A still from Chaac and Yum. The San Francisco transgender film festival runs from 10 to 20 November. Photograph: San Francisco transgender film festival
In the 25th edition of the groundbreaking San Francisco transgender film festival, sidelined narratives take center stage
For a quarter of a century, the San Francisco transgender film festival (SFTFF) has defined itself by being anti-corporate, anti-mainstream and extremely open to the kind of experimentation and diversity that characterizes the communities it strives to serve. Speaking with Shawna Virago, the festival’s artistic director, her commitment to these values is clear. “I’m very honored to keep our festival’s foundational, radical edge,” Virago told the Guardian. “Yet you can be radical and welcoming and compassionate all at the same time, and we’ve kept that going for 25 years.”
The 2022 festival is an important one for Virago, as it marks a return to in-person screenings after two years offering an online-only experience. This year, the SFTFF is trying out a hybrid approach, showcasing films both online and at its longtime venue, the Roxie theater in San Francisco’s Mission District.
One thing that separates the SFTFF from other cinematic celebrations is its choice to only show short films in groupings that last a little over an hour. As Virago shared with the Guardian, this is an artistic choice that has defined the festival for many years, and it also has a very practical logic behind it. “We’re purposely focusing on short films, 20 minutes or less,” she said, “because there are a record number of trans films being made. And also, because we’re a small film festival, we have limited screen time. Other LGBT festivals are doing a great job of screening feature length films.”
The films offered by this year’s SFTFF are reflective of its core values: providing a safe space for members of the transgender and gender nonconforming communities, maintaining a distance from the mainstream entertainment industry, and rejecting a growth-based model of success that is often championed by other film festivals. Each of the festival’s seven programs offers a range of genres, from documentary to experimental to romcoms to horror, with many films mashing two or more genres together. The festival also showcases a range of gender and sexual identities that go far beyond what is seen in recent mainstream trans films, like Tangerine, Disclosure or A Fantastic Woman. “It feels like there’s this inherent censorship of real trans experience,” said Virago. “Mainstream films may approximate trans experiences, but there’s this kind of ceiling.”
Many of the documentaries in this year’s festival strike chords of resilience against the renewed campaign being waged by the Republican party against transgender people. Sean Dorsey Dance: Dreaming Trans and Queer Futures offers a celebration of the titular trans dance artist that is indelibly inked by the oppression that Dorsey overcame – and still battles – in order to make his career as a trans male dancer. The Beauty President recounts the moment that activist Terence Alan Smith smuggled his drag queen alter ego Joan Jett Blakk into the 1992 Democratic national convention in a quixotic bid for the presidency that sought to draw attention to civil rights abuses against Black and queer communities, as well as the Aids crisis. We March (Stronger Together) offers a music video for Ryan Cassata’s stirring protest song, collecting footage from numerous protests against anti-trans hate from all around the world.
“One thing that has motivated us is the continuing attack on trans communities,” said Virago. “It seems as if every year is a record-breaking year in terms of anti-trans legislation. Our goal is a to create a safe place to come together and celebrate the creativity of trans and gender nonconforming filmmakers. Creating safe places for our communities is a core value of ours.”
Many of the films also grapple with how to be authentic amid gender confusion and intersectional identities, exacerbated by the difficulty of exploring when society frequently proves unsafe for trans and gender nonconforming people. Hello My Name Is Sarah explores the question via a surrealistic, fast-paced splicing of various comedic strands, while Piercing uses a brief, effective tale of an ear piercing to show how even a tiny act of authenticity can lead to serious consequences. The road-trip romcom Ro & Shirelle plumbs the question of authenticity through a familiar dilemma faced by many trans people: should they take the chance of using a public bathroom or hold it in favor of safer accommodations? And the fragmentary, cinéma vérité documentary M(other)hood shows trans man Jack López preparing himself for top surgery while tending to his young children, who still see their parent as “mummy”.
For Virago, the choice to screen short films is not only a practical decision to respond to the flood of cinema being made by trans people but also one that she believes keeps her festival in line with contemporary culture. “People know we’re looking for short films, and they also know that we’re not looking to make connections with the entertainment industry. The entertainment industry is so focused on profits that they have a model that was put in place 90 years ago. And that dictates screening lengths. But I don’t think that model holds anymore. People really like short lengths. We have technology now where we can curate our own experiences in short bursts, and I think we’ve aligned with that organically.”
The world’s longest-running festival of transgender film, the SFTFF has come a long way – for many years it was financed by the credit cards of its founding partners, only attaining outside backing around 2010. Virago is proud of the hard work that she and her team have undertaken to make it into a sustainable venture, one that now partners with numerous organizations to offer both artistic enjoyment and social services. She also sees the festival as a labor of love whose commitment to the marginalized is precisely what makes it work. “Right now we’re in a place where it does feel sustainable because of our values,” said Virago. “This is our 25th anniversary, our silver anniversary. Somehow we’ve survived for this long. Starting when there was no support for trans film at all, I find that this is really a deep thing, and I feel very honored to be part of sharing this lineage.”
- The San Francisco transgender film festival runs from 10 to 20 November