WILDNESS: BETWEEN REALITY, THE STAGE AND LIFE
christina von messling
When Wu Tsang and friends started Wildness, a party and performance night at the Silver Platter in MacArthur Park, they had no idea that in a very short space of time it would become something that everyone was talking about, find itself at the center of an ongoing debate about gentrification, and then cease to be entirely. Now a few years later, Tsang has finished directing a magical realist documentary called Wildness that tells the story not just of a weekly Tuesday night party, but also the story of a neighborhood, a bar, and the people who were part of it. Charles Mallison revisits Wu Tsang now that Wildness is showing in Los Angeles.
I just saw your movie today. I really liked it. It had so much stuff in it! You addressed a lot of complexity in a story that I think tends to get simplified.
That was definitely the goal. I was not intending to make a film in the first place but I was throwing this party called Wildness at this bar the Silver Platter. And I had a really amazing, incredible, complicated experience that was full of conflict and contradiction that was also the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. There was kind of this moment when our party became popular and there started to be all this kind of feedback. Suddenly people were talking about Wildness and everyone had an opinion. And I felt like there were all these opinions out there that were really strong and they were sort of dominating the discussion. They were really important, valid opinions but they were also really simplified. Things like: who belongs at the bar? The hipsters versus the trannies or whatever—really problematic identity labels that I felt had to really be looked at and explored and experienced. So the film was really about asking a really simple question, asking, ‘What is really happening here? How can we all move through this conflict together and be aware of what’s happening?’ That was the idea.
I really liked the bar itself narrating the film. When did you get that idea?
The bar narrating the film was something that happened a year before we finished. It was a key transition point in the process where I had an observational documentary and I felt like it wasn’t fully achieving what I wanted. I started having conversations with my co-writer Roya Rastegar and we collaborated on this script. We started having conversations about what the film could be. It really had to do with storytelling and needing a unifying voice. But we also needed a way to address these questions and these problems of representation and who can speak for who, and all the different positions and experiences of all the different subjects in the film. It just didn’t feel like I could speak on the behalf of everyone in the film. And I didn’t want to bear the burden of having to speak on behalf of everyone in the film. I wanted to speak from a very personal place, from my own position. We developed the voice of the bar through channeling a lot of interview material, collaging a lot of things different things people said, and also putting our own perspectives in it, and also collaborating with Mariana Marroquin who is the person who performs as the voice of the bar, who is a Latina trans woman. I think that she adds a layer of heart to the voice. Some of the experiences and some of the stories of women at the bar are ones that are very close to her own experience. It was really a combination of everyone putting in their own piece of the puzzle.
I get the sense that really the main character is the Silver Platter.
Completely. I was really interested in making the bar talk for the obvious reason that it would immediately introduce this element of fantasy and magic to the film. And it’s really interesting because sometimes in Q&As or in these interviews, people ask me how I feel about what the bar says to me, which I think is really interesting because I actually did write the bar … so the bar is also me. The Wu in the film is not me, it’s a character that I created that was meant to evoke a certain kind of idea of someone who’s kind of searching and going somewhere—an artist or whatever. I think that’s just a testament to just how real the bar becomes because people really see me and the bar as completely different people.
You don’t appear in your film in the same way a documentarian would usually show up in their own film. You’re not doing a Michael Moore thing, you’re not doing a Werner Herzog thing. You’re not doing a Morgan Spurlock Super Size Me sort of a thing. It gives the film a really strange texture. The voice of the bar makes you think about how queer spaces are in a sense just buildings, but they’re made up of the identities of the people who go through them.
There’s no authority in my film. There’s not one single voice that is speaking from authority. I think that the bar has a wiser perspective as a sort of community elder, but no one is claiming to explicate at any given moment. People are just speaking from their own positions. I think that the film has kind of a Rubik’s Cube quality to it in that way because the truth unfolds in all these different directions and it’s not like there is one truth that everyone ends up with.
Do you know Werner Herzog’s work? He talks about ‘the estatic truth’ and ‘the accountant’s truth’ and how he strives for the estatic truth, which might not be a factual thing, as opposed to the accountant’s truth, which is the thing that might have actually happened. Does that mean anything to you?
I think that as soon as you’re creating a representation you’re creating a fiction. I think that absolutely as soon as you pick up a camera and turn it on, everyone is performing. Even in a social situation like a party or a club that has a performance event aspect to it. Everybody that’s there is in some form of costume and performance. I was really interested in building on top of that aesthetic. The energy of the club and the way in which people went there to feel really free in their bodies. I think I agree with that in the sense that there can be an energy and a spirit to an experience that may have nothing to do with the actual material that you are able to capture.
You mentioned magical realism. How are you trying to communicate this in the visuals? It’s in many ways a rather straightforward documentary. If you turn the sound off, you’d mostly see a rather straightforward documentary with interviews and cutaways and archival footage.
In the process of producing the film, the elements of the story kind of came in reverse order. It was sort of like the last layer of the film, of the bar character and me, this relationship we were developing … it was the last thing that I filmed. So all the scenes of me at different points in my life—going to the Silver Platter, finding the Silver Platter, going through all of these transitions—all of that was staged at the very last minute. So it’s kind of like with each piece of the puzzle in terms of the story I wanted to tell I would end up having to create and generate a lot of new material. I was also really inspired by certain films like Born in Flames directed by Lizzie Borden or Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs. So I was looking at other films I think also have this quality where they’re grounded in this sociopolitical reality of a moment but also inventing a poetic language for how to describe that. And also the slippage of when someone is acting versus when it’s ‘real.’ For example the scene in the film where the characters are pretending they’re guerrilla fighters in a forest. That’s just in the bar but what I was hoping to achieve was this in-between reality, between the stage and life.
I want to talk a little about queer politics. In the film has a lot to do with safe spaces. Discussions about safe space happen all over the queer community, but especially parts of the community with queer people of color. Could you talk about your perception of safe spaces and how doing Wildness and then making the film might have changed your perceptions about safe spaces?
The way I feel about safe spaces is like the way a lot of the things in this film are. It’s sort of a contradiction, which is that there is truth and validity to them, but yet you also can’t control them and you can’t really protect them. They appear and they exist and people need them but we also need to be mindful of the way we treat them. Because like the bar says in the film, ‘No one has the right to guard the door,’ so to speak, of these spaces. Also at the time, I finished filming Wildness but I was editing for another two years and all throughout that time I was involved with this legal clinic that started as one of the activities of the club. And it continued on and all of these issues we were struggling with as an activist group. This question of community participation and privilege and authority. All of those things were being worked on in a really explicit way and also failing in ways … In an activist context there’s not really room to allow failure in the same way because people are really focused on trying to making improvements and really pragmatic about what needs to be accomplished. So I think that’s something I like about being an artist is that sometimes failure is the best part because it becomes so revealing of life lessons or something like that.
Is it difficult to be involved with your own art and also activism? I feel like part of the queer experience involves the politicization of queer lives and queer bodies. All my friends who are queer activists feel like activism is a necessary thing as a logical response to what’s happening to their lives in a political sense. What an artist does is so different from what an activist does. Do you feel like being an artist and an activist that you’re doing different things? The same thing?
I understand your question. I think it’s a question that gets asked a lot in the art world. Coming from a different side, people ask, ‘Is activism part of your art, is art part of your activism?’ It’s like the chicken and the egg. And I guess for me I’ve never tried to draw a hard line between the two things. To me all that’s important is that with each new thing one does as a creative active person, there are all these things to consider. And the biggest ones are: what do I want to say, how am I saying it, and who am I trying to speak to? Who is the audience? Who is listening? Who would this mean something to? So with each activity or event or endeavor I’m trying to answer those questions. And the answer to those questions then dictate the form of the project. So for example even with Wildness as a feature film, I didn’t set out to make a feature film. I set out to communicate an idea to a particular audience. And I felt that the best way to reach that audience was with the film format because it’s something that’s very accessible overall. Ultimately once it’s gone through the festivals and finally finds its way out there through various forms of distribution it’s much more accessible than say an installation in an art gallery.
What is the audience you’re trying to reach?
It’s not something I can define in a single category. I feel like it’s all the different people who are implicated in the story of Wildness. The people who care about artists, the people who care about gentrification, people who are interested in trans experience, Latino people, people of LA, other cities, queer organizers, queer artists, immigrant organizers: anyone who might have a piece of the puzzle where they have a position. My film is just asking people to take in account other positions that might effect them. For example a lot of people tell me, ‘Oh, I’m surprised because I had never thought of transgendered immigrants before—I didn’t realize they existed.’ Of course they exist. People just think in these categories.
Do you think of yourself as a person of color filmmaker?
Yeah, I do.
Have you thought a lot about the question of what does it mean to be a person of color making art?
I think it’s different for every person.
That’s why I’m asking you.
How do I feel about being a person of color filmmaker? It’s interesting because I’m working a new short film right now, and I actually made a decision at a certain point that I wanted a producer that was a person of color. I went through this kind of journey like, ‘Why do I want … What difference … If somebody does their job well, what does race have to do with that question?’ What am I trying to say? I think that there are just so many layers of experience, like the way we see the world. And each one of us experiences different kinds of oppression depending on who we are. For example, I do identify as a person of color as a trans person, but I’m also college educated and I’m here at this film festival as a guest who has a feature in this festival. And I’ve had a lot of success this year with my art career. So there are many ways that I am extremely privileged and in a position of power and authority and do things and say things and be heard. So I think that for whatever reasons I feel like I want to create spaces where I’m with people where I understand me because of this experience I’ve had that they’ve shared. I also really think it’s important to push myself to just challenge that. It’s hard to talk about.
There isn’t really an answer in the strictest sense. I kind of feel that the idea of being a person of color is a political imposition. Sometimes it’s put on by non-people of color, sometimes it’s put on by people of color.
It’s interesting actually. José Muñoz—do you know him? He’s a queer academic. He does a lot of writing about queer film and performance. He’s writing a book right now called The Sense of Brown. It’s about this idea of brownness. He’s writing a chapter about Wildness because it’s kind of feeding his ideas about it. One of the things I encountered with Wildness was that we did of course encounter a lot of these questions of race and people questioning our authentic race selves because they also read us as artists and hipsters. So the assumption for people who didn’t know who organized the party was, ‘Oh, it’s a white artist hipster party.’ But actually all the members who organized the party were people of color, but also each from a different background and a different education level. We weren’t all one ethnicity. We were all multiple enthnicities ourselves. I always remember one particular war on the internet that was in a comments section on the LA Weekly article [that called The Silver Platter ‘L.A.’s Best Tranny Bar’], and everybody was tearing each other apart. And at one point I finally posted something and I just said, ‘You know, I just want to refute what’s being said about us. We are all queer and trans and brown.’ And someone posted back, ‘Oh, so now Asian is brown?’ And the conversation kind of just ended. Everybody stopped. So is the point that we’re actually trying to put ourselves in a corner where we can’t have solidarity across these different lines? It’s like, what is Asian—yellow? You know what I mean? I don’t have an answer to it but it felt like the conversation suddenly reached that point of being stuck. You know the way how a lot of 90s debates about this stuff got stuck or reached a point where it needed to be revisited or explored more. Because a lot of people would argue that Asian isn’t brown but I would argue that it is and that’s the whole idea of a different idea of brownness.
Okay—here’s the last question. It’s another hard one: If we’re all people with ideals, where do we go?
I don’t know… I think the magical realism of Wildness is a really good example of something generative and not reactionary to current conditions. So I think that for people who have ideals, the answer is to create stuff and try to imagine different futures that aren’t just reacting to the ones that are around you.
WILDNESS PREMIERES AT OUTFEST ON SAT., JULY 21, AT 7:30 PM AT THE DIRECTORS GUILD OF AMERICA. A RECEPTION FEATURING DJS AND LADIES OF THE SILVER PLATTER WILL PRECEDE THE SCREENING IN THE DGA ATRIUM.