The queer community is one of a kind thanks to its variety. The sense of community is empowered by the need to be free and, more importantly, to love and to be loved with no boundaries. People from all genders, ages, classes, aesthetics and nationalities are asking society to do one simple thing: understand that they are human beings. This is also the main objective of Berlin Transgression, an intimate documentary about transsexual, transgender and transvestite artists in Berlin fighting against the status quo and the social norms. The filmmakers have 100 hours of footage that now need people’s support to become a 90-minute length documentary, to change audience’s perception on what being an outcast and fighting for one’s right to love means. In order to help and contribute to their cause, and with such an inspiring project, we talked to one of its director’s, Joel Lei, who happens to be a caring, respectful and open-minded human being (just as we all should be).
Hi, Joel! As an introduction, could you please tell us who you are, and summarize “Berlin Transgression” in two or three lines?
I am the director of the documentary film Berlin Transgression. Yuki and I are a Japanese-Chinese director duo. At the moment, we are researchers at the University of Tokyo in Japan. We were both born and raised in Asia, and later moved to Europe and the US for higher education, and developed our careers in film and academia.
Berlin Transgression documents untold stories of lovelorn queens of Berlin fighting to tear down a new, invisible wall, which is the basis of our isolation.
The main theme of Berlin Transgression, as you stated, is not so much gender and sexuality but the question of normality. How would you define normality, and why do you think it is an issue that should be discussed (and even redefined)?
On the one hand, the film no doubt tells the stories of transsexual, transgender and transvestite artists who struggle between two genders, two identities; on the other hand, we wanted to keep the film open in the sense that much of the struggle we show in it –and which Yuki and I witnessed in person– remains relatable to a more general audience. I've always –half jokingly and half seriously– claimed that this film is about love. It is a protest, in the most personal way, to the society today which lays down laws about who should be loved and how – but then, every film is about love.
For me, normality is about setting laws upon how people should relate to each other; it is about building boundaries and excluding what falls outside. It is violent for people to hurt each other in relationships, friendships, etc., but I think it is much more violent that certain people, when seen as abnormal, are simply expelled out of the context of love and romance. People are complaining that there’s been a lot of sex in films lately. That might be true, but quite ironically, I also think it is true that nowadays there is very little intimacy and vulnerability in film. What we have is bodies that embody norms and ideals engaged in unreal sexual acts on the big screen.
Especially since last year, issues related to the transgender community have become more visible. For example, model and actress Hari Nef was the face of one of the covers for our last issue, METAL #34; the film The Danish Girl (2015) about the “first” transgender was really successful, the phenomena of Caitlyn Jenner was massive, etc. Furthermore, news related to transgender community appeared in mass media, and it’s currently a public opinion debate. Do you think it is a trend that will fade, or that the social debate will prevail for some time?
The Danish Girl was shockingly beautiful, especially Eddie Redmayne’s performance. It was phenomenal! There are few actors who are willing to expose themselves like that on the screen, with no secrets, so vulnerably. Like you said, there were quite a few transgender themed movies last year. I hope these movies and public events will help the transgender community to gain visibility. I believe this is one of the primary incentives for filmmakers to make a film surrounding this theme. Then there are other more complicated incentives. I don’t think we’ve reached a time where gender issues are ready to be removed from the space of public debate. So I personally hope that this debate will continue.
In fact, there are some iconic films talking about transsexuals and transvestites, all of them with very different plots and points of view, such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1993), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Normal (2003) or Transamerica (2005). How do you think the cinema industry has helped or contributed to the trans cause?
Like other art forms, I think film shares the quality of exploring the limits of what’s being accepted in the society. The audience goes into the cinema wanting to be challenged by what they see, to explore unknown territories, to take an adventure… At least the good audience does, and good filmmakers shouldn’t underestimate their audience. So I think, with the issues surrounding the transgender or the queer community in general, cinema becomes a very good platform where sensitive questions get to be asked, and social norms challenged. And most importantly, I think these films take their audience through a journey along their trans characters so they become more relatable and more human. At the end of the film, we understand that Hedwig is just another girl from East Berlin. That’s the understanding we often lack towards transgender people in today’s society: that we are all just human beings.
Viewing all these examples, what’s your contribution to the debate? How do you want to influence, or what do you want to show and say to people with your film?
Many things have changed since the project began. My view towards the queer community in Berlin has also changed. But what hasn’t changed is my wish that this film could take everyone who watches it through a journey, like Yuki and I did, to get to know these guys, their sadness, their desires to be loved, their despair, their humanity. I don’t think our film will so much contribute to the debate of transgender issues rather than offering a personal journey and leaving our audience with more questions. To be honest, to most of these questions I probably would have no answer myself. With BT, I want to say: “I bet you’d fall in love with someone in the film.”
I can see you are really fond of the characters of the film. Actually, the idea of this documentary came after you met some of them by chance at a drag event in Berlin. Tell us more about it.
Back in the winter of 2014, Yuki asked me if I wanted to go to see a drag show. One of the famous drag queens from the United States –Detox, I think– was visiting Berlin. I had never seen a drag show in my life back then, so I said yes. That was how everything began. We met some of the people we continued working with until now – Absinthia Absolut, Ryan Stecken, Esra Valkyrie, etc. I happened to have access to some filming equipment at the time, so Yuki and I walked up to Absinthia –I still remember she was wearing long green nails and had a golden moustache–, and asked him if he wanted to be interviewed for a documentary project. Then, a few days later, he showed up in our studio in drag, with a suitcase full of wigs, high-heels and outfits. I can’t remember there being a moment when I thought: “oh, let’s make a documentary about the drag community in Berlin.” It was more like they drew us in. We were culled by their stories.
So, the moment you met, you already asked the characters to participate in interviews (both at their homes and backstage at their performances). Why did you choose this format?
We really wanted to capture the intimate relationships we were gradually developing with our characters, so we always asked if we could interview them at least once at home, where they felt most comfortable. We also followed them to their workplace and to the bars and clubs where they usually hang out, and on Christopher Street Day, onto the street with millions of demonstrators. That was great fun! But to me, the intimacy developed between the person in front of the camera and the one behind it is very important for all films, and especially for this one. I don’t want these guys to be strange objects to be observed. I want them to be relatable human beings, to appear lovable, vulnerable. Documentary is often about finding out the relationship between the characters and the storyteller. In our case, intimacy and equality are the approach (or point of view) we chose because I believed it would be the most powerful.
Was it difficult to convince them to participate and be so intimate in front of the camera?
We met Absinthia right from the very beginning, and Ryan as well. Through them we gradually got to know almost everyone active in the scene. They were all surprisingly open, which I didn’t expect at all. I have to admit that my first interactions with Absinthia were out of curiosity as well. But we’ve come so far now, I’d say, thanks to their openness and generosity to a group of filmmakers who, at the beginning, were just curious. They all seemed to have the urge to express their feelings in front of the camera; they wanted to be heard. I found that very touching. So I am not against the idea of people going to watch our film out of curiosity. That’s how we began. It could be a good beginning as long as they are ready to change their mind.
You launched a crowdfunding campaign on Thursday 11th February. I hope people collaborate with your project! What do you need the money for? Could you give us some reasons to convince our readers to help in the campaign?
We are fundraising money at the moment for the post-production part. We want to be able to turn the 100 hours of footage we captured into a 90min film, so that we can really show this community we encountered to the world. We finished producing the documentary with a very low budget, plus our personal allowances, many unpaid hours, and the help of Camelot (an equipment rental in Berlin) and our production company. A lot of documentaries stop here, with their accumulated footage and no budget to proceed. But we decided to take an extra step to launch a crowdfunding campaign because we believe this film is a community project, after all. After watching through all the footage we’ve got, Yuki and I decided that it would be a waste if nobody gets to see what we saw, and we needed to be responsible to everyone who worked in this project for free in the last year or so. If this film is done, it could help everyone involved, both the queens and the production team. You could say this is a leap of desperation we take – we often joked about us being openly desperate for love, and for people’s support. It is also a leap of faith.
Making a documentary like this must have been very enriching. What do you take with you from this experience? What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned by doing it?
What I took with me is that life is a game you can only lose by not playing. At our farewell party, Erna –a transgender artist who is also a motherly figure for a lot of us– sang the song But the World Goes Around for us. I was so touched, because I could see her whole life in that one song, and that she lived so fully despite all the struggle she had to go through. I told her afterwards: “Erna, you already won, because you played the game.” And she said to me: “Darling, you are not conscious of it, but you are already playing the game too.” I think that’s what I took with me. Always participate. Always play the game. Always listen when people tell you their stories, because you might find gold in them. They might change your life. In my case, they did.
What other social causes do you fight for? And which one do you think would be interesting enough to make another documentary about?
Essentially I am a storyteller, so I think I’d wait for stories to cull me again. There are many things I care for and want to change, but I’d be happy if I could remain politically relevant with everything I make in the future even if they don’t necessarily bring along big changes immediately. First of all, I want people to be curious and eager to talk about things. I am very interested in issues surrounding prostitution, in the working condition of factory workers today, and building communities. One of the main problems I’ll keep facing as a filmmaker, as I already did with “Berlin Transgression”, is balancing between the political and the personal aspects of filmmaking.
You’re still working on Berlin Transgression, but do you already have more projects for the future?
I’ve just finished the script of a new feature film with my co-writer, Carly Dee. It will be a film about a group of strangers who come together through couchsurfing, and their experiment with relating to other people in ways other than what society taught them. It is about living passionately and breaking love laws.