Fabulous filmmaking

Colin Rothbart takes on drag in Dressed As A Girl.

by Jennie Kermode

Getting ready to put on a show
Getting ready to put on a show

Filmed over six years in the clubs and on the streets of East London, Colin Rothbart's Dressed as A Girl mingles glamour and high drama with much more personal perspectives on showbusiness. As it comes to DVD, we ask the director how he came to take on this notoriously challenging subject and how the film developed as it did.

"I was friendly with one of them, Holestar, before," says Colin, who has spent many years socialising in the East End. "She was performing on the alternative drag scene in East London. We went on holiday together and she said ‘Have you seen Paris Is Burning?’ She said ‘You know, there’s never really been a good film about the British drag scene.’ I agreed and she said ‘Come to Glastonbury,” where she was going to an event called NYC Downlow. I met some drag performers there but a lot people were very suspicious about what I was there for. A lot of people go with cameras and there have been people filming there before but nothing has come of it so they think nothing’s ever going to really happen.

"I thought in order to make the film work I needed six or seven strong characters for storylines. It took me a long time to get people there to trust me but eventually I got interest from a few. Jonny Woo was there straight away and Holestar herself of course, she was immediate. Then I contacted some people afterwards. Amber came on board about year later. I thought it would be quite good to go through her transition with her. I think that the whole point of drag is just about getting dressed up and having a good time, really. Holestar is a female drag queen, she calls herself a tranny with a fanny, and she doesn't define herself as gay but as queer because she likes men and women or whoever, really. Pia and Amber were both in transition but they couldn’t be more different as people. Amber was going for the whole glamazon thing while Pia is much more political and doesn’t wear that much make-up. She defines herself as third gender.

Feeling fabulous
Feeling fabulous

"I don’t think anyone in the film gets a sexual kick out of dressing in drag," he adds. "I know Jonny doesn’t because he’s my partner now. We met when I was making the film. He kept asking me out on really weird dates, like Shakespeare in Flemish at the Barbican, so I went and sat through this six hour production in Flemish. I was hesitant about the relationship because I wasn’t sure if it was ethical and I felt I shouldn’t dip my pen in the company ink or blur the boundaries of what we were doing, but we’re still together six years later, so hey!

!I’m now in business with John Sizzle and Jonny. We all set up a bar together in East London. Over the course of the film we all become good friends. I still made the film the way I wanted to make it, though. I gave them all chance to see it first and asked them to come to me if there were any bits they didn’t like. But if anything it’s very honest. I lived in East London anyway so I was aware of them before. I used to have big parties at my house and they would sometimes be there but it gave me the chance to get to know them better. It made me be able to make an honest appraisal without being really fawny. I get what’s going on in the film but if I want builders in Cumbria and people like my parents to like it then it’s got to have universal truths, and I think it does."

Part of what gives the film its bite, I suggest, is the way some of its characters are struggling with the issue of how they fit into the drag scene as hey get older.

"Well, John Sizzle is 47 now he said that he’d retire when he turned 45. He’s sill doing it," Colin laughs. "They always say Oh, I hate it, I hate it! No they don’t! Jonny when I met him was very much a party boy still so we were going out and partying all the time. Now he’s given up the drugs and drink he’s not the last one standing on a Monday night anymore. He’s started to do different work – he’s just been in New York doing a serious play. I think it’s age really. When you get older there are always new people coming up in the scene anyway and they always like to nurture them. A few years ago we could walk into a really quiet club and Jonny within two minutes would get the whole place buzzing, but he doesn’t want be around that any more.

"When they all watched themselves it was strange. For anyone, if you watch yourself over a six year period you do think Oh god, maybe I do need to change! When Holestar says that she finds it hard to watch herself talking about depression she did really struggle with that but then she had so much positive feedback, as has John Sizzle talking about being HIV positive and Scottie talking about his dysfunctional relationship with his family, and that’s the important thing."

Scottie's story really brings a different tone to the film because he's been through so much suffering in his life. Was drawing that out of him a challenge?

Dressed As A Girl
Dressed As A Girl

"It took a long time. He didn’t want to be part of the film at all, early on, and when I said ‘Can I meet your family?’ he said ‘I don’t talk to them.’ He said he might invite his mum down to one of his shows so I said ‘Can we be there?’ but he said ‘No.’ But now things are going much better for him. He got married recently and I went to his wedding, and his parents were there. But sometimes it’s like that when you’re in a film. I don’t think Amber would have been reconciled with dad as quickly either without the film. But also when you film people for a long time things do happen naturally anyway."

It's good to hear. Everybody in the film seems to have made positive progress since it was shot. But getting to that stage was a challenge in itself.

"I didn’t have any money to make this one. I should have done Kickstarter earlier really because we did that to help us pay for the editing stage and we raised £13,000. It was all shot by me on my really terrible old camera whenever I had odd weekend. I kept finding that we had lots of performance stuff and not really any story. Of course we wanted to show the Royal Opera House and Amber’s boobathon [fundraiser] and things like that but I really wanted it to be about the people. I think the point when some of them realised I was genuine was probably during the last year and a half that we were making it."

Will there be another film? Not for the meantime, he says.

"I still do my work in TV. I’ve just done a programme with Dave Myers one of the Hairy Bikers, called The Hairy Builder. It’s a restoration programme so it’s quite serious really, it’s about restoring old buildings and English Heritage. Then I’ve been in South Africa making a film about penguins. People keep asking if I’m going to do a sequel to Dressed As A Girl but it all comes down to money really. This one has cost me about £200,000. The say to make an independent film you have to be independently wealthy and we owe so much money still, not even including the time we spent on it. So I would do sequel if someone said ‘Here’s 100 grand.’ I think it would be a great time to do it because everyone’s doing really interesting things."

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