Director Colin Rothbart followed the East London drag scene for 5 years and Dressed as a Girl is the result. With narration by fabulous “ringmaster” Jonny Woo, it shows us the scene, its protagonists, how everything started and where it’s at.
You may say the transvestite scene came into mainstream with Conchita Wurst‘s Eurovision win, but these London girls have been shaking feather boas and walking high heels for a long, long time before that. It all seems to have started with Jonny Woo’s arrival in London in 2003 and the establishment of Gay Bingo, a cult event of the scene. From there we are introduced to the other characters – Scottee, the provocative; Holestar, a tranny with a fanny; Amber, the pop star in the making; Jonny Sizzle, the DJ; and Pia, the calm one. We follow them while learning more about their personal lives, checking the mood at the Gay Hotel at Glastonbury, staging protests during the Pope visit, doing drag workshops and doing fundraising for some wicked boobs.
The supreme sin of Dressed as a Girl is not its flamboyance, but its all over the place character. Somehow, it could have been taken directly from MTV; the first half-hour does indeed feel like a Meet the Trannies reality TV special. Also, every storyline forces the “dark side” of each character, much in the way of the emotional exploration that TV is famous for; if the characters weren’t as charismatic it would be hard to put up with it. It’s more telling than showing, and when it shows, it’s with crazy music video editing style. Putting Jonny Woo as a “speak to the camera” narrator, citing Shakespeare and reciting poems may be a way of connecting what is, deep down, disconnected observations over the years, but it ends up feeling cringeworthy and slightly maternalistic. It feels like Rothbart ended up getting cold feet about the power of his material by itself, which would explain the unending MTV-style montages, more space fillers than anything else. Also – always a danger when making a documentary about several characters – not all archs are treated the same.
But in the midst of the glitter, some true gold appears. Though Jonny Woo seems to be the focal point of interest, characters like Amber easily steal the show. It’s on her storyline that we find the true documental bits, from her raising money for a new rack, her alternative jobs, and her rekindling with her Dad, who still insists she’s Danny, no matter the big boobs. Here as well we feel Rothbart doubting subtleties’ power and trying to go in for the kill, raising some documentary ethical concerns – during the dinner, the director tries to create some conflict between Amber and Dad, but fortunately, neither bites the bait.
A good intro to the fascinating world of the Third Sex that doesn’t fully work as a feature documentary, with an excellent soundtrack that almost makes up for its faults, Dressed as a Girl had the potential to be more, but as it stands, it may need higher heels.
Dressed as a Girl is part of the East End Film Festival programme – for more information check http://www.eastendfilmfestival.com/