On Screen: The Many Love Languages of ‘Translations’, Seattle’s Trans Film Fest
One of the nation’s longest-running trans-focused film festivals returns, with one day of in-person screenings (this Saturday), and four days of virtual access that begins tonight. Tickets are offered on a sliding-scale basis.
Below are some recommended films among the many features and short films available to view this weekend.
Nicola Mai; 2021; United Kingdom (takes place in USA); 1 hour
Spanish with English subtitles
It opens with a musicality, drumming along with the clacking of the subway train, which is elevated in those parts. Shifts to dinner in a hot pan, a crucifix, and a husband on the couch playing Candy Crush who demands his wife go get him KFC as soon as she’s done cooking dinner. She’s worried the cops are on the look out. He doesn’t care. “Go get me what I want.” “You’re shameless.”
As the film cuts to a group gathered around the screen watching this exchange, a chorus of commentary chimes in. “I would bang his head.” / “I hate him.” / “I would beat him with the pan.” The snipes are tinged with humor, but also … a strong sense of been there, felt that. As their audience asserts in describing their viewing later on, there’s no fiction in the experience they portray.
The viewers are members of the grassroots TRANSgrediendo Intercultural Collective, and they helped write the experiences on the screen before them. Paloma (who’s described above) and Rosa (who’s brought in soon after, in another legally dubious arrest) aren’t real. They’re characters in a short film, two trans Latinas playing roles, showing some of the stressors, community ties, moments of joy, and repetitive travails of trans Latina sex workers in Queens, New York.
Alongside Paloma and Rosa’s composite stories, trans Latinas discuss their priorities for grassroots organizing, strategizing decriminalization of sex work, lack of meaningful job opportunities, and abuse they’re particularly vulnerable to as migrants, sex workers, women, and trans women. Later, they don floral heels to hit the streets with chants and banners reading “Puta Power.”
At one pivotal point in Paloma and Rosa’s stories, the action pauses while the two swap lines. Then, sirens in the background. [“They will arrest us for real.” “That would be ironic!” “Indeed, the cherry on top!”] It’s a light moment that feels good — if surreal — to focus on rapport between the actors, rather than the new legal troubles their characters are finding themselves in. The scene is troubling, still. But, like many such moments of humor throughout the film, the bit of levity keeps the focus on the human stories rather than feeling too heavy.
It’s a novel patchwork that’s at once heartfelt, academic, and practical.
Mood: Serious, with some light
How to watch: In person (on 5/7 at noon); Virtually (through 5/8)
Feature film – virtual only
Pedro Peira; 2021; Spain; 84 min.
English and Spanish with English subtitles
Bamby Salcedo, founder of theTransLatin@ Coalition, is a beloved and widely renowned leader and activist for the trans community. This documentary traces her journey — from many hard years in Guadalajara and Los Angeles, to glamorous awards events, speaking engagements, marches, and protest disruptions on the largest stages — up to her “Queenciañera”: a feminist celebration, on her own terms, of reaching her 50th birthday.
There’s a lot of trauma in this film, which doesn’t shy away from tough topics — prison, abuse, addiction — which are recounted through interviews and occasionally depicted with dark animated drawings. It’s a tender, thoughtfully done film; and Salcedo’s warm heart and determined grit come through throughout.
Mood: Serious, with strength and celebration
How to watch: Virtually (through 5/8)
(Like ‘Caer’, ‘LA Queenciañera’ was dedicated to the memory of Lorena Borjas. Read more about Borjas’ impact on her communities in the New Yorker, here.)
Sean Dorsey Dance series
Sean Dorsey; 2020; USA, 12.5 min
(Read NWT’s 2019 interview feature with choreographer Sean Dorsey, ahead of his company’s Velocity performance, here.)
This lovely series of dance film clips tells a palpable story: resisting, claiming a place, building something, and freedom in joy.
Is that the story they had in mind to tell? I don’t know, it’s modern dance — interpret how you will. But it’s an enjoyable collection, particularly as a sequence in this order. It’s a pleasant, efficient crescendo of freedom.
The first three clips — Toward, Place/Portal, and At Water’s Edge — feel like different movements of the same story.
Toward brings lots of wind noise (interspersed with disorienting silence) and a feeling of resistance, in bleak surroundings — dust, field, low hearty plants. Midway through, slow piano notes, like a slow awakening, lead into some peace before the word “possible” appears. Place/Portal, a solo by Dorsey, continues a story of forward motion, but feels more contemplative and open to slowing down. At Water’s Edge is on firmer footing; it starts from the mood of awakening, claiming a place; it feels more liberated, playful; moving fast around but not going anywhere.
In all three, costumes by Tiffany Amundson are an asset. There’s something liberating about watching a bare-chested trans man dance freely in a flowing parachute of a gown. The music, by Ben Kessler (Toward) and Anomie Belle (Place/Portal and At Water’s Edge), is likewise crucial to the storytelling.
The last of the four clips, Seek/After, is a definite shift in energy; a different movement and a different story. Where the others are some level of seeking, this one is pure play. Different musical energy (by Frida Ibarra) sweeps in, with a more flowy modern dance style and occasionally laughable antics. They may be back in a dusty field, in dark gray clothes and masks, but there’s a joy to this one.
Dancers: Sean Dorsey (all), Nol Simonse (At Water’s Edge, Seek/Find), Raúl Torres-Bonilla (Toward, Seek/Find), Will Woodward (Seek/Find).
How to watch: Virtually – Trans Joy shorts (through 5/8)
(These clips, among others, are also available to view on Dorsey’s website, here.)
Nicolas Jara & Yen Dinh; 2022; USA, 9 min
Two roommates are about opposite when it comes to desires for intimacy: one fawns over K-dramas, eagerly awaiting an unrealistic love to sweep her off her feet; the other craves intimacy in human connection but has no interest in checking out their dating prospects. They swap some mean jabs (“Go ahead and be a plant if you’re into asexual reproduction”; “Look at your relationships and tell me if any of them has made you happy”), but a real desire for the best for each other wins out.
From this slice of life, these are characters easy to care about, laugh along with, and cringe with. I would surely watch them in sitcom or full-length movie form.
How to watch: Virtually (through 5/8 – Bittersweet shorts and BIPOC shorts programs)
17 Minutes With Nora
Imanol Ruiz de Lara; 2021; Spain; 19 min
Spanish with English subtitles
A manly-man finds out his teenager is trans only from the jeers of neighborhood bullies. What starts out as parental exasperation with a perceived waste of time (acting) leads to an attempt to understand his daughter. As they run her lines, the play blends into real life. Watching the two soften to each other is sweet; and it leaves the feeling that the real story begins at “end of scene.”
How to watch: In person (on 5/7 at 1:45pm – short films block); Virtually (through 5/8 – Bittersweet shorts program)
Blender short films program
One of my favorite things about short films is how frequently I’ll come away with a feeling of WTF did I just watch? — in a good way. If that describes you, too, the Blender shorts program is for you.
The Ballad of Yuka, which is available on the in-person program as well as the virtual Blender set, contains about the most diverse mix of animation styles I’ve ever seen, jammed into a four-minute short. It’s worth watching a few times, just to catch all the styles going on. Even with my untrained eye, I was reminded of claymation styles in classic Rudolph and Gumby, Bob’s Burgers‘ take on spaghetti westerns, the hallucination-in-the-desert sequence in Beavis and Butthead Do America, early Thomas the Tank Engine (a la Shining Time Station) swirly eyes, a roughly sketched Rick and Morty, classic (Merry Melodies-era) kids’ cartoons, animated dioramas, and more. In four minutes. Couldn’t tell you much about the motivations underlying the narrative arc (Moth Girl comes to town to duel with the Masked Maggot), but the animation in Yuka is very cool.
As for the other films in the program? The Translations Fest describes them thusly: Mix an ounce of puppetry, a dash of sorcery, two cups of mythological baby, six grams of Minnie Mouse, a whisper of archival footage, one vial of testosterone, and a capful of the subconscious. Pour into a vessel of your choice. Sprinkle with a vigilante cowgirl and garnish with youthful optimism.
Yeah, what they said. Enjoy!
Mood: Goofy? … Who knows.
How to watch: Virtually (through 5/8 – Blender shorts program); Ballad of Yuka is also on the in-person mixed shorts slate (on 5/7 at 1:45pm – short films block)
Chase Joynt; 2022; USA; 75 min.
Historian and film participant Jules Gill-Peterson introduces Framing Agnes this way:
I first encountered Agnes in graduate school. I read a case study about a young trans girl in the 1950s who lied her way into the UCLA Gender Clinic to get access to surgery.
Agnes is remembered in two ways. Either as a cautionary tale about the untrustworthiness of trans people, or as an icon and folk hero who navigated a system designed to exclude her.
In the years since I first read the case, I’ve become obsessed with our attachment to the story of Agnes as exceptional. And I worry about what and who else has been lost along the way.
This exceptional historical dig proceeds along two main paths: a narrative of how they found what they found (digging through case studies in the back of a rusted-shut filing cabinet); and a reenactment of stories in a talk show format (a nod to the alternately informative and salacious daytime talk shows where many 30-somethings first heard of trans people), done in the style of contemporaneous Mike Wallace Interview shows (“another television portrait from our gallery of colorful people”) of the late-1950s.
The film is fascinating, both for what they uncover — some of which is disturbing and depressing — and for the modern-day actors’ descriptions of what they learned about themselves in portraying unsung trans people from decades back.
Framing Agnes is a historical dig through the archives, but one with a clear point of view. It acknowledges those early trans people who were visible, while giving full latitude to those who chose, or still choose, not to come out. “The fact that we don’t know who they are says very little about them, and everything about us.”
As for the title character? “Agnes did the impossible. She outwitted every clinician that she worked with. She got what she needed, she transitioned, and then she comes back and she tells them? …. There is something within the impossible, working between the truth and a lie, where life takes place.”
How to watch: In person (on 5/7 at 6:45pm); Virtually (through 5/8)
Translations Film Festival virtual showings run through 5/8; in-person screenings of select films run on 5/7 at Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill. Festival passes ($50-$100) and individual tickets ($5+) are available on a sliding-scale basis to all. See showtimes, festival info, and tickets here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and multi-stall. Cinema and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.