If you need a reminder that trans women and drag queens are the true pioneers of LGBTQ+ acceptance in the world, look no further than Chad Hahne’s documentary Transformistas, the story of a group of drag performers who defied the law to build a community in 90s communist Cuba. The film will receive its Australian premiere at QueerScreen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney later this month.
Shot entirely undercover on iPhone (due to Cuba’s tightly controlled media laws), we step into the world of the transformistas, the Cuban term for drag queens. In the city of Santa Clara a small group of drag performers who came together and began performing in a gay bar called El Mejunje. They called themselves El Futuro (“The Future”), a remarkable act of prescience. Together they created a safe space and brought Cuban drag to life – all in defiance of the law.
Set against a background of economic sanctions and homophobia, El Futuro brought joy to their community. These queens talk of life in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic and police brutality, creating their own costumes and even makeup when nothing else was available. El Mejunje became the focal point for a community of discovery, as people of all colours, gender identities, sexualities and creeds mingled, breaking down long held prejudices.
From the iconic drag mothers of El Futuro like Cynthia and Samantha, to the younger generation discovering and expanding Cuban drag, Transformistas in a glimpse into a different world of drag that’s miles away from the high camp and glitz of Drag Race.
The great thing about Hahne’s documentary is how it opens up a new corner of LGBTQ+ history from Cuba’s HIV “Sanitariums” (caged communities where HIV positive people were kept away from the general populace), to the world of blackmarket plastic surgery. These drag queens carry the scars of their history.
This is drag in real life, gritty, and rough, with the performers grifting a life out of very little. In that respect it mirrors the classic Paris Is Burning. In Transformistas the bond between these men and trans women, and their families is deep. The film’s gut-punches come from the parents and grandparents who not only accept and love their kin, but celebrate them.
Transformistas is a tale of survival, success, loss, and legacy. Chad Hahne has made a film that is bigger than the technical limitations placed on it that celebrates, to paraphrase Cynthia, “Life is a play without rehearsals – live it!”
Transformistas plays in cinemas on February 21st as part of Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival and is available to stream. Head to the QueerScreen website for tickets.