Chad Hahne’s undercover documentary, Transformistas, which had its Australian premiere at Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival earlier today, offers a heart-wrenching and eye-opening window into an unexplored chapter of LGBTQ+ history. The film shines a light on Cuba’s drag community, how the HIV/AIDS crisis was handled in the republic, and Cuba’s oldest gay bar. Read our ★★★★ review.
Transformistas (the Cuban term for drag queens) introduces us to Samantha, an artist once quarantined in an HIV sanitarium for five years, on her triumphant journey back to stage; Omega, the former “Miss Trans Cuba”, and Cynthia, a performer who survived a violent attack to share her passion with the world. Hahne has a background in television and has served as an associate producer on multiple episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and was an associate producer on the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.
Ahead of the film’s premiere, The Queer Review’s Chad Armstrong had an exclusive conversation with Chad Hahne about discovering Cuba’s queer community, the genesis of his documentary feature debut, and having RuPaul as his boss on her 2007 film Starrbooty!
Chad Armstrong, The Queer Review: How did you come across the world of Cuban drag?
Chad Hahne: “Five or so years ago I went down to Cuba for a vacation and to research, and naturally I sought out the queer community. There wasn’t much information on queer Cuba, but I read about El Mejunje and made a trip to the small town of Santa Clara to find the oldest gay bar in Cuba. There I was lucky enough to met a group of young, really smart queer kids. One of those locals, Omar Martin, became my producer. One thing led to the next and soon we were developing the film together. He introduced me to the queens and cast and we started filming Transformistas. Just the two of us, with one iPhone.”
“After my initial trip to Cuba, I didn’t think I would make a feature documentary. I shot a little bit of footage, but wasn’t going to do much with it. I kept in touch with my new friends from Santa Clara though, who suggested I come back to film some more. When they mentioned Samantha’s story, about her being quarantined in an HIV sanitarium for 5 years, I was pretty shocked. How did someone survive this? Why don’t more people know this history? I was immediately intrigued and wanted to help tell her story.”
How open was community to speaking with you, did you have to gain their trust?
“As a queer person I believe there are unique experiences and certain histories that we all share, regardless of man-made borders, that connect us all. I’ve always experienced a type of queer kinship when I travel and luckily Cuba was no different. Of course I still had to gain their trust, but my producer, Omar, was also integral to the process. He is a Santa Clara local and knew all of the queens. As I said, it was just the two of us, Omar and myself, making the film on location and luckily that allowed for a real intimacy and connection with the talent.”
Has documentary filmmaking always been your passion?
“I studied art and political science in college, and documentary filmmaking is perhaps a nice balance of the two. Documentaries have always been my favourite genre of film and a few years ago I was lucky enough to have worked on the Academy Award nominated documentary, How to Survive a Plague, about AIDS activism and ACT UP. That experience only further piqued my interest in queer storytelling.”
Is it true that you worked on RuPaul’s Drag Race? What’s the T there? Have you always been a drag fan?
“Yes, I was lucky enough to work on a couple of seasons of Drag Race, which was amazing! I got to work with so many talented queens. It’s been fascinating and great to watch the series’ upward trajectory. It’s become mainstream and in doing so has broken down so many social constructs and barriers. I’m lucky to have been a part of it. But, perhaps what’s even more fun is that before RuPaul’s Drag Race, I worked on Ru’s feature film, Starrbooty! with the iconic Lady Bunny and Candis Cayne. It was one of my first jobs in entertainment and Ru was very hands-on. She’s a fantastic boss.”
How did you raise the funds to complete Transformistas?
“Raising money for queer stories is really hard, period. I applied for grants and workshops and came close to securing some good funds, but didn’t. So I crowdsourced some of the money and friends were generous, which was amazing, but asking for money isn’t easy. Then I self-funded the rest of production. I worked full time during the week producing television, and then worked nights and weekends on the documentary. I was exhausted, but I had to finish the film! I was very lucky to then find a producer, Chris Panizzon, whose support was essential in finishing the project.”
Sadly some of the key transformistas we’re introduced to in the film have passed away since the shoot haven’t they?
“Yes, I was devastated to hear about Cynthia’s passing. As a person and artist, she was an inspiration and she was an integral part of this film. I felt honoured to tell her story and luckily I was able to show her the film before she passed. She loved the finished product and I’m honoured it can serve as a living memorial to her. Unfortunately, I never got to meet Omega. We had planned to create the documentary around her and she was scheduled to be our first interview, but, sadly she passed away the day before we started filming.”
What has the reaction been to the film from within Cuba’s queer community?
“Before lockdown I was able to travel back to Cuba and show the cast the film. I was especially grateful to be able to screen the film for Cynthia and Samantha, who both loved it. Telling their stories was an honour.”
What didn’t make it to the screen? Are there moments you love that didn’t make the cut?
“So much of what I filmed actually made it on the screen. However, there was some interesting content about the religion Santeria which Omar and I thought would be integral to the storyline but didn’t make it to the final cut. But, we have discussed making a new documentary focused on that content!”
What’s next for you?
“I’m currently producing TV for the Food Network, which has supported my documentary filmmaking. The last few years have been a balance of drag queens and cooking shows! My producer Omar and myself would love to turn Transformistas into a series. I am also in the early stages of developing a film around a mining community in rural America. Butch!”
By Chad Armstrong
Transformistas is part of Queer Screen’s 2021 Mardi Gras Film Festival.