Directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera’s documentary reveals a wealth of letters written by members of the drag and female impersonator scene of the 1950s. The letters are merely a jumping off point for a full exploration of the New York gay scene at a time when they’re identities were considered dangerous by the state. Also shared are tragic experiences of Aids that snuffed out so many of the voices that could have been heard today. The film explores the joys, the freedoms and the desperation of people forced into the shadows by a world unprepared for them.
The letters are brought to life through gorgeous graphics, animation and a perfectly performed voiceover. The effect is a gorgeous evocation of these people and their time, from their language to their day-to-day life, complemented with insightful interviews and, where possible, original footage. The humanity and bold voice is drawn out through the performance of the letters.
Amongst the themes explored in the film is the distinction between the drag queens and female impersonators or mimics. Notions of sexuality and gender were already being explored at the time, and distinctions were vital to the identities of the performers. The performances themselves ranged from empowerment and visibility to othering and derision, depending principally on the crowd. there’s also performance as acceptance and survival. Does female performance perpetuate stereotypes for gay men? An important issue that is raised, but not resolved.
Most strikingly however is the gorgeous elegiac quality to the reminiscence. These are people who could never grow old. The young, the wild and the gorgeous, some of whom (far too few) have survived into old age and now feel the weight of the years that separate them from their glorious, albeit hidden, pasts. It’s not entirely nostalgic and the narratives do not shy away from the pain these people experienced. The most poignant moments see characters mourning those they have loved, many of whom were lost far too early and survive now only as warm memories.
The film is a valuable piece of historical storytelling. History is empowering, it assures those experiencing similar struggles that their plight is not new, that they have history and predecessors who have helped pave the way for the battles being fought today. It allows ownership of their country and their culture. This film is bolstered by a powerful sense of belonging and history.