When you think of New York, many things come to mind: yellow cabs, hot dogs, skyscrapers, and how expensive everything is. But Gustavo Sánchez turned up in the city with something very different in mind: he wanted to make a documentary about the city’s underground scene. The result? The most daring film I’ve seen in a long time, I Hate New York, which premieres in the American city on October 25 and 26 as part of the New Fest film festival.
But what does ‘underground’ exactly mean? And where are the boundaries set? Gustavo wanted to explore all that. And he’s been doing so for none less than ten years (ten!) – from 2007 to 2017. He’s interviewed around eighty people from the cultural and nightlife scenes, but in the end, it’s not a panoramic overview what he offers but the very personal narrative of four trans artists: Amanda Lepore, Chloe Dzubilo, Sophia Lamar and T De Long. Rebellious, courageous, resilient and extremely powerful, these characters and their stories stood out the most. But Gustavo doesn’t intervene much: he turns us into voyeurs.

Gustavo comes from Úbeda, a small town in Andalucia (Spain), and despite I’m presenting him as a filmmaker, that’s not what his daily life is about. At least, not entirely. He’s the head of the press and communications department at Sónar Barcelona, an electronic music festival that’s celebrated its 25th anniversary this past June. So as you can see, he’s an unstoppable man committed to making the world a better place through music, cinema, and in the end, through sharing stories that matter and that must draw as much attention and visibility as possible.

I Hate New York is, by far, one of the most interesting films I’ve seen in a long time. Probably because it’s made with few resources and outside the film industry. Gustavo himself tells me that it’s a miracle that it will reach Spanish cinemas on November 9, especially since he’s been pushing the project all by himself for many years. Nevertheless, a lot of people have helped him and collaborated with him as well: from Spanish writer Lucía Etxebarría to the Bayona brothers. And now, the final result is here for you to enjoy.
When you started I Hate New York in 2007, your first intention was to discover what was cooking up in New York’s underground scene; and you ended up making a documentary that revolves around the life stories of four trans artists. But along the way, you also interviewed a bunch of people from different walks of life. In what ways is this process captured in your work? What makes these four stories stand out over the others? 
It is somewhat impossible to grasp the very essence of underground culture given its endless nature. Indeed, it would be too daring to think that I map out an itinerary of New York’s trans scene because that’s not possible either. What does underground mean? What about its scope of action? Where are the boundaries set? I wanted to explore this further, and eventually, these four stories stood out over the rest because of their unusual power. To me, it seemed like the outcome of these four stood for what I initially sought to achieve and gave shape to that scene/visual frame I was looking for. Somehow, the pieces fit.
I actually think it was them that came to me, they were the ones disclosing their stories to me. In fact, in the documentary, one can see that it’s themselves that make up the whole narrative without my filter. I’ve always tried to keep a very respectful attitude towards them.
Before we start talking about everything else, I’d like to know a bit more about how did it all start. You turn up in New York City, you want to delve into its underground scene, and then…
Actually, I first carried out thorough research and worked on preproduction because it all started in a rather unconventional way, not to mention that the project was rather small, unpretentious. But I think that the toughness and all the self-discipline I’ve had all these years came from my passion, which kept me going. I was hoping to make a documentary about New York City’s underground scene but everything was still raw and remain to be seen, meaning that I didn’t want to go there full of preconceptions. Of course, I had some, but I wanted the city itself to give me back its own reading or interpretation.
While doing research on New York’s social fabric I tried my best to make fit together what I first thought it could be underground with what was closer to that, and I ended interviewing about eighty people – all of them linked to the cultural, artistic and nightlife scenes. And finally, these four artists you see in the documentary were the ones who stood out the most.
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At what point did you realise these four were the ones?
When I had been working on it for nearly three years. In the transcription and pre-editing process, I came to realise that these stories were the most powerful ones. For this reason, I kept recording stuff that helped build this narrative further.
The title is eye-catching. Usually, it’s people who escape their narrow-minded hometowns the ones who move to big cities in order to become the desired self. And these four main characters do that, precisely. Where hatred towards New York comes from?
It’s actually a play on words. To me, I Hate New York represents a mindset, an attitude to face life: that of questioning what we see and that of not conforming to what it’s imposed on us on a social level. I think it’s very healthy and important that, especially today, we question where our place in the world is and where are we heading to, how do we want to be or how do we want to love. By casting doubts on it, we act actively.
‘I love New York’ is a very well-known slogan and many other cities around the world have even copied it. Somehow, this ‘hatred’ represents the other side, the one nobody sees or is taken into account, but which exists and is there, even if we don’t see it often. In the end, nobody says openly “I hate New York”, and we don’t see any hateful attitude in the film either. But I want the viewer to slowly realise about that; that he keeps looking for hatred but doesn’t find it. In the end, life is not what you expect but what you find, and that’s the most enticing part of it. That’s what’s thrilled me the most to portray in the film.
Amanda Lepore, Chloe Dzubilo, Sophia Lamar and T De Long are, in their own specific way, examples of how to live under your own standards, to become who you decide to be and, in the end, to be free. Despite being different, what qualities do you think they all share? 
They are people with a very strong determination and with very powerful, sassy, personalities. Furthermore, they share the courage, they’re brave and fight relentlessly to achieve what they want and to develop the identity they feel more comfortable with. And they even get to build their own place in the world. All of them went to New York looking for new worlds, new ways to be. As the story unfolds, viewers find out more about the troubles of all sorts we mentioned earlier. New York is teeming with both wonderful and horrendous possibilities depending on how one plays the game.
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During the film, there’s a specific moment that is funny, sweet and subversive altogether. We won’t spoil it, but I’d like you to talk a little bit about it.
The only thing I can reveal is that the viewer will see four people confronting the dictates of law at that time, breaking them into pieces in an original, unique and special way. It’s also worth-mentioning that there are series of images that, to me, are sacred because they are stories of transgression in America today. In the past ten years, several people have been breaking the laws and, when these moments happen, it’s extremely difficult to record them because mainstream media don't cover them. In the end, it’s been me with this project, created in a very natural and free way with camera in hand, without artifice or many resources, who captures images like these. That’s why I think these moments are sacred or magical; they show something that’s been barely represented on screen until now.
On the basis of the foregoing, the issue of identity and how they build it. You’ve been with the main characters for ten years. How have you experienced this self-creation project?
Each of them has a different personality and I think they complement one another, in the sense that you can develop a very unique identity landscape of trans people today, largely, more complex than traditional representations of it, and even very defiant; it’s not the most evident at first sight because it puts aside stereotypes. The portrait I’ve made of these people – these four sides that sometimes stand for the opposite of each other – in I Hate New York is unconventional.or rare to see.
On closer analysis, we can draw a clear distinction between the one that’s purely activist, and the one that explores hedonism, if in outlook at least. Those considered to be more into activism have built their identity through or with their own work and artistic expression, which they’ve taken very seriously. But the others, which are more related to the nightlife scene, are respectable and serious as well. They are extremely determined, suggesting that all of them fight against all odds to build their own identity.
For example, Amanda Lepore was already well-known for being David Lachapelle’s muse and because she’s the one who’s been the longest in New York City’s scene, but now, she’s become even more famous – even in the eyes of mainstream audiences, I guess.
If you think about it, there are very few Amanda Leopres in this world – at least, there weren’t. Now, there are people copying her and trying to look like her. But I think she’s the missing link between New York’s club kids scene from the ‘90s and nowadays’ generation of drag queens and trans people who’re being featured in magazines and appearing in mainstream media, like the ones from RuPaul’s Drag Race, who’ve just won an Emmy this year.
Amanda is this type of person who’s always been in New York, since the late-‘80s until today, in the most and in the less successful moments. But she's been fighting and working constantly and very professionally on a daily basis to get what she wanted: build her own identity, which in the end, has influenced and helped other people finding their own.
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Let’s talk about one of the other main characters: Chloe Dzubilo. After a key moment in the visual narrative, the documentary talks about the importance of her voice against HIV/AIDS, about how no one listened to her, and about how she dropped by police stations to teach police men how to treat trans people. Do you believe her efforts were or weren’t doomed to failure?
I believe civil rights are very fragile and that the life of a human being is very short in the context of Humankind.. You just need to consider how many generations have come and gone and fought for different rights during the 20th century and these first years of the 21st century. Chloe Dzubilo lived with an entire generation of people who died because of this horrible AIDS epidemic, but because of her inner strength, she survived for thirty years – she truly was a long-term survivor. This unusual inner strength didn’t just help her fight the virus but also helped her create and build a story that wasn’t present in mass media, and that was useful to capture a series of daily situations that weren’t visible to the majority of the population.
What’s your opinion on nowadays situation?
Now, Trump seems determined to trample down many of the achievements of Obama Care. For example, doctors have the right to conscientious objection and can refuse to help a person from the LGBTI+ community. So yes, progress has been made thanks to people like Chloe, who have been fighting for equal rights that ensure social justice, but there are much more powerful forces that, in a split of a second, can throw them all away. That means that the fight must go on.
I want to keep talking a bit about visibility. I’m sure you got the news when Amanda Lepore ‘disappeared’ or was erased from Travis Scott’s Astroworld cover. I haven’t come up with any specific question, but since you work in the music industry, I would like you to talk and reflect a little bit on the issue. At the latest edition of Sónar Barcelona, for example, Sophie was part of the line-up. And even though the creative industries are more open-minded, the bosses and chiefs are still (in the majority of cases) straight, white, middle to upper class men. 
Regarding Travis Scott in particular, I have nothing to say because I don’t know the case in depth. I just know it happened, but I don’t know what gave way to such thing, so I would rather not to ‘guesstimate’ about a matter I don’t have all the details. Taking up on Sónar, Sophie came this year but there have been many other artists throughout its history, like Anohni or Arca, who have a vision of identity that goes beyond the binary system.
I believe it’s very important that people who feel different from the rest and who’re determined to make it visible and transgress have the opportunity to sit on powerful positions and get to create their own festivals, of course open to all audiences, to keep broadening and enriching the narrative and, furthermore, our vital experience. Nowadays, there are several festivals in Berlin, New York or San Francisco, for example, which are filling the gap of the in-betweeness and are thus contributing to enriching not only the LGBTI+ community’s discourse but also a wider society. They make it richer, deeper, more complex, and more intense, not so archetypal or superficial.
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Going back to the documentary. The only time we hear your voice is when you ask Amanda about her relationship with Sophia. In fact, as you’ve said before, you wanted to respect their stories so you don’t intervene or interfere, thus turning the viewers into voyeurs. How come?
I’ve always wanted to be very respectful with their stories, and I believe the documentary speaks for itself. The storyline is told chronologically, from 2007 to 2017. I’ve never wanted to impose my discourse or vision by using my voice in a voice-over or anything like that. But New York City’s identity has been built and shaped through many identities from around the world, so I think I am entitled to do it. I come from Úbeda, a small town in Andalucía (Spain), and when I landed in New York, I had my own vision, but at no point did I want it to interfere. Instead, I’ve wanted the city vibes to flow and give me the story.
I believe respect plays a key role. I’ve never told them, “do this” or “stay there”. I didn’t ask them to walk through a corridor so I could film them stepping out/leaving any place. When you see Amanda getting out of her room, it’s because she’s really leaving; it’s not a scene recorded three times until we got it right. I haven’t recreated reality because this is not a fictional film. This is a documentary that contains a lot of truth and a lot of reality. To me, it’s very important that the viewer feels like this is real, not fictional, and can experience these situations as well.
When do you decide that there’s enough material or that the documentary is finally over? 
I kept filming and filming (with no rush, giving myself some freedom) until, after three or four years, I felt like it was necessary to transcribe all the material to start defining the storyline. And it was during that transcription process that I kept investigating and discovering a series of pieces and stories that fit together. In total, I spent more than a year doing all the transcriptions on a daily basis.
And then, something magic happened out of the blue: I discovered Chloe’s entire story through her, her work, and the testimonies of people close to her. Chloe’s body of work was unique in the ‘90s: she was a transgender person denouncing the abuses and humiliations she suffered, especially perpetrated by the American healthcare system because she was trans and infected with HIV. 
One day, among a pile of boxes I had, I ‘rescued’ an album of her music group, the Transisters, which she gave me personally. I listened to it again and finally understood the lyrics, and I thought, “How is it possible that I haven’t read this earlier! Everything I need is here.” Acknowledging all this, I realised how important it was to build the narrative in the editing room, how valuable it really was – it had to see the light. I couldn’t disappoint these people or fail them by hiding everything inside a box. I had to publish all this sacred material, and my mission was to give them enough visibility to honour these people who are unique and have always been extremely generous with me.
That’s when I met the best editor possible, Gerard López Oriach, who helped me build the narrative very patiently. And after him, Lucía Etxebarría also joined this process and contributed hugely with her talent and knowledge. And by the end of it all, we were lucky enough to count with the support and invaluable experience of Jaume Martí, who edits J. A. Bayona’s films and won a Goya prize.
After its successful screening in film festivals like Málaga, San Sebastián, or Raindance in London, it finally arrives at New York City. I imagine that, in a way, you can think of it as the circle closing. What can we expect from the event? I’ve seen Amanda Lepore and Bibbe Hansen will be there.
The film is premiering in the United States as part of the New Fest festival, one of the most influential LGBTI+ festivals in the world. The screening will be a massive party! Of course, I’ve invited everyone who’s taken part in it and who’s collaborated somehow. I’m not the only one who’s done this documentary; yes, it’s made by me, and I’ve pushed it alone, by myself, most of the time, but a lot of people who trust in me have helped me a lot as well.
This is the opportunity not only to close the circle but also to give back to the city a narrative that I consider local. After many years of work, these people will finally be able to see themselves and relive an unrepeatable context. I’m sure it’ll be very exciting!
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After ten years travelling to New York regularly, interviewing and meeting many different types of people, what’s the most valuable thing you take with yourself on a personal level?
The satisfaction of not having wasted any time. And also, of being honest to what I’ve lived. I’ve gone with the flow and wandered aimlessly – the last song of the documentary is titled Sin rumbo precisely, and it’s by Arca; when I listened to it, I asked him if I could use it because, to me, it represents the importance of this fluidity and of this wandering with no clear direction to discover unexpected things and finding oneself. 
Yes, I would say that the satisfaction of having let myself go and of making this documentary in such a free and outside-of-the-system way – because within the industry’s parameters and restrictions, I Hate New York wouldn't have been possible. I believe this is very valuable because, nowadays, almost everything is controlled by the industry, which leaves very little space for spontaneity.
The Bayona brothers have supported me during this last year, both technically in the post-production process and with their experience. That’s helped me finish the documentary successfully, and even more, they’ve given me total freedom. I feel very happy to have been able to build a narrative with such freedom, which is unusual.
In fact, I would say this is the only way this documentary makes sense: unrestricted, unfiltered.
Exactly, everything fits.
Last one. This year has been very important for you. In addition to the success of I Hate New York, you celebrated the 25th anniversary of Sónar Barcelona. What else have you planned for these next weeks?
In Spain, we’ve been in San Sebastián, at Seminici in Valladolid, at Festival de Málaga, and at D’A in Barcelona. In Europe, we’ve attended Raindance in London, and then Florence, Cologne, and Toulouse, just to mention a few. And now we’re in New York, after that we’re going to Tokyo, then at LesGaiCineMad in Madrid, and London once again. What matters is that the film keeps moving worldwide and gets the attention it deserves. If it weren’t because of my tenacity and the collaboration of so many people, these stories wouldn’t have seen the light. And that’s reason enough to go watch it. In Spain, it will be released on November 9, which is the most important. It’s a miracle that it reaches commercial cinemas! And the other miracle, of course, is that it’s also released in Manhattan – we are the only Spanish film in the festival’s line-up.
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