Last weekend I saw the documentary “Before the Last Curtain Falls” at the Screening Room as a part of the Reelout Film Festival. The film, directed by Thomas Wallner, is based on the lives of a group of transexuals and drag queens who went on a final world tour for their show “Gardenia” before retiring. I chose to see this film because as a straight, cisgender woman I feel as though I have much to learn about transgender life. This is what one who does not feel aligned with the gender given to them at birth experiences day to day as a result of our social construction which is geared to give power to white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class men. In this regard I felt as though watching a film that allows a group of such people to talk about their lives and their hardships would be a great learning experience.
The film starts off with the performers putting on their makeup with a narrator explaining their world tour with “Gardenia”. Then we see a short excerpt of the performance before moving into an interview with cast member Danilo. The rest of the film follows a similar pattern of snippets of performance followed by interviews with each member and so on. I feel as though this is a good setup as it keeps the viewer informed on the lives of the performers while keeping in mind that the show is the overarching theme and what brought them all together in the first place.
One scene that stuck out to me is when one of the performers, Vanessa, was being interviewed by Wallner. Vanessa was showing the interviewer pictures of herself in her youth before transitioning when he asked her what name she was given at birth. I was not expecting her emotional reaction to what I thought was a simple question which is why it really stuck with me. Vanessa passionately explained why it is not appropriate to ask a transgender person invasive questions about their past because they have no relevance to their current lives and who they are in the present. Some transgender people will be okay with having these conversations but it is ignorant to just assume that they are obligated to share these personal things. This part of the film reminded me of an interview with writer and trans activist Janet Mock in which she turned the conversation around and asked the female, cisgender interviewer invasive questions about growing up and discovering herself. Only when these questions are put in a different context in terms of gender are they seen as invasive and inappropriate which is why this segment of the film is extremely vital to the overall message.
The film did a really good job of being concerned with the lives of the performers and letting them share their own stories rather than just superficially painting them as drag queens who only perform for entertainment’s sake. Each performer was given a large portion of the film to share their story and explain what Gardenia has meant to them, as well as their personal relationships and struggles. In this way the film presents the cast members as people, rather than dehumanizing them as the media does. The film also does a good job of rejecting essentialism through its sexually diverse cast. Each cast member is different whether they be a transgender woman, or a homosexual man in drag. Some have taken hormones and/or had surgery, while some have not and still considered themselves to be transgender. Some also present themselves as completely male in their personal life, while some do not. None of these unique factors disallow any the performers to be a part of Gardenia which broadens the spectrum for transgender viewers, making it known that there are no specific physical rules attached to being transgender. For example, often in society transgender people are only considered to be so if they “pass” physically, and this documentary rejects this notion. In the process of doing this the film also rejects compulsory binary thinking through the diverse cast.
While the film does a good job of analyzing the lives and struggles of white transgender and homosexual life, one problem the film presents is the lack of racial diversity in the cast. Because all of the performers are white, the film has no opportunity to shed light onto the intersectional struggles of transgender and homosexual people, which is critical. For example, if one the the cast members was a homosexual or transgender person of colour they would be able to share their experiences of multiple oppressions and how they tie into each other, because all forms of oppression and privilege intersect in some way. This feeds the viewer one or two perspectives while not considering that there are many issues left undiscussed as people of colour are never explored, limiting the scope of experiences that are shared. This being said, the film does emphasize the social and economic class of the performers which is important because it ties in with their oppressions in an intersectional way. Vanessa states that she had to work as a prostitute for thirteen years to pay of the price of her sex change operation. This shows how our society places transgender people in a position to be affected by things such as homelessness, prostitution, and so on.
In conclusion, despite some flaws, I feel as though “Before the Last Curtain Falls” is a worthwhile documentary to see, regardless of background or education in gender studies. – EMW