Wildness – Reviewed

Wu Tsang’s first feature Wildness is a confident, touching and highly promising one, finds  Justin Lewis… 

Filmmaker, artist and activist Wu Tsang was praised earlier this year in the Whitney Biennial and Outfest in America for his debut feature documentary, Wildness. The one-time Chicago based artist has produced a documentary that pulls back the veil on the staff and transgender patrons of The Silver Platter, a bar in downtown Los Angeles.

The 28 year-old ‘transfeminine’ has also taken up actively pursuing rights and justice for the Trans and Latina population of the MacArthur Park region of LA. The film is part of a complete performance, which will be officially premiered at Tate Modern’s Tanks in 2013. What brings Wu to Liverpool is the invitation to preview his documentary to an eager crowd as part of the Liverpool Biennial 2012 Film Programme, as selected by FACT.

In recent years there have been few independent LGBT documentaries produced, and even fewer that come to mind instantly, except for features like the excellent Small Town Gay Bar (dir. Malcolm Ingram), a documentary that created a narrative around Bible belt gay bars from a series of talking head interviews, and I was expecting much of the same from Wildness. But I was wrong.

Tsang’s film kicks off with an ethereal narration spoken in Spanish (and subtitled in English), establishing the locations and communities before revealing itself as the externalized monologue of The Silver Platter, a bar and beacon of sanctuary for the Trans community. To paraphrase John Grierson, this beautifully crafted creative treatment of Wu’s actuality allows an insight into the emotions and atmosphere of the club, without inordinate amounts of explanation.

The bar is Latina of origin, sensuous yet mothering with an unexplainable, almost mystical, quality. Tsang admitted in the post-preview Q&A that this device was just an afterthought, and created a completely different film to the one he had been working on up until that time.

The film’s main narrative thread follows years at the club, as Tsang and his friends host an increasingly popular Tuesday night event open to everyone, boasting a variety of live performance artists as well as a great party. With the growing attendance and notoriety of these ‘Wildness’ events, Wu and others are left to question the effect it will have on The Silver Platter’s ability to be a sanctuary for the community during the rest of the week.

Stitching together interviews, short fictionalized scenes and candid clips from the weeknight spectacle to follow the film’s chain of events, Tsang is also able to bring attention to many issues that are plaguing the minority community. Hate crimes, immigration and deportation, possible legal and cultural bias, and acceptance of LGBT people in both America and countries south of the border.

The film is at times hard-hitting, other times beautifully touching, and sometimes downright ludicrous (be prepared for a graphic Anal Bead show juxtaposed with musical Geiger Counters part way through the second act), but never boring or overly tangential in its storytelling.

Wildness proves to be a success of a debut for Tsang, who is already pondering the pursuit of filmmaking. Stating during his Q&A, he is currently “really interested in [fictional] narrative filmmaking as kind of a natural step” from the documentary mode. A name to look out for then, but not before tracking down Wildness.

Justin Lewis

Posted on 06/11/2012 by thedoublenegative