives and their community.
It’s important to me because of how it has made me feel so free. And I think of my experience as a microcosm of a larger potential for the world we live in. I had seen "Wigstock" and "Paris is Burning" in my early 20s and that exposure to the creative potential of queer fringe culture stuck has stuck with me. I’m hoping our story will stick with future generations of people who are looking for people who are looking to be free of our society’s constraining norms.
Which performers featured in The Huffington Post's "Queer New World" series play a role in this film?
In one way or another all of those featured in "Queer New World" play a role.
The primary characters in the film are Horrorchata, Merrie Cherry and Elle Emennope, but also featured in the film in some way are Macy Rodman (who is flailing in the pre-release trailer), Lady Simon, Hamm Samwich, Allotta McGriddles, Thorgy Thorgy, Manifestany Squirtz, Charmin Ultra and more.
Thorgy Thor was one of the first performing drag queens in Williamsburg before the “big drag explosion” that happened about four years ago. Misty Meaner, Mocha Lite and a few others were performing at Sugarland, and this is an important, more immediate, historical context for our story.
The Mr(s) Williamsburg Pageant is also in our film, as well as the Brooklyn Nightlife Awards -- major events that highlight the kind of alternative and gritty performance that the scene creates space for. The events, in a way, are as worthy of attention as the characters, as they demonstrate the intensity and creativity of the performance culture. Also, worth noting is the number of major drag events that sprung up in Brooklyn in the span of a single year!
What is the narrative you're trying to construct through this documentary?
Of central importance, and of greatest contention, to us as a team, is the notion of accessibility. How can we make this story both accessible to the mainstream society and relevant to the queer community?
Our narrative uses the Bushwig festival, the first and second annual, as a bounded time frame for the contemporary story, which we couch in the larger historical narrative of Warhol, Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous and the Wigstock Festival. We see the rise and formation of the community around the festival and in North Brooklyn in the context of changing real estate markets and changing social mores (marriage equality rhetoric and nationally televised "RuPaul’s Drag Race").
We see, also, the struggles and eventual resolutions of the various conflicts of our characters, in relation to family, to financial struggles in NYC and artistic crises of finding one’s place/medium as an artist in the artistic center of the United States.
In the end, many questions are answered, but some remain open and the future of the community will be determined by many different factors. Our narrative goal is not to neatly wrap up the community, but rather to understand that, like any bourgeoning group, the struggle to define oneself is a universal and an unending one.
More than anything, what is it that you want viewers to take away about the Brooklyn drag scene?
Kaul: Adam and I have very different takes on this. Him being an Israeli-American member of the LGBTQ family, and me being a straight Indian woman. But that's a good thing -- because there are two messages to deliver.
Here's my take:
To be honest, the first time I saw the pictures Adam showed in class, I was apprehensive. Weirded out to a certain extent. Their hyper-sexual performances, language and bold behavior intimidated me. Coming from a sexually conservative society didn't help either.
But then I started really paying attention to the issues they'd raise through their art. I say art because what they do is truly remarkable -- making yourself look like a concept (read: Horrorchata's amalgamation of Selena and horror movies ), or a gorgeous Beyonce-like diva like Merrie, or even Elle's superhero inspired, funky looks -- it's not easy. Man, sometimes I take hours to get my eye liner set straight.
Behind all that make-up and lip-syncing are stories about a constant "coming out." As a straight individual, it's difficult to understand the concept of "coming out." We're raised to think Adam always goes for Eve, so half the battle's over if you like the opposite sex. Coming out requires a whole restructuring of thought and relationships involved in it. I guess the closest thing I can equate it with is your parents splitting up -- and even that doesn't do justice. It's a whole rethinking of reality. I never really understood it till I met Adam -- I'm sure I never will either, because I'm not gay -- but the lives I've seen through this movie changed me.
What I guess I'm getting at is the fact that the battle is still not over. It may be 2014 and we've might have come a long way, but it's a constant coming out. It doesn't stop at people telling their parents, it doesn't stop at legalization -- it goes on till you're allowed to live like any other "straight" person.
Golub: The major takeaway is informed by my own takeaways from the process of working on this project.
We live in a “Queer New World,” as you put it, and it’s important to make sure we are continuing to document those on the margins who are continuing to push the bounds of acceptability. Especially given the recent struggles with Facebook forcing drag queens to change to their “real names” or risk losing a PRIMARY tool in their livelihood as artists, it’s important to put a relatable face on the “freaks” of our world. Drag and gender-bending performance is not just trivial and light-hearted, but it’s a serious identity statement that serves a crucial function in our society. In my estimation, the true measure of a free society is the presence of grungy drag!
Head here to visit the "Sisters of the Wicked Wig" Kickstarter.