Wildness (2012), the first feature film by transgender artist Wu Tsang, follows a group of queer young artists who establish a weekly party and performance event at the Silver Platter, a historic bar in downtown Los Angeles frequented mostly by Latino transwomen and their friends and admirers. After some initial friction, the two groups begin to tessellate well together, but the popularity of the party leads to some negative attention from the press—and also from immigration services—which has devastating consequences for some of the bar regulars and leads the splintered community to question and renegotiate its shared identity. The film is stylistically experimental, blending documentary with magical-realist techniques to create a dreamlike meditation on a small moment in queer history, the ramifications of which tell an important tale about safe space and solidarity.
Wu Tsang describes the making of Wildness as a considerable learning process during which he taught himself to write, direct, and edit, and he also appears in the film as a central character, stepping back and forth behind the camera as the documentary progresses. He shares the narration with the bar itself, which, with a magical touch, becomes a protagonist of the film, describing its last half-century of existence during which it has been looked after by generations of the Ramirez family and has shifted from a “normal” gay bar into a particular haven for transwomen. The Silver Platter speaks in a female (perhaps a transfemale) voice suffused with experience, wisdom, and melancholy. She is maternal, “a beacon, guiding [her] young out of the darkness,” and within the walls of her womb, thousands of curious gay men, transvestites, and transsexual women have been reborn. Her motherliness is not always benevolent; she is variously excited, apprehensive, weary, and unforgiving. She is the collective Spanish voice of her attendees, and like them she balances a love of community hedonism with an underlying precarious anxiety about the future. “There are not many like me left,” she says, “and I wonder, what will become of me?”
The Silver Platter is frequented by younger and older generations of transwomen from Mexico, El Salvador, and Cuba who exude tenacity, pride, and joie de vivre, many of whom have been living for years in the MacArthur Park area, a part of Los Angeles that has gone from initial glamour to deprivation to a recent injection of gentrification, “a layer of new wealth trying to cover up the poverty, violence and failure.” In this transitional phase from deprivation to “revitalization,” the area remains cheap and an ideal haven for young queer artists such as Tsang and his friends. Tsang finds a “sisterhood” within the bar, enthralled by the glamorous festivity and performances of its patrons, and a mutual attraction begins: the Silver Platter wins them over, she proudly says, and she herself cannot resist the youthful energy of Tsang's group. The new party, “Wildness,” begins and quickly attracts huge crowds, but it displaces some of the original patrons of the Silver Platter who are unused to sharing the spotlight. In time, the party becomes a remarkable success, the regulars are reconciled to it, and the two groups inspire each other and become ever more cohesive.
Although the bar tries to remain a safe space, tension outside the Silver Platter grows; an extensive hunt for and deportation of undocumented immigrants causes protests and riots. The gap begins to widen between the ambitions of the Wildness attendees—“university students, American, white … a different class of person,” as one Silver Platter regular, Betty, describes them—and those of the Latino transwomen, concerned with keeping their homes and with surviving, aware that they have no recourse to assistance from any greater authority than their own community. As Wildness gets wilder, tension grows within the walls of the Silver Platter too; Tsang's fear—that the “wrong people” would start attending the party and displacing the former attendees even more—starts to manifest itself. The success of the party throws a new limelight on the bar, which becomes a target for graffiti and hate mail. The presenter of the “Daily Freak Show” arrives looking for “trannies and tranny fuckers”—exactly the kind of lascivious fetishization from which, says one of the Silver Platter regulars, Morales, the bar operates as a haven. The LA Weekly, despite Tsang's demand to the contrary, features Silver Platter as “L.A.'s Best Tranny Bar … a crossroads convergence of self-involved, art-damaged twenty-something kids and Third World gender illusionists” staffed by “he-shes” and attended by “she-male” prostitutes, where “tits and dick are always on the menu.” The party continues and attempts to synthesize its communities, dramatizing the stories of the Latino transwomen through performance, and the attendees set up a free legal clinic to assist the Los Angeles transgender community. Soon, however, things begin to fall apart; Wildness eventually closes down, and the bar returns to its original equilibrium.
Watching this film in Berlin in 2013, the Wildness experiment seems particularly pertinent. This city is experiencing a process of “revitalization” remarkably similar to that of Los Angeles, in which the Kreuzberg and Neukölln neighborhoods of West Berlin, formerly neglected because of their proximity to the Berlin Wall and with a prevalent population of lower-income Turkish immigrants, are becoming very popular among young queers looking for places of cheap residence and artistic experimentation. However, much tension is caused by suspicion of the ramifications of gentrification supposedly inextricably tied with immigration from other parts of mainland Europe as well as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, much of which is also caused by conflicting ideas about gender and sexuality. The city and the country as a whole continue to struggle with the strains between German, Turkish, and other immigrant identities so severely that Chancellor Angela Merkel maintains that multiculturalism in Germany has “utterly failed.” And while Berlin, under gay mayor Klaus Wowereit, rightfully capitalizes on its status as the European queer capital, its rainbow does remain somewhat conspicuously Caucasian. Comparing the Silver Platter to the Silverfuture queer bar in Berlin, for instance, an even rougher aggregation of differing ideologies is apparent than with the establishment of the Wildness party in a Latino bar; Silverfuture opened on a street lined with predominantly Turkish residences and coffee-houses, struggled for a time as the only queer bar in the neighborhood, and eventually became a focal point of a gentrifying community that has seen the gradual retreat of “Little Istanbul” and, unfortunately, little integration of the two together. If anything, in recent months, Silverfuture has come to attract an increasingly affluent, touristic, and voyeuristic crowd. As pub crawls promise the chance to “flirt with transvestites in dive bars” the queer locals keep moving on. (Alternative Berlin Tours 2014). In other parts of town, however, the arrival of a queer population in an old Turkish neighborhood has met with greater success; around the area of Kottbusser Tor, a number of queer meeting spots such as Südblock, Café Anal, Roses, Möbel Olfe, and SO36 (which regularly hosts the Turkish queer party Gayhane) sit fairly comfortably within their surroundings—one of these bars is in fact located within the Kreuzberg Zentrum housing project, and Turkish families sit alongside queer kids at Südblock, at least during the day. A little further west in the city are the headquarters of GLADT, an organization of Turkish and Turkish-German queers and allies. While we aspire that one day our entire cities, not just our bars, will be safe spaces, for the moment these community focal points remain extremely important, for we do remain vulnerable outside them. There is yet another element of friction between the the Kreuzberg and Neukölln areas and the historical gay and rather more racially homogenous neighborhood of Schöneberg, the bars and patrons of which are not always so welcoming to openly transgender people unless they are performing. In the middle of the old gay district sits the headquarters of the organization Maneo, which works to combat homophobia and hate crimes but which has unfortunately tended to lay the blame for these upon “youths of migrational backgrounds,” adding an extra layer of racial tension to this already complex situation. As in the case of Wildness, sometimes the attempt to create safe space has the negative consequence of compromising exactly that haven for others. But also as in the case of Wildness, we continue to strive to produce this utopian ideal and we continue to learn from each other along the way.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing and courageous elements of this film is that Tsang, having stepped into the spotlight as central protagonist, also illuminates his own shortcomings and is not shy about self-criticism. As the film progresses, he moves from naïveté to a greater comprehension of a community that is both enriched and endangered by the arrival of Tsang's group on its scene. Tsang makes a valiant effort at uniting two communities; even if their party dissipates, the film's final shots of Tsang and their new “sisterhood” seem to suggest that Wildness will be outlasted by the solidarity it inspired. The film highlights a topic more pertinent for young queer artists than ever: our quest for empowerment, often motivated by feelings of disenfranchisement, must be balanced by a recognition of the tensions already inherent within the space we make our own. And our efforts not to disenfranchise others at the same time must be doubled when we come to occupy a space inhabited by people who have already experienced disenfranchisement. This involves shaking ourselves from complacency and contending with the unwelcome realization that we must examine our own part in the ongoing process of queer gentrification. Ashland, one of the Wildness organizers, insists that he does not represent “money and power … that is going to come and clean up everything … knock everyone out of the way”; but this is indeed the threat that his party brings to the Silver Platter, unpleasant as it is to acknowledge. As Tsang's group arrives in Los Angeles, he ambiguously acknowledges that their previous efforts to set up queer space in Chicago “got messy and fell apart”; we may well ask: are we destined to repeat this pattern of struggle—failure—resignation—relocation ad infinitum? Maybe, Wildness suggests; but we can learn and leave a positive legacy in doing so. Parties, even those generating artistic experimentation, political discourse, and reflections on the destiny of our communities, will not solve all of our problems; they will not eliminate friction, they will not be without failure, and they will not create a queer utopia overnight. But perhaps this very failure produces the opportunity for regeneration and for the continual negotiation of collective identity necessitated by queer community.