QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM ROTTERDAM
Ten drag queens wreak havoc on the streets of Athens. Their acts are filled with rage, colour and courage.
Habit-clad, heavy make-up-wearing Er Libido hands leaflets encouraging unsuspecting drivers to support abortion. Aurora Paola Morado defaces the Greek flag by painting the Albanian one on top of it (potentially a criminal offence?). Veronique Tromokratisch plays opera for the police. These subversive artists seek to infuse the deeply conservative European capital with a message of tolerance and hope. They vigorously confront racism, xenophobia, LGBTQ-phobia, fascism, jingoism, and the dirty machinations of the traditional family and unfettered capitalism. Their message is graffitied on the walls, bins and placards. The urban space is the bible upon which they etch their teachings.
Aurora denounces the hellenisation of foreigners. Her father was forced to change his Albanian name Astrid into Vasilis, without being questioned. She now wishes to revert the trend by “albanising” the Baltic nation. Her antics are guaranteed to infuriate fascists and ultranationalists. The artists confess that the hostility that they encounter on the streets is entirely palpable. Greece is a deeply conservative nation, and the Orthodox Church still has a lot of control over people, it seems. Veronique has a child called Cruella, who eats only film. She was brought up on Tarkovsky and devours Almodovar at the weekends. It becomes increasingly clear that only the arts can rescue the nation from its religion-induced comma.
Avant-Drag is not an avant-garde film. Those who have seen Derek Jarman’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will barely find Er Libido’s nun costume groundbreaking. And those who remember Greek singer and performance Diamanda Galas covered in blood at the pinnacle of the Aids pandemic may not find Cotso’s blood-soaked intervention particularly radical. On the other hand, Avant-Drag repoliticises a movement that has been largely coopted and diluted by pop culture. In other words, this documentary takes the movement back to its activist roots. These outlandish rabble-rousers are a lot more akin to the furious drag queens that stormed Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969 than the contestants of RuPaul’s Drag Race. They do not seek to provide family entertainment. Instead, these creatures will terrorise your children and smash the pink ceiling into tiny glitter pieces.
Divided into 10 chapters named after each one of the artists, Avant-Drag is a celebration of individual expression. What all of these performers have in common is that they are non-conformists. They shatter old-established gender orthodoxies and prejudices associated with drag artistry, such as body fascism and hyperfemininity. These queer militants come in all ages, nationalities, shapes and forms. Some are Camp, some are butch. Some are charming, some are creepy. None are decorous and pure. They possess an infectious joie-de-vivre, and a hilarious sense of irony and self-deprecation.
The 10 characters meet for an energetic debate at the end of the film, when they acknowledge the challenges that drag artists face. They question whether their aesthetics are a mere byproduct of American culture, whether it’s ok to engage with tokenistic pinkwashing initiatives (such as the occasional television show or advert that recruits drags in order to look cooler and more tolerant), and the very essence of transgression. A profound and meaningful debate. The movie wraps up with an elegant montage of diabolic close-ups contrasted against a heavenly opera tune. A charming representation of the contradictions and dichotomies that these drag queens routinely embody. This is how you toughen up without losing tenderness!
Avant-Drag just premiered at the 53th International Film Festival Rotterdam.