In a world where underground music, culture and art is co-opted as quickly as it's created, what does it mean to be truly independent? The word, especially in relationship to film has taken quite a beating. The American "indie" has become a genre, rather than a clear depiction of how a film is produced. Glossy 15 million dollar pictures with an all-star Hollywood cast, wear the indie label to conceal their true identity. American independent films, for the most part, are merely films produced by smaller production companies that are in turn owned by media conglomerates. Distribution still resides in the hands of a few powerful companies with well-oiled publicity machines that have the means necessary to distribute films to a mass audience. If one looks at the definition of the word independent, then to be a truly independent filmmaker is virtually impossible.
Twenty-one years ago, before every city, state and region had a local film festival and the word independent became cliché, Film Arts Foundation launched its first Festival of Independent Cinema. The goal was simple: to provide a venue for filmmakers creating truly independent work, political in nature and challenging in form. It celebrated artists working on the margins of mainstream culture and gave them a place to connect with a local audience. Through the years the organization has nurtured the work of artists that have gone on to experience more mainstream success -- being nominated for (and winning) Academy Awards, Emmy Awards, Peabody Awards and directing big budget features. Although the landscape of film culture has shifted radically over the last two decades, there is still a need to provide a venue for locally produced work and to nurture artists who are beginning to develop their talent.
Screening at this year's festival, Blood, Sweat and Glitter, by Sasha Aickin follows five talented contestants as they primp, prance and pull out all the stops to compete for the Miss TrannyShack Pageant. Every Tuesday night for over a decade the Stud Bar has played host to the radical, gender bending drag show, TrannyShack. Beyond old-school female impersonation, this style of drag verges on performance art. A gaggle of drag artists weaned on rock & roll, punk music, high fashion, and a plethora of pop icons, put together an often disturbing, hilarious and evocative show complete with dance numbers, brilliant costumes and lip synching. TrannyShack has evolved into a true San Francisco institution. Once a year, Heklina, the hostess of Trannyshack stages a pageant to crown the reigning drag queen.
The film introduces the performers as they devise their ideas for the big night, including stage shows, choreographed dance numbers, fabulous sets and even more fabulous costumes. We come to know the personality of each contestant through their approach to planning and their relationship to the art of performance. Structured like a traditional backstage musical, the film allows us a glimpse into the process of putting on a show, with all the obstacles each contestant must overcome as the pageant draws near.
And like any good backstage musical, you'll find yourself rooting for your favorite contestants: you'll hold your breath, cross your fingers and hope that their eccentric vision becomes a reality. No matter how different their approach, all the performers are united by the energy and dedication they bring to the effort. It's more than simply being crowned Miss TrannyShack and getting to wear a glittery tiara, it is about the desire to create and perform simply for the love of it. As the movie progresses,it becomes clear that the independent spirit lacking in the film world is being kept alive by the performers on that tiny stage at the Stud every Tuesday night.
Although it may seem like an unlikely comparison, TrannyShack and the Film Arts Festival have much in common. Both cultivate artists beginning to develop their talent and provide a venue for locally produced, cutting edge and independently made work. It is completely befitting that, to celebrate 21 years of independent cinema, the festival is once again focusing on homegrown talent and showcasing films that won't be screening at the local multi-plex anytime soon.
The 21st Film Arts Festival of Independent Cinema runs November 3-9 at the Kanbar Hall and the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, at the Parkway in Oakland, and at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.