Nostalgia for more “urgent” times compelled artist and film-maker Wu Tsang, 31, to document the life of a transgender bar called the Silver Platter in MacArthur Park, L.A.
While the ferocity of Stonewall-era protest may have receded, Tsang reminds us in the programme for this absorbing documentary that the average life expectancy of a transgender person worldwide is 23.
Part of Charming For The Revolution, a two day “experimental congress” on gender politics, the UK premier of the film is a powerful call for a socially engaged kind of art. It is also an exercise in self-mythologization.
Wildness was a Tuesday night party that Tsang and his friends ran at the bar from 2008-10. College-educated hipsters mixed with the local transgender working-class Central American community.
The night became legendary. It attracted so much press that Tsang had to write to various newspapers in order to protect the bar’s status as a “safe space” for those who suffer persecution and even death.
This seems strange – since the film’s US premier last year, the bar has received a vast amount of publicity, which must have altered its clientele. Indeed, the slightly queasy aspect of the project is the self-referencing hipster aesthetic.
Tsang has self-identified as “transfeminine” and “transguy.” He is “multi-multi”: born in Massachusetts of Chinese and Swedish descent. He is stunning and charming, and his charisma carries the film, which is narrated by a transgender Guatemalan actress playing the bar itself.
This is a magical realist twist. Beautiful shots of L.A at night are combined with elliptical statements such as “All anyone can do is show up… and refuse to go away.”
The hipster invasion seemed to be welcomed by the Ramirez family, who has owned the bar since 1963. There are plenty of scenes of transgender middle-aged Mexicans dancing with performance artists and DJs with innovative hair-cuts.
The atmosphere is genuinely electric and the soundtrack of original music by Total Freedom and Nguzunguzu makes you wish you’d been to the party.
Tsang and friends took over the abandoned print shop next to the bar and turned it into a legal clinic, advising immigrants about their rights. The film includes harrowing testimonies about crossing the Mexico-US border and the fear of being deported.
Wildness is indebted to Paris Is Burning, the 1990 documentary about ball culture in Harlem, but it is less savage and astute. Still, Tsang's is an exciting talent.