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