So how did Manscaping get started with you?
Oh, that’s a great question. Making a documentary, at least in the independent way that I do, it takes time. I think you have to be making something that you have some personal stake in. Something that’s both interesting, but possibly scary for you too. And I have a complex and long relationship with barbershops and barbering, similar to some of the major themes of the film, I think. I’ve always had both an attraction to and trepidation around barbershop spaces. Feeling similar to the way that it’s discussed by many of the characters in the film, these spaces can be so intimidating for queer people, or gender non-conforming individuals, because they’re hyper-masculinist spaces in certain ways.
And so, I had actually started learning how to cut my own hair and was cutting my own hair for some time because of my ambivalence about those spaces. And then also, we can maybe talk a little bit about some of the characters in the piece in a minute, but there’s one character who calls himself The Naked Barber, and though I certainly do not profess to be a trained barber by any stretch of the imagination, I did start to cut friends hair and things like that, right at a really key moment, in my early 20s, when I was really figuring out who I was as a queer person and a gay man.
At that time dating and interaction… it was a pre-app world, but it was an online world. And sometimes it felt a little…that dating world felt a little transactional to me. And in some interesting ways, my haircutting skills and my online social life collided and I created a bit of a of a naked barber persona for myself; this character, Rick, that if you really want to get into I have a, an autobiographical documentary called The Skin I’m In which Rick is chronicled in all of his glory, in detail. But all of that to say, I think all of this interesting matrix of fascination and curiosity and trepidation around the barbershop space: that made for a real soup to start thinking about this space more substantively and in documentary.
You talked there about the dating world feeling transactional, there was a really great sense in the film about what self-image means to people and to people from these communities in particular, and how challenging it is to not be able to take pride in their appearance because they’re having to avoid spaces that would help them with that.
Yeah, I mean, I think maybe to answer in a more concise way, your original question, I think I started off thinking I’m going to make a documentary that explores the ways in which barbering and body hair construct certain ideas of masculinity. And in doing so I actually explored and interviewed and engaged with a lot of really extraordinary people. Some of them did not end up in the film. So a really wonderful scholar named Christopher Oldstone-Moore, who has made a really interesting book called Of Beards and Men that historicizes the notion of facial hair in Western culture. And an artist named Guðmundur Thoroddsen in Reykjavik who uses a lot of beards and performances of masculinity and hair in his work. But he himself has some challenges growing a beard. And I had this idea that there was going to be two artists, two barbers and two performers in the film, and then the scholar tying it together.
And I think, as the piece progressed, I really started to find that these questions around the barbershop as a community space and as a small business, the questions around inclusion and exclusion, and the simple changes those small businesses can make to make these spaces more inclusive and more fun, really started to ring through as the richest and most core essence of the piece.
And so, these three participants that I arrived at; Devan Shimoyama, who’s an artist who’s looking at the ways in which, as a Black, queer male, he’s been both excluded from more white spaces who, in coded ways, talk about how they can’t cut “textured hair”. But then, you know, in the traditional black barbershop space also feels like he needs to go into the closet. You know, Jessie Anderson, who’s actually created a progressive, queer space, that centres Trans identities and non-conforming identities, has a barbershop space in Vancouver. And then Richard Savvy, who we’ll talk about; the Naked Barber of Sydney, who brought questions of fetish, and exploration and play into that space.
All three of them really felt like even though they’re very disparate geographically, and also in terms of what they do, came together in a really compelling way that I learned so much about and really articulated and imagined things that I think I had been feeling all my life that hadn’t necessarily thought through in a deeper way.
How was it that you came upon these three men and how did it become so specifically about their experience? And how was it approaching them to get involved?
I knew of Devan because I’m a huge art, a fine art lover. And I’ve always loved his work. And so, when he took this shift, and made this barbershop series of paintings that really expressed his ambivalences around the barbershop space and imagined a queer utopia in some fashion through these paintings, these amazing paintings that are collage and dragged out, I thought, oh my gosh, I have to connect with him about that. Richard and Jessie are people actually found through the wonders of the internet. The internet can be a strange and horrible place, but it can actually really be extraordinary for connecting and finding individuals. And so, you know, it’s very humbling to, to reach out to individuals, randomly on the internet, and maybe give them some samples of your prior work and say, “Can I come visit you for a film?” And for them to say yes, is really, really a gift. But that’s, that’s really what it amounted to.
You mentioned that you wanted to include some other people and some other experiences in the film? Did you approach them? Was anything shot? Or was it early on that you condensed?
Things were recorded. Really lovely experiences with that scholar I described and with Guðmundur, for example, and maybe there are little smaller films in there to be made. But even though those individuals aren’t in the film, I think they were really valuable in helping me to, to think through the scope of these issues. I mean, Guðmundur is actually a cis-het male, and he talks about those spaces being a little bit intimidating or sometimes exclusionary for him too. And Christopher, Dr. Moore, I should say, who’s written this book really talks about and underscores the way in which even something as simple as the beard is actually this incredibly coded thing that’s been mobilised across history in terms of fads, but also in terms of performances of power and things like that, going back to even Greek culture. So they definitely helped me think through and really flesh out some of my ideas and questions, even though they didn’t necessarily show up in the finished piece.
It is extremely relatable. Because it’s such an unquestioned part of our society, I don’t remember seeing anything else really talking about what an intimidating and odd experience it is to go to the barber shop, and to think about why that is, and what it says about masculinity and vulnerability as well. It’s curious the way in which society has shaped the space in which men go to be vulnerable together and actually come up with something even more performativity masculine as a result.
I love what you’re saying about it being a space of potential shared vulnerability. I mean, I think, in the film, Devan talks about this idea about it being such an intimate experience. And sometimes when somebody is like, shaving his face, or touching up his face with a straight razor, their bodies are pressed close to his, and he’s literally holding his breath in those moments. And there’s an incredible amount of trust. I mean, there are scenes where the Naked Barber is giving straight razor shaves to individuals in the film, where there’s a tremendous amount of accelerated intimacy and vulnerability that gets transacted in the barbershop space. And there’s something really extraordinary about that. And yet, as you described, I think often in these spaces there are additional levels of performance that get layered onto that, that are complicated.
And I want to be careful in this film. The goal is not to discredit or to try to break apart the really important homosocial space of the barbershop. I think there are some really important and powerful histories there. But I think [the film] does model first of all, some possible alternate versions of that space. And I think by extension there are ways in which hopefully, it inspires individuals, particularly small business owners, or the custodians of any cultural space by extension, to think about “what are the messages that my space is communicating?”, either wilfully or perhaps inadvertently. And “how might I through some small, simple changes make this space more inclusive or more welcoming in some fashion? And more fun potentially along the way?”
You talked about the idea that your subjects were helping you to think through the ideas that you wanted to explore as you were gathering material already. How much did you start with when you set off into making the film? How much of an idea did you have at the beginning? Or was it just an instinct to start collecting these stories.
You know, I teach too and I’m always telling students to really do a lot of thinking and research and planning and preparation. And I did that for this. I had a real sense of some driving questions. But I would argue also that this is probably the loosest piece in terms of… I gave myself a lot of permission to not pin it down before I went out. So the preparation came in really organising and thinking about where I was going and who I was speaking to, and what are some of the larger dramatic questions around the ideas of masculinity and gender. In terms of the people I was selecting, I didn’t know the specific answers that they were going to give or the experiences I was going to have. I only knew [they would be] modelling some way that was going to trouble traditional hegemonic binaries and monolithic notions or performances of what it is to be a man with a capital M. And so, I knew there were going to be some nuanced, and complicated, and interesting, and hopefully generative experiences and possibilities modelled but what those particular experiences and possibilities were, really unfolded as I was with these individuals.
Even as a queer person, and an academic, and somebody who feels like they have a pretty strong command around Gender/Sexuality Studies and things like that, I learned an incredible amount too, and I think I was really lucky in some ways. I didn’t necessarily actively go out picking the matrix of these three individuals to tick a lot of boxes, but in a way, through their experiences, I think the queer experience is not a singular experience, but really is refracted through a number of different identity positionings. The trans experience, the BIPOC experience, and a range of other positionings. Queer pluralities get refracted through it. And so as a non-trans person, and as a white person, myself, I think I was really educated and learned a lot about the particularities of some of those individuals’ experiences in these spaces. So, a lot of learning which I think is a good sign. It keeps the lonely process of making a doc going when you yourself are inspired and learning and kept on your toes.
How did the subjects respond to you and your camera? Were there any barriers to them participating authentically?
My approach to making work is actually… I mean, the crew is very small. It’s me and my partner/husband, Lee Biolos, it’s just the two of us. I’m operating camera and directing, Lee is producing and being much more gregarious and perhaps friendly than I am (at first, I’m a little bit shy) and also is recording sound. So our footprint is quite small. And I think that does help in terms of just not lumbering into a space with some major crew or something like that.
I think additionally I’ve made work, other character driven work before, including autobiographical work, and so the opportunity to share work samples with people in advance to give them a feel for the work that I make. Work that certainly is not creating hagiographies or sanding off all the edges by any stretch. And does seek to not create “gotcha” media. But rather just find individuals who I think are complex and interesting and generative, and amplify those stories. So I think in that sense, a combination of the work that I’ve made, and also the smaller scale, more intimate approach, I like to think or hope puts people at ease, and it makes them feel like they can be themselves, or continue to be themselves, in their own environment.
I think you definitely get that from not only the three men who have been subjects, but also from Richard Savvy and Jessie Anderson’s clients who seem so relaxed when they’re being filmed whilst participating in the service. I think that’s great.
Yes. And I think I definitely can’t take full credit for that. I’ve had this happen with a prior film. The film I made before was about a queer woman in Australia, who’s called herself a Deathwalker, and basically, she helps a community move through death and dying. And similar to the clients of Jessie and Richard, people that she worked with, some of them in their most vulnerable moments, said “Yes, come on in with a camera”. Similarly, like with the Naked Barber, as you know, people are getting their kit off to do full body grooming and things like that. And it’s probably not the most intuitive place that you would think you wanted to be filmed. But I think the willingness to do so is also really just further testament to the trust that these individuals have in Jessie and in Richard as professionals, and as people who created these community spaces which these people really want to promote and amplify, but also that they feel safe in. And so definitely grateful to have to give credit to Jessie and Richard for the willingness of their community members to say yes.
How was the production of the film and were you at all affected by COVID?
You know, this is the blessing and the curse of being a professor and academic. The blessing parts definitely outweigh the curses. The chance to get to think about and engage with young people around media production and media theory and things like that on a daily basis keeps me on my toes and is a huge gift, but it does slow me down in terms of actually making films. And so funnily enough, I actually filmed the majority of this work in pre-pandemic 2017 through 2019. And then got waylaid with a really exciting but intense moment at my college. Really growing our department and hiring new faculty, and becoming a standalone department. And so the blessing part came that when we went into complete global lockdown, I actually had material on hard drives and time to really sit down. And, finally, finally get a chance to look at this material.
You say from 2017 to 2019? Was any one subject like across that time? Or has it been blocks of the three of them in three different terms.
I have the privilege of getting sabbatical, a sabbatical semester, every four years of my teaching. And so those are like sprint moments where I just go film a project or edit a project and things like that. Spring of 2017 was a sabbatical year, and I just went for it and filmed. It was the most traveling I’ve ever done, it was amazing. I was on the road for about five months, which was just a wonderful experience. All of the material with Richard and also with Jessie, was recorded in that time. And I also filmed preliminarily, with Devan, the artist. Though I was frustrated (and as a maker, you get on yourself and get in your own head being like “you’re too slow, you need to make this project! You need to get back to it” and all of that creative lamentation) there’s actually a wonderful upside to being slow with it in the sense that… not to give away too many spoilers in the movie, but I think Dean, when I first filmed him in 2017, and 2018, was preparing this body of paintings for a major gallery show in New York, which due to being able to follow him into 2018, permitted us to be able to actually capture the opening of that show. So there was a lovely arc there. And yet he also had a bit of ambivalence about the efficacy of white box gallery exhibitions, and painting even as a practice, in terms of really realising the larger goals that he has for this project: which was to actually engage communities of colour in conversations around barbershop spaces. There was a bittersweet tinge to the to the sold-out gallery show in New York of like, well, who is actually seeing this? And what conversations is it actually precipitating?
And at that time, he talked about the germination of an idea to think about perhaps expanding his artwork into more of a social practice with a more community engaged component. And it just so happens that in 2019, he was able to do that in a really wonderful, exciting way, which I’m able to capture at the end of the film, which I think is a lovely coda to the piece. And so sometimes slowness is good because I was able to get a much, much richer and fuller arc in terms of Devan’s journey with his Barbershop Painting series and art practice.
It works really well within the film and gives it that overall sense of structure that throughout we’re building up to the show. So if you had stormed ahead and gotten it all finished in 2017, you wouldn’t have had that wonderful capstone to the whole thing; a wonderful moment of inclusion, and raising of community awareness. Now, is that something that you often struggle with? With your previous projects, you mentioned speaking to this woman who helped her community with notions around death. Was that tricky to know when to finish? And is it tricky to put these narratives onto something as chaotic and crazy as real life?
I think each project has its own rhythms and cycles to it. That one, funnily enough, I premiered a film of mine, an autobiographical film of mine (that movie The Skin I’m In) at a film festival in Australia, at the Byron Bay film festival in Australia and, Zenith, the woman who ended up becoming the subject to the next piece Zen and the Art of Dying, was an audience member there. And we just connected during and after the screening.
I had been doing a lot of critical thinking and writing around video and social media as a means of addressing… I mean, a lot of my work has to do with bodies and queer bodies. I’d been writing and thinking about video and social media as a means of addressing illness related pain and death and dying issues. And I’d written some articles on that. And so, when she told me she was the deathwalker of Byron Bay, I said, I have to find out more about this. I just stumbled into a queer-identified character whose queerness has really informed her way to look at, and arguably queer death in some ways and bring new death practices into a Western Community. She would argue the none of the practices that she’s modelling are new or ones that she’s created, but in fact, are actually alive and well in other cultural contexts. And it’s just, you know, the West that has become disconnected from them in our alarmingly recent past.
But all this to say, I had a very limited amount of time, I had one of these sabbaticals again, and I said, can I come and make a documentary about you? And she said yes.so I had five weeks. And I basically said to myself with that project, you know, I’m gonna let this be whatever it turns out to be in that time. I’m not going to have the opportunity to go back to Australia, I live in the US. So, I’m not gonna be able to go back there for reshoots and things like that. So, if this ends up being a short film, so be it. If it ends up being a feature, wonderful! Whatever!
And, you know, one of the real profundities of that movie is just the reality that death is with us and alongside us at all times. So, there was a lot of material that actually occurred during those five weeks. And similar to the luck and gift of serendipity that occurred in Manscaping: these three individuals really weaving and covering ground in a lot of refracted ways that I couldn’t have imagined if I tried to make it up. I think similarly, that happened in that film, in terms of covering a range of different death experiences. The sudden death of a 20-year-old, a 56-year-old woman with cancer, who is preparing her family for her death, a mother talking about how she navigated young children through the death of a partner, someone else talking about the profundity of losing a parent in one’s middle age. Just really a beautiful array of different death experiences that I was able to weave together. So that one was just five weeks of filming then editing. And the time period really just told me what the boundaries of the piece would be.
You mentioned earlier, your experience of your own anxieties around going to barbershops and those kinds of spaces. Has making the film changed the way that you perceive those spaces now? And maybe what you’d look for in those spaces? Or are you still cutting your own hair?
Well, I am still cutting my own hair and my partner’s hair and if anyone’s around in LA, and wants a very basic haircut, they’re welcome to hit me up. But I think it has made me realise there actually are extraordinary queer spaces everywhere. So, when I was at BFI at BFI FLARE, one of the things I really wanted to do is to ask myself…I’m modelling this space in Vancouver and then another space in Sydney, Australia. But you know, as I go on the festival circuit, and start screening this film, in particular local contexts… like is this being modelled in the place we are?
So, looking around, London has a number of really extraordinary queer barbershop spaces and one of them in particular is Open Barbers which has been around for over a decade. I was able to reach out to them and representatives from the shop actually came to the screening and we had a really wonderful component of the Q&A in which they were able to actually talk about Open Barbers. And so, I think making the film has made me realise that that there are these spaces around.
There’s also a really cool website and organisation right now, relatively new, called strandsfortrans.com. And it’s basically a registry. So, any barbershop or salon in the world who wants to register just goes onto this site and can input their site and it drops a pin on a map. And essentially, that means that any queer, trans, or non-binary individual who’s looking for a business that they know, a barbershop space that they know is going to be inclusive in a particular area, can go and just look on this map and find somebody. And I think it’s only launched about a year ago, and I think there’s over 4000 pins on this map right now. I think for myself if I were to go get my haircut somewhere else my first step would be to go on strandsfortrans.com and look up businesses in an area or things like that, too. So, if you are a small business, that isn’t registered there and are listening to this, you know, hop on there and put your shop on there.
You’ve mentioned your flair experience there at that BFI. How was that? How was coming to BFI FLARE? And have you enjoyed showing this movie to audiences?
I sent it to all the participants before we started our public journey. And the beginning of our festival journey was bittersweet because it was kind of at the height of Delta. It’s like, which version are we on now? Back in like February of 2022 was kind of the beginning of the festival journey and it was bittersweet. So, the world premiere of the film, I wasn’t at. Then the next festival was actually in Sydney. It was the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival. And, it’s Richard Savvy, The Naked Barber’s, hometown, and my partner is a dual citizen with Australia, and we have a lot of friends and community there and we were all set to go. And then just the numbers just kept climbing and climbing and climbing and Australia’s borders, I think, were still closed at that point. So, there’s just profound FOMO for that experience. Though, Richard represented the film well.
So actually, having the opportunity to come to BFI FLARE was the very first time I actually got to screen the film with a live audience. And BFI was a well-oiled machine. They were just gorgeous people. And then it was a special festival, because I guess the festival hasn’t been in person since 2019. And so, it was a real return. And that was an extraordinary festival. I mean, every screening at the festival was sold out! We had three screenings that were fully attended. And it was just really wonderful to be in community. And to see a lot of great films and meet a lot of great filmmakers. So, it’s kind of spoiled me in some ways for the film festival circuit for sure.
You talked about like raising awareness and hoping that people might engage with services like standsfortrans.com. What do you feel…or what would you like your role as a documentarian to be? What would you like your impacts to be?
That’s a great question. And it’s one that I actually debate with my students a lot. I used to have perhaps a more naive notion of… I still believe it, but I’ll qualify that… this simplistic notion of documentary’s propensity to change the world or make people think differently has been challenged and qualified a lot in the last five or six years, particularly the American context. And our prior president, whose name I won’t say and all the real ways in which for better, but quite profoundly for worse, we realised that the capacity of media, not to amplify and communicate some singular, shared agreed notion of facts and truth, but rather to the contrary, media having a real manipulative potential to produce these like siloed echo chambers of reified loops of delusion production. This simplistic idea that somehow media making documentary claims can just go out there and meet an audience and effect social change, I think, has gotten much more complex in my mind.
I have these very existential conversations with 19- and 20-year-olds in my classroom, not even just to be provocative or argumentative, like, does media have the capacity to affect social change? And I think it does. I think my approach as a maker, the one that I’ve arrived at–where I feel like I can at least best be of use or service, or at least sleep at night–is not to produce these overly polished promotional pieces of individuals, but truly to try to (rather than just point the camera at the problems and complexities of the world and then place people into what some jokingly called analysis paralysis in the audience, because now I’m aware of all the refracted problems, but I have no idea what to do. And I’m feeling incapacitated and overwhelmed.) I want to try to point my camera at individuals or models for solutions or ways forward in some fashion. And hopefully, through that actually inspire ways for people to be part of the solution in some way.
For example, here, I mean, I think the paintings of Devan are extraordinary. Richard Savvy as The Naked Barber is hilarious and funny, and his spaces titillating and exciting and profound and lovely. And Jessie is a community leader who just got acknowledged on the floor of parliament in Canada for the work he’s doing and is an extraordinary person. In some ways, the piece, the piece does show how each of these individuals has affected change, or modelled way forwards. While also not negating the fact that their capacity to even come up with these ideas or to produce these sorts of spaces or art comes out of histories and personal experiences of trauma. And so, a lot of media, particularly out of queer media, I think has gotten stuck in documenting and historicizing the trauma. And I think it is important, I think we have to show that trauma and historicize that trauma, so that it can’t be glossed over and forgotten. And yet I think work that just simply rests in that trauma is not taking us anywhere.
I think Manscaping is actually a sweet, fun piece. The energy of the piece that I’m hoping people come away with is like, “Come on, catch up, join the party,” rather than getting stuck in trauma. So, I guess it’s all a long-winded way… thank you for the question, because it’s like therapy for me to think it through…I think my goal is to, to model possibilities while also not ignoring the challenges in the journeys and the systemic contexts that have led individuals to come up with the creative solutions for the problems that they’re solving.
I think that might be what I loved most about Manscaping. It is so funny and inviting and all the while is still teaching you about these identities about the barriers that people have experienced, but always in a way that does suggest things can be better than that there’s a better way forward. So, what’s next? What are you working on now?
That’s a really good question. Its early days for Manscaping getting out into the world. So, I’m excited to see where that goes. I’m really hoping that there will be some festival opportunities in the coming months to be able to go up to Canada and actually screen this film and celebrate the work that Jessie’s doing in that community. And similarly, hoping for an opportunity to be able to screen the film with Devan as well. Maybe another opportunity in Australia to actually get to go in person with Richard, too. I think there still is a lot of hope that I can actually help facilitate an outreach and engagement phase of this project where I figure out ways to think outside the box in terms of screening contexts and figuring out ways in which the piece might actually precipitate and facilitate interesting conversations with small business owners and things like that.
I think that is going to take some time and some energy and that’s exciting. And then, I think in the back of my mind some other possible ideas for films are starting to cook based on a conversation with my partner the other day. I think one of the new questions that starting to emerge as I head into middle age and things like that is to think about elderhood in the queer community. Particularly in the United State I think there’s a tremendous focus on youth, or youth, and beauty, and particular bodily ideals and things like that in the queer community. I had this funny experience with the last film I mentioned, Zen and the Art of Dying, where I screened at a film festival in a community that was a largely older queer community. I thought “Oh, my gosh, the screenings going to be amazing. All these queer baby boomers are going to come to the screening, we’re going to have these really profound conversations around death and dying and end of life decision making, refracted through a queer lens” and there were crickets in the theatre. They were all packed into the next screening room with the latest tear-your-shirt-off movies with the gorgeous young things. And I thought what a loss on some level, or wanted to at least think about that a little bit more. About how we can amplify or explore or elevate or recentre the experience of a queer elders, particularly how many of them have survived so much, and create a different relationship between generations in the community. So that’s all a little bit loose, but there’s something that’s pulling me in that direction. And I’m curious to see what direction it goes.
Is there at present any way in which our listeners can find Manscaping to watch? Or is it a case of looking out for it at this at this stage if it goes to a town near them?
Typically, films have a festival year as you go around on festivals and then hopefully, you get an opportunity to release it in a number of ways. So, on all the social platforms @manscapingmovie is our handle. And there’s also a website manscapingmovie.com. So, we’ll just be posting upcoming festivals and things like that. And then around this time next year we hopefully get the film out onto a bunch of digital platforms and channels and share it that way too.
Find out more about Manscaping here: https://manscapingmovie.com/
Find inclusive barbershops and hair salons here: https://www.strandsfortrans.com/