Gabriel Baur

FRF's Cleo Godsey interviews Gabriel Baur, director of Venus Boyz

Cleo: What first made you interested in drag kings?

Gabriel: Don't we all dream of slipping into the skin of the opposite sex? Of experiencing so-called "maleness" as a woman? In 1996 I heard about women who appear on stage as men and this with lots of edgy humor. The very next morning I booked a ticket to New York... I began my research there and it didn't take long for me to see that the Drag King shows were far more than simple entertainment. They were women with great personalities, like the Drag King pioneer Diane Torr, who examined social power structures and discussed them with much reflection in her courses and discussions. Or Dréd Gerestant, a member of the younger generation, who is trying to live her life completely differently. In the course of my research activities, a year later I came to London, where I met women who had just begun to take testosterone. This added a new dimension to the theme. In the moment in which external appearances painfully manifest themselves on their bodies, the question becomes much more basic, more existential. My encounter with the trans-gendered New Men in London deeply shook my perception of the human body as well as my understanding of the dichotomy between man and woman and convinced me that I must absolutely make this film.

The question of social norms (identity, gender) and transcending them, have always formed a central aspect of my film work. Ever since I was very young I was fascinated by the question: What if everyone wore green glasses and no one even noticed it?

Cleo: How did you gain access into that world, both in NYC and London?

Gabriel: It would be an exaggeration to say that I was welcomed with open arms. There were certain reservations when it came to strangers who were interested in making a film about them. The New Yorker scene was, however, quite large and thus quite open. Because I had lived in New York for several years previously, I felt at home there and I had friends who were able to introduce me into that scene. What is important is the long time we spent in realizing the project. If I had shot the film in 1996, when I began my research, the intimacy and confidence that characterizes VENUS BOYZ would not have been present in the film. Our long cooperation helped the participants realize that I was not presenting them as some kind of shimmering exotic birds - as they were accustomed to in talk shows - but rather that I took their situation seriously and was seeking genuine clarification. This was more important for the protagonists in London than it was for those in New York. The London scene is more critical - and has been much more strongly attacked. Del, for example, who was still Della when I met him, was very wary in the beginning. He wanted to know exactly what I had done in New York. It was only once he had seen the filmed material I had made in New York that he agreed to work with us. He was favorably impressed with the fact that I had framed the images in a special way, that I had sought a certain beauty. What he had experienced thus far was that his world is often rejected, portrayed as ugly and distorted - and that bothers him.

Cleo: What were the biggest obstacles to producing this film and why?

Gabriel: Financing the film was very difficult. In Switzerland we were confronted with extreme rejection and skepticism, especially in the more established commissions. Without the support and dedication of the producer Kurt Maeder and the active support from abroad, from my German and US co-producers, this film would never have been realized.

Cleo: What were people so skeptical about?

Gabriel: I'm convinced that there were a lot of unconscious fears involved. I have learned that this subject matter represents a great taboo for many people. Some reacted with the suggestion that I should make a cheap Mini DV film. It was clear they thought this topic did not deserve more. But I was decided not to compromise and to do the film in an excellent screen qualitiy to support the dignity and beauty of the protagonists and to give them the space they deserve. Others suggested that I stick to what is familiar. They recommended that I film a single biography, from A to B, from woman to man. And that was exactly what I did NOT want to do with VENUS BOYZ. Others made it clear that I should in no case film Drag King performers or performances. Although it might have a special kind of attractiveness, it would not be profound enough. But it was exactly the attractiveness of the performances that appealed to me, because they contradict our prejudices and expectations, they challenge the associations we have about masculine women: that they are ugly, Amazon-like, women with hair on their chests… Cleo: Why didn't you want to film any individual biographies? Gabriel: In answer to that, I would like to quote Hans Scheirl, one of the protagonists in the film. He is also a filmmaker and after he had seen my film, he sent me an e-mail. "Mainly I realize that what happens here is that a trans-personal protagonist, or a protagonist-multiplicity is created. Every character has an effect on the perception of every other character, so I think this movie is very futuristic." In addition, it was very important for me to show the individuals embedded in their communities, which were linked with one another, no matter where they were.

Cleo: Did you take the "drag king workshop ? If so, how did you find the experience of being a man?

Gabriel: Doing research I took a Drag King workshop with Diane Torr. I can highly recommand it. It is fascinating what kind of alter-egos are hidden in oneself if one lives it out. As a guy, I don't think that I behave very different, but the world definitely reacts very different to me as man, thus this influences again my own behaviour. In general my basic experience is that as a guy I am permitted in many ways more space.

Cleo: What did you most want to say with this film and do you think you said it?

Gabriel: BE YOURSELF. Whatever that means. Don't let others define what you have to be. One really has to see VENUS BOYZ. It's all in there. But, generally, I wanted to challenge our basic and often repressive understanding of what it means to be a man and a woman, open up the mind beyond classification and prejudices and show the beauty and dignity of some very courageous persons who live and work creatively for this aim and refuse to be victims. I wanted to show that this content concerns all of us. Thus VENU BOYZ is really meant for a mixed audience, be it heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual or pansexual. Somehow, in promotion this does not seem to get across. But , for the ones who go and see VENUS BOYZ, it seems to work. There are even ordinary people who suddenly doubt what they are when they come out of VENUS BOYZ, and that's not bad for a start. After the film the audience seems to be thoughtful but in high spirits - thanks to the inspiring humour and vitality of the protagonists. Also, especially young people seem to experience that somebody who does not fit into the fashion ideals can be beautiful and that seems to enforce their own self esteem.

Cleo: What was the most rewarding part of making this film ?

Gabriel: To get to know some wonderful people, to experience new friendships, to succeed to make this film against all odds without making compromises in quality nor content. To realize exactly the film I wanted. This film was based on a clear concept/script and was very well prepared, otherwise I would have been lost with the many protagonist and the complexity of the issues, not to talk about the technical aspects of using two and up to four cameras. This was necessary to give me the option to create undefined visual zones in relation to the content and use this material whenever needed for the FLUIDITY and MULTIPERSPECTIVITY I see in the topic. It's the first time in my biography as a filmmaker that a lot I work on for years falls in place in VENUS BOYZ and therefore it is an important step towards THE FILM I envision.

Of course, also very rewarding is the warm reception of VENUS BOYZ and its protagonists, its team all around the world, and the international exhibition and distribution. Especially all the touching emotional feedbacks and the knowledge that it actually plays an important part in positive life changes for some viewers.

Cleo: If money were not an issue, what film subject would you most like to do?

Gabriel: There would be no change. I do what I want to do, that's why my films obviously take so long to get financed or cannot be realized. But there is hope for change now. There is one dream: If I wouldn't have to submit projects and fight for every one of them so hard, I would love to do filmpoems. I have a whole series of them waiting in the pipeline. Any contribution to this project is more than welcome.

Cleo: As a documentary filmmaker, what has inspired you most and why?

Gabriel: My most important influence for my work since my teens are the drawings and paintings of Van Gogh, especially the late ones. I am convinced that in our time Van Gogh would be a (great) filmmaker. He was, by the way, not as crazy at all as one portrays him. His life is sensationally mystified; he was overall a very down to earth person, very clear in his aims, and he developed an incredible craftsmanship which allowed him at one point-already victim of seizures, feverishly working, blessed by the gift of unique inspiration-just to go beyond. In the context of your question I have to make clear that I don't regard myself as a documentary filmmaker. Just as a filmmaker. Every subject is asking for its own form. My last film before Venus Boyz was a fiction, the next one will be a fiction, too. And some are just crossing the lines. Thus there is a wide variety of films which have inspired me.

Favorites of them belong to the Latin American, Eastern European and Japanese cinema, to the Twenties and the Sixties. Films realized by Able Gance and Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Flaherty and Friedrich Murnau, Louis Buñuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini and Glauber Rocha, Maya Deren and early Vera Chytilova, Alain Resnais and early / middle Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavetes and Jean Rouch, Chris Marker or Jonas Mekas. In documentary today, I regard classic observational cinema (cinema direct) as least interesting and favour films which intervene and take a personal position, also films which reflect or question the process and construction of reality. The most important inspiration during the Nineties I got through the personal contact and learning from the Polish directors Wojciech Marczweski and Krysztof Kieslowski.

The second part of the question, the WHY it is Van Gogh, and just these directors/films, is inspiring me to write a book - or to make a film.