Dressed as a Girl

Review by Sophie Monks Kaufman @sopharsogood

Directed by

Colin Rothbart

Starring

Amber Waze Holestar Jonny Woo

Anticipation.

Always curious to see drag shows.

Enjoyment.

A wonderful cast of performers who are as a candid off stage as they are melodramatic on it.

In Retrospect.

Good work that could have been great.

This episodic jaunt through east London’s drag scene offers colour a-plenty though lacks cohesion.

“We’re all desperate to articulate ourselves now that we know we can’t be fucking bullied any more.” Scottee is one of six alternative performers profiled in director Colin Rothbart’s documentary about the east London drag scene. This world is shiny, foul-mouthed, theatrical and inspirational to anyone looking for queer role models who have proudly owned their countercultural voices. It’s no fault of Jonny Woo, Amber Waze, Holestar, Pia, Scottee or John Sizzle that this is an episodic film that would have worked more neatly as a television serial. Each of the six performers is worthy of more screen and story time than they end up having in a documentary that manages to drag (sorry, not sorry) due to its lack of structure.

Still, at best, Dressed as a Girl provides a way into the most daring shows in town. Filmed over five years, it lets us see the serious life challenges that face these performers once they’ve exited the stage. Amber – formerly known as Dean – is estranged from her father. The empowerment she feels as her sex change progresses gives her the strength to reach out to her dad, a salt-of-the earth northerner. The most hopeful and wonderful scenes in this film show their characters coming together for fabulous, awkward bonding.

Holestar, who defines herself as “a tranny with a fanny” is exceptionally blunt about her lifelong depression. Although she dresses up for a living, she doesn’t dress up her feelings. Stark communication has a new poster child. Scottee’s macabre performances – vomiting and crying and deliberately vulgar acts that speak more of suffering and performance art than transvestism – are all we see of him for a long stretch. When he finally has some words to camera, it is a relief to hear his vital perspective.

Pia is a gentle soul with a striking face. She is also a drugs casualty given to earnestly reciting conspiracy theories. Jonny Woo is the compere, the most polished headline performer, founder of ‘Gay Bingo’ and a man who had to switch up his substance-fuelled party lifestyle following serious health scares. John Sizzle is on the periphery for most of the film. Rothbart remembers him in time to fold in anecdotes about his formative sexual experiences, which took place covertly, against a tree.

It is wonderful to meet these people and to hear fragments of their stories. Given the length of time that Rothbart filmed for, it’s also clear that he has done a thoughtful job in collating his strongest footage and letting the rest of it go. It’s just a shame that more thought did not go into the art of storytelling. Pithy insights and magnetic visual vignettes are weakened by being crowded by one another. This is an authentic slice of queer London history that could have been an essential exhibit of queer London art.

Published 2 Oct 2015

Anticipation.

Always curious to see drag shows.

Enjoyment.

A wonderful cast of performers who are as a candid off stage as they are melodramatic on it.

In Retrospect.

Good work that could have been great.

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