’Riot Acts’ not afraid of a little flaunting

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday March 4, 2010

When Madsen Minax and Simon Strikeback, the Chicago-based activist-artists behind the "indie-grass" music project Actor Slash Model hit the road for a tour three years ago, they had more on their minds than playing live music for audiences. While their music was certainly a major part of the adventure, Minax and Strikeback had a loftier goal for their journey: To tap into and strengthen a coast-to-coast network of transgender musicians, performers and artists.

In so doing, they hoped to paint a picture of transgender and gender-deviant lives that challenge the depictions of isolation, depression and victimhood all too often misappropriated by media, gay and straight alike. The culmination of their work is Riot Acts: Flaunting Gender Deviance in Music Performance, the "transfabulous rockumentary" being screened Saturday, March 6, as part of the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival.

Hot, creative, critical and talented

"Someone asked me once what our thesis of the film is," Strikeback told EDGE. "And it's this: Transpeople have friends. We're hot, creative, critical and talented. And we're not so isolated as we're often made out to be. This is a much more honest portrayal of our lives. We wanted to address that three-dimensionality."

The film, released last fall, draws from over 100 hours of footage featuring many prominent transgender musicians in performance and in interviews, including names like the Cliks, the Shondes, Jessica Xavier and Lipstick Conspiracy. Drawing from Strikeback's strengths as an organizer-activist and Minax's as a filmmaker, they address a number of issues that play into the lives of musicians who don't fit conveniently into boxes marked "M" or "F," including the concept of passing or not passing, the personal as political and perhaps the film's drive-it-home point: The trans experience is not exclusively defined by tragedy.

Nor is it exclusively defined as "transgender." Through their conversations with the film's artists, a number of identities come to light for the filmmakers. While the artists share the powerful bond of music performance and some degree of gender nonconformity, many do not identify as trans. This created an issue for some people who saw the film.

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Watch a sample from Riot Acts:

Doc hit a chord

"Should we have put a subtitle under each person speaking as 'transgender' or 'transsexual' or 'genderqueer'?" Minax said. "No, we didn't want to put people in a box like that. It would be disrespectful."

"We made a film about being a musician and performer on tour or performing, exploring what that feels or sounds like while making sure trans or gender-variant people were telling that story," Strikeback shared. "Why does it matter if the woman you're super hot for on the screen might be transsexual? I feel like we expose that process of why some might feel they need to know so badly."

That exposure has struck a chord for many within the queer community. The documentary was awarded the Jury Award for Best Documentary at Chicago's Reeling Film Festival and has been screened in many LGBT festivals, including its forthcoming international debut at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival later this month. But the filmmakers added those successes have been matched by roadblocks owing to the film's unapologetically honest tone. The film has not played many non-LGBT, mainstream screens and has not received a distribution deal.

"Some organizers have said they really liked it but they decided to pass while saying they know we'll have another outlet," Minax said. "Which basically means you'll be able to screen at all the queer festivals in the world so we can exclude you from ours. That's a hurdle we're trying to work with right now."

Those hurdles have also caused the filmmakers to ask why, despite specials from Oprah and Barbara Walters on transgender youth and films like Transamerica receiving mainstream recognition, visibility to larger audiences remains an issue.

"When that happens, you have to ask the question: Is mainstream cinema only interested in tragic portrayals of transpeople?" Strikeback asked. "Mainstream media continues to portray us as sad, depressed and asexual. Yeah, we're 'there' but only as tragic figures. Maybe it's true that mainstream festivals don't want to see hot trannies who are powerful in their own sort of way."

Uncomfortableness from more conservative film festival organizers aside, Actor Slash Model's film seems only one "yes" away from a tipping point. And it's about time.

"People getting their information on transpeople from these mainstream sources really need to see this film," Strikeback said. "To give a transperson something that can actually make them feel good about being trans and not afraid of being doomed forever, wouldn't it be so much better to say, 'Well, shit, I'll just be a rock and roll star?' I think so."

Riot Acts screens Saturday, March 6, at the Chicago Cultural Center's Studio Theatre, 78 E. Washington. Admission is free and the screening is followed by a talkback with Actor Slash Model. Visit www.cimmfest.org or www.actorslashmodel.com for more information.

Watch this clip of Actor Slash Model performing:

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.