Filmmaker Emily Branham spent fifteen years following drag artist, and Drag Race’s OG next drag superstar, BeBe Zahara Benet aka Marshall Ngwa, resulting in the insightful, heartfelt, and inspiring award-winning feature documentary Being BeBe. From her early pageant days, to the high of snatching that first Drag Race crown, through the struggles of making a living as a performer and forging a music career, Emily kept her lens focused on BeBe. She takes in BeBe’s Drag Race return in All Stars 3 and captures the star’s reflection upon her own journey from the perspective of summer 2020 in Minneapolis.
As the film’s festival run continues this month with its UK premiere at BFI Flare London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival, on Sunday March 20th and Wednesday March 23rd, we take a look back at our exclusive conversations with both BeBe and Emily from last year’s Outfest LA 2021.
At the Grammy Museum’s Clive Davis Theater, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive red carpet chat with BeBe Zahara Benet on the night of Outfest’s US Documentary Centerpiece screening. During the interview BeBe reveals what it was like to look back over her life, what she hopes it reveals about her as an artist, why she felt it was important for the film to explore what life is like for LGBTQ+ folks living in Cameroon, and what she thinks of the way the Drag Race universe has expanded since she participated in the first season. While Emily Branham took time to speak with The Queer Review at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles ahead of the screening to discuss why it took so long to bring BeBe’s story to the screen and why it was ultimately worth the wait.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: BeBe, what was it like to reflect back over 15 years of your life?
BeBe Zahara Benet: “Oh my gosh, it was surreal because I had to revisit my history and my story. When I look back at it now, I’m like, ‘Did I do that? Did I go through that?!’ I had to go all the way back and see little BeBe, and I was like ‘Errrr!’ But that’s why we have the film, it gives us an opportunity to see our journey; where we began and how far we have come. Then you’re able to allow yourself to appreciate everything.”
What do you hope that the film reveals about you as an artist?
“The kind of work that goes behind being who we are. I think a lot of times people see us all dolled up with makeup and they take it for granted. It’s a very interesting journey. It’s a hard journey, but it’s a loving journey. There are so many different facets to it. I hope that when people watch the film they get to understand what it takes for us, not just me, but artists in general. You see us on stage and you’re like, ‘Whoa!’ But there’s a lot that goes into it. I hope it gives people at least a brief glimpse into what it takes for us to do what we do, which is to entertain people and create some sort of synergy with the people that come to watch us.”
Emily included some really compelling footage of what life is like for LGBTQ+ folks living in Cameroon, why do you think it was important for her to include that?
“I think it was very important to show that part because being here in America we are very privileged. In spite of the fact that we still have a lot of work to do, we’ve made leaps and bounds here in America in just being who we are. We don’t have that privilege in Africa. It’s going to take a long time to even get to where we are here and I hope that people watch the movie and get to know how privileged we are here, not just as LGBTQIA+ people, but as people who are just living our lives, because most people back at home can only dream of that.”
One point that I love in the film is when you’re about to go on Drag Race for the first time, and of course no one knows what it is yet. What do you think about the way that the Drag Race universe has expanded so much and continues to do so?
“I find it amazing because when we started the journey with Drag Race we did not know what it would be, we were just going with faith. To see how we’re now being accepted in pop culture as valuable entertainers and that we can be brands is amazing. That’s what it needs to be. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I think some people are still questioning, but at least we’ve made leaps and bounds to where we are, because we are artists. We’re legit artists.”
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Emily, congratulations on Being BeBe. When did you first encounter BeBe and did you instantly think that she would make for an interesting subject for a documentary?
Emily Branham: “I first met BeBe through my little sister. I was living in New York at the time, but my sister found an audition on a ballet school bulletin board and told me that there was this drag performer from Cameroon and she was dancing backup for her in a Minneapolis drag pageant. I was like, ‘I think I need to come out there to see what this is about.’ So I had an inkling as soon as my sister told me about BeBe, but then when I saw her perform, I was like, ‘Oh, yes, this is definitely a really great short film about a drag pageant!’ BeBe was this promising amateur in the Minneapolis scene going to her first national pageant in Dallas. So I gathered a couple friends borrowed a camera and I thought that was going be it. The pageant was great, but when I got to know BeBe more, there was a lot more there that I wanted to explore. I never thought it would take 15 years to explore it all, but I think it was worth waiting for.”
When you did approach BeBe about the idea of doing a film, and how open was she as a documentary subject, was that something that evolved?
“BeBe didn’t totally know what a documentary was when I started. I think she thought I was a volunteer videographer. So it took a while to figure out that relationship and explain what I wanted and was going for. I wouldn’t say she was the most enthusiastic documentary subject. I think if you watch the film, you get the sense of what a private person BeBe ultimately is and we really had to build trust. She had to wrap her head around why I was doing this and what it was going to be. Ultimately, she agreed that her story was important and that it needed to be told. So that was where we got on the same page with it.”
You mentioned that it was a 15 year journey, which is one of the things that makes the film really interesting, because it’s such a big portion of anybody’s life, but particularly with what BeBe has been through in hers. Why did it take so long and how did you benefit from that too?
“I never set out for it to be 15 years at all. When BeBe won Drag Race, I was like, ‘I’ve been filming for three years now, this is our ending, this is going to be great!’ But I started cutting it together at that point, right after BeBe had won the show in 2009, and it wasn’t rich enough yet. I knew BeBe’s story was deeper than that. So I was honestly kind of depressed for a while and was thinking, ‘I don’t even know what this is going to be yet, but I know it’s more than this.’ So I went back to the drawing board. We continued to film here and there, and BeBe moved to New York, which is where I lived, so we were able to film together more often.”
“The moment I realized that this was going to be a feature length movie was in 2014 when BeBe called me up and was like, ‘Look, New York is okay, but if something doesn’t change soon I’m leaving.’ I feel like the heart of the film is that one summer where BeBe’s giving it one more shot, putting on one last show, and trying to do something new with it, something more raw, and something more vulnerable. She’s seeing if it sticks and going through different explorations to do that, like an acting class that’s kind of out there. She’s trying to sort of crack that shell, get a little bit deeper, go behind the facade a little bit and coming up against why those self-protective things are there. I think that’s really interesting and tells us a little bit more about who BeBe is. Also we see it play out in scenes, which is so satisfying.”
Why did you want to take us to Cameroon in the film and to explore what LGBTQ+ life is like for folks living there?
“That wasn’t necessarily part of the plan. In the film you get a window into why it unfolded in that way. Cameroon is an inseparable part of who BeBe is. It’s more than just a catchphrase, it is her heart. So we had to film in Cameroon, it was just a question of when that was going to be and the way it unfolded was pretty magical in the end and I’m so grateful to everybody who opened up to me there.”
While you were in the process of putting the film together, All Stars season 3 happened. How did that shape the film, the fact that BeBe was going to have an international spotlight on her, because Drag Race is so different now compared to the first season isn’t it?
“Yeah, it’s such a different beast and the fact that so much time elapsed between 2009 to 2018, when she was invited to All Stars, was major. It was a huge, hopeful thing for the film, because it’s wonderful to see people have another uptick and another opportunity for people to get to know who they are. It’s a whole new generation of viewers who are watching Drag Race now, who had maybe not seen season one because it wasn’t as easily available as the other seasons for a while for a bunch of reasons.”
“BeBe’s not a person who gives up, but before the All Stars boost there was a less successful period, which we all have in our lives. I knew it’d be so much more satisfying for audiences to see somebody bounce back and really All Stars wasn’t another peak, it was another platform to keep building up from again for BeBe and I’m really excited to see that play out in real time.”
How did the pandemic effect the making of the film, because we see you on Zoom at one point with BeBe on camera, so I imagine it forced you to be quite innovative?
“There were big pushes to finish the film in 2009 and then again in 2015, but the biggest push was right before we finished. We were hoping to premiere in 2020 and the version of the film that we were submitting to festivals was good, but the pandemic was such an opportunity in a weird way to step back, and be like, ‘What is missing? What could be that magic, special something that could pull everything together more elegantly?’ We came up with the idea of doing a new interview in 2020 to reflect on the past 15 years that we’ve filmed together from the standstill of COVID in Minneapolis, where BeBe was living and where the George Floyd tragedy was affecting all of us in the country. I’m so grateful that we did have that extra year because it’s a stronger film because of it.”
Finally, is there a particular documentary or another filmmaker who you’ve been inspired or influenced by?
“Documentary does a lot of good in the world and social issue films are wonderful, but I love films that are character-driven, funny, and heartwarming. One of the early inspirations for this movie was American Movie, which is also about creativity as the subjects are trying to make their way in a creative field. I love a film like The Mole Agent, where it’s a window into real life and about endearing connections and relationships. I guess I like documentaries that aren’t so heavy all the time. Agnès Varda is a huge inspiration and she proved that documentaries can be anything, which gives one a lot of freedom in the edit room.”
By James Kleinmann
Being BeBe plays BFI Flare London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival on Sunday March 20th at 6:15pm (with an in-person Q&A with Emily Branham) and Wednesday March 23rd at 3:50pm. Head to the official BFI Flare website for more details and to purchase tickets. For more chances to see the film visit the official Being BeBe website.
Take a look at the full BFI Flare 2022 lineup.