Christian Robshaw reviews this ‘frockumentary’ upon its release…
Supposedly we call crossdressing “drag” because it’s a Shakespearean shorthand for “dressed as a girl”. Actually as an assertion it’s completely unsupported, but that’s no great matter: the main theme of the film is the dressing-up of the crass simplicity of drag performance as something Shakespearean in stature – or rather to locate its roots within that milieu. This is the ambition not only of the performers to whom the film introduces us, but also of the film itself, which is scarcely interested in the lives of its performers on the stage, when there is such constant drama off it.
So impresario/Prospero figure/presumable slow-motion enthusiast Johnny Woo opens the film recumbent on a mirror and playing the chorus; and to his credit and the film’s, he acknowledges that the folk etymology for “drag” is probably just that. Among those wanting it to be true, however, are DJ and reluctant queen John Sizzle; transgender woman Amber Swallows, whose transition is documented over the film’s course; “difficult” performance art-influenced Scottee; “tranny with a fanny” Holestar, a woman who performs in the style of a man performing in the style of a woman (now that’s Shakespearean!); and seldom-seen Pia, who identifies neither as male nor female. Of these, John Sizzle is likeably world-weary, Holestar likeably bitchy, and Amber straightforwardly likeable. Pia leaves the narrative for a long middle-stretch, taken up with depression but also conspiracy theories and the end of the world. It is, surprisingly, in this angle that the film is most exploitative and least sensitive; though in general it’s better at having fun than it is at dealing with sadness.
The approximate – and it’s very approximate – through line of the documentary is that it follows ten years in the lives of these characters, from the original Gay Bingo in 2003 to the bittersweet tenth-anniversary show, taking in along the way all the familiar dizzying highs, terrifying lows and creamy middles. That ten-year span isn’t as ambitious as it sounds: filming began in 2009 and continued in fits and starts from then on, so it isn’t full-on Boyhood. Some backing story is supplied via stock footage and some via simple reminiscences in interviews, but the film is robbed a little of the exhausting epic sweep it slightly aims for. The running time is also a little too short to adequately follow such a great length of time in the diverging lives of six main characters – why, that’s only fifteen minutes each! At the same time it is a little too long for what basically amounts to one of those Channel 4 documentaries, the ones walking that line between “sensitive exploration of alternative lifestyles” and “freakshow”. Director Colin Rothbart, on his first theatrical feature, has an extensive background in precisely that sort of work; and, despite tarting things up a little for cinematic release – artsy narration, the odd glimpse of tit or todger – the film never really leaves TV land.
Dressed as a Girl arrived on DVD on December 7th! Will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!