Wu Tsang didn’t exactly plan to make a film. He wanted to host a party. It was an effort to celebrate a bar called the Silver Platter, a landmark in Los Angeles’s historically Latino MacArthur Park neighborhood.
For over four decades, the bar had become a haven for the city’s Latino transgender community. So Tsang, a Chinese American transgender organizer and activist who’d moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, helped start a weekly party called “Wildness” that quickly became one of LA’s most talked about underground hotspots.
That, of course, brought along problems. The space, the neighborhood, and its women were in transition, caught in a web of shifting demographics and backwards immigration policies. “Wildness”, Tsang’s first feature length film, is a love story based on his relationship with the Silver Platter. It’s set to premiere today at SXSW, and he spoke to Colorlines.com.
When did you realize that you wanted to tell this story?
When I was organizing “Wildness” at the Silver Platter, I was filming stuff mostly because I was a performer and an artist. I was interested in documenting. I was interviewing people from the bar because I was becoming friends with some of them who were the owners and people who had been hanging out there for a really long time — some of the patrons have been there since the mid 70’s or early 80s.
And then around the time that “Wildness” was getting really popular and there was starting to be some controversy in the community that was sort of questioning our intentions and whether we were gentrifying the bar, we had this wake up call around wanting to make more explicit our politics and who we were. A feature film felt like the most accessible format because of the platforms that it enables you to reach people. Through theatrical screening and through distribution on DVDs or online, different platforms where people can access the film. So that was the first phase.
Tell me about the process of making the film.
Once the party ended and I had all this material, I was really stuck for a really long time. The easier story to tell would have been more of a history of the bar. More of an anthropological “this is what it’s like to be a transgender immigrant” kind of story. All of that material is there. But in the process of doing that I was looking films about immigrants, a lot of films about trans people and just really started getting frustrated with certain narratives that seemed really dominant. Those felt a little bit exploitative.
Putting myself in the center and giving voice to the bar were two strategies for making my role as the filmmaker really transparent. It’s a documentary, but it’s also a fantasy. It’s my fantasy but it’s also a collective fantasy and that’s okay. It’s giving life to the bar in this way that the larger perspective is casting over the story. It’s totally invented but at the same time I feel like all documentaries are, they just usually pretend they’re not.
One of the things that I thought was great about the film was that you personified the Silver Platter and it becomes a real character. Can you talk about the decision to do that and what you think it adds to the film?
Part of it about having this layer of magic that I think the Silver Platter has a quality in real life. It’s also something that “Wildness” had. The way that us as the young organizers really revered the place in this way. I think a lot of the people who go to the Silver Platter do. People say it’s a temple, or it’s like their home. I wanted to personify the amount of love and care that everybody puts into the physical building. I always wanted magical realism for the film, but I didn’t know quite how.
Another thing I think is really interesting with the film is that it’s loaded with a lot of all of these things that are in transition — people who are in transition, a neighborhood that’s in transition, a bar that’s sort of in transition. But the film doesn’t make any explicit references words like “gentrification” or “hipsters.” It seems like you’re trying to deal with something that’s deeper that has something to do with finding a place, or belonging. Was that intentional on your part?
I feel like I barely even use the word “transgender” in the film because that was another ideological category to me. I felt like life at the Silver Platter almost defied all categorization in that way. It wasn’t “LGBT”; it was more complicated and messy than any of those categories. Developing as a filmmaker and a storyteller, that was a major thing for me, figuring out how to communicate ideas on an emotional level. There were versions of the script that would be much more about telling the viewer “this neighborhood is being gentrified.” There’s something about emotional truth being more complicated and more politicized in a way than some of those ideas.
You’ve talked really candidly about the mistakes you made as an organizer, as a child of the Silver Platter. What do you hope that people can take away from this — especially in communities that are facing similar struggles?
I feel like what Wildness did that I miss and that I hope will continue to happen in other ways is I feel like it made a space where it was really open to a lot of different kinds of people. A lot of different people felt safe there, it was really non judgmental in this way - and I don’t mean to sound all hippie about it — but it allowed for real difference to co-exist; wealth and race and resource difference and style and fashion and nerdy and cool. All the different ways that are often closing each other out. I hope that the film creates spaces for that too.