SXSW Film 2009: Sissyboy
It’s tragic to say that, for the most part, I’ve seen so many “slices of reality” and artistic biographies that I wince at the prospect of either. With so many people living life within the incessant Twitterati spectacle, it’s difficult for me to believe that people can actually be captured in the wild. It’s hard to sneak a camera in front of someone and not see themselves begin to live as autobiographers. That’s just one of the reasons that Sissyboy was such a genuinely enjoyable film. Katie Turinski had delicate, intimate technique as a director. She obviously built a fairly stunning rapport, a confessional safety zone, and even an eye for capturing settings that were as entertainingly revealing as the characters themselves.
Sissyboy follows the ideas and relationships contained within a cross country tour of a group of drag queens, albeit drag queen self-consciously acting as satires about the ideas of women rather than attempting to embody some idealized, materialistic, glamorized interpretation of femininity. They’re gender outliers, critiquing some of the reactionary gender rules that gays import into gay culture. Geeky, muscley, tatted, or sporting wheat grass facial fur, these gay men simply don’t fit a type. The sissyboys are a softer version of what Leigh Bowery was to RuPaul. They’re a courageous troupe of funny and flawed artists that have managed to laugh at some really painful life experiences. They share these stories in mini-monologues of free association, group history and their struggles with being who they are. The documented understand that they’re something of jesters, hiding hard realities with flamboyant misdirection. But for all their meth benders and petty thievery, they’re a deeply compassionate group of people that you fall in love with within seconds.
Sissyboy, however, is so much more than a Pacific Northwest version of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It’s rarely talked about how gay people try to import the morality of oppression into their own communities in fetishizing gender roles. The sissyboys seem completely aware that as flippant as their performances seem, they are at odds with unspoken codes of bigotry in their own communities, and they want to address these injustices as much as heal their own private, complex and sometimes troubled personal worlds. The sets might look like elementary versions of the Passion Play, but the shows are brave and garishly hilarious. They rewrite a L’Trimm song to make it from the point of view of teenage Muslim women serenading hot Jihadis. They turn a Fergie song into a primal pro-choice howl. Other jokes are so profane that I can’t even explain them without sounding evil.
This is the kind of narrative documentary that runs well above its form. I thought this was the best intellectual documentary with ballsac close-ups I’ve ever witnessed. The sissyboys presented here seem like admirably self-aware artists creating without endgame. I’m ruining nothing by telling you that at some point, they decide that their experiment has run its course. They created something and understood when it was finished. How many lovely things would be better off as hit-and-runs? How many artists move on so gracefully, leaving such a comfortable place? It’s difficult not to gush about a documentary like this as much as I am embarrassed for doing so. But the sissyboys were such an outstanding collective of comics, commentarians, artists, and humans, that I forgive myself an hour and some change of being hopeful in the land of the damned.