HD video, color, sound, 74'
Introduced by Andrew Berardini
Wildness is a documentary portrait of Silver Platter, a historical nightclub that hosted the Latin/LBGT communities of LA since the early 1960s. The bar is the narrator of the film, describing in the first person the advent of a weekly party entitled Wildness (organised by director Wu Tsang and DJs NGUZUNGUZU & Total Freedom), which shatters the identity of the nightclub.
Andrew Berardini: When Wildness was going on, it became for the art community an important story in and of Los Angeles and better yet, a party. Given all the sometimes heavy issues at play, how did you manage to keep it fun/meaningful for all comers? Both the artists who came as well as the queer clientele that had been there before Wildness.
Wu Tsang: Wildness looks through a personal microscope at an underground scene, in a way that I hope is relatable. The story deals with basic human problems of belonging and conflict, which are especially at stake in spaces that are rare and vital for oppressed communities. I actually would not say that the Wildness party-goers were 'artists' or that the bar clientele were 'queer'—but rather that the struggle to find adequate labels/identities/descriptors for this "community" is precisely what the film is about. It is true there were major differences between the Wildness scene and the regular scene at Silver Platter (which pre-dated ours by about 45 years)—and these differences were felt along lines of race, class, ethnicity, locality, education background, etc. It's harder to convey in words what cinema makes possible: to show people as complexly layered as they are in real life. In the film, everyone has a different way of articulating these differences, depending on their point of view. I wanted to challenge the popular notion that "safe spaces" are utopic and homogenous, whereas in reality if they are to function, they must be risky and contested, even dangerous. In a word: coalitional.
AB: Beyond or even perhaps including issues of gender, sexuality, and color, how did class play out in this nexus of disparate but not unrelated communities?
WT: I think the challenge is to balance one's commitment to difference and "owning" privilege, but not assume that everyone wants the same thing. The Silver Platter taught me about recognizing the limits of my own understanding of others, despite my well-intentioned critical education as an activist, artist, and queer person who identified with a lot of the struggles that my sisters at the bar faced. My own father immigrated illegally to US at a time when immigration laws were less stringent, and his family was able to forge a path to citizenship. But he had difficulty assimilating, or at least I presume so because he never wants to talk about it. Maybe telling this story was a way to create my own mythology or emotional narrative around something that was both familiar and unknown to me.
AB: I'm never sure if there is or should be a real separation between art and life, but was there a line or an instance that you felt like clearly separated your work as an individual artist from both the Wildness series and the life and lives of the Silver Platter.
WT: I'm naturally collaborative, but sometimes it's valuable to work alone to pursue creative interests. For example I studied bel canto technique, and it has really influenced my art practice. I often work with the voice as a medium and metaphor, and I like to create spaces for different intersecting worlds to come together. Nightlife is a vital space for queer communities, but it's also charged with all kinds of politics. Questions about who belongs there, who is excluded, how the space was created, what economies shape it, etc. So I like to bring these questions into that context, but also to bring that context into different spaces (such as a film or installation) because it's an opportunity to process and reflect in a quieter way, in the daytime so to speak.
AB: The last question in some ways begs another and though not an uncommon one it still feels wholly relevant, how did you balance the real responsibility that comes with every documentary against your individual voice as an artist and filmmaker?
WT: Documentary is an inherently exploitative medium, literally because you are using people's lives to make art. The narrative structure of Wildnessgrew out of this question of responsibility. For a while the film was ethnographic and I wasn't satisfied with it on many levels. Then I collaborated with a co-writer, Roya Rastegar, and together we found a way to more directly address the burden of representation. We made the bar the main character, who narrates the story. I also put myself in the film, which exposes me to vulnerabilities along side my subjects. In a way I wanted to exploit myself, or put myself out front, because I would rather be the target than have my subjects be the target. I have dealt with transphobia from press, from critics, and audiences. Furthermore films simply cannot tell the whole "truth" about something—so the mythology was intended to eliminate any possibility that this film could be "about" the women of the Silver Platter, or transgender/immigrant experience in general.
AB: I love the voice of the bar. I was curious if you talk a bit about how this came about and what it means for you?
WT: The voice of the bar is performed by Mariana Marroquin, who is a long-time collaborator and friend. It was written by myself and Roya, with input from Mariana and also our creative editor/translator Claudia Rodriguez. The writing also draws from oral histories that I collected from doing interviews with the clientele and owners of Silver Platter. So it is truly a composite of many things. It enabled us to say more, to give more depth, instead of having to rely on authoritative voiceover. I think of this voice as a nightlife spirit who inhabits the Silver Platter, but who also exists in within geographies across time, whispering to young people and inspiring them to make space for themselves.
Directed and Produced by Wu TsangWritten by Wu Tsang & Roya RastegarProduced by Kathy RivkinCo-Produced by Daniel Eduvijes Carrera Cinematography by Michelle LawlerEdited by Claire Didier & Wu TsangOriginal Music by Nguzunguzu, Total Freedom & Robbie Williamson