Exclusive Interview: Kristen Lovell & Zackary Drucker reclaim the history of New York’s transgender sex workers with Sundance award-winning The Stroll

Following its award-winning world premiere at Sundance in January, directors Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s outstanding feature The Stroll went on to open London’s prestigious LGBTQ+ film festival BFI Flare, and last week the filmmakers were recognized with the John Schlesinger Award for Best Director of a Documentary at the Provincetown International Film Festival. Rich, nuanced, and powerfully moving, the film tells the collective history of the transgender women of colour (including Lovell herself) who worked “the stroll”—a section of 14th Street in Lower Manhattan’s now hyper-gentrified Meatpacking District—from the 1970s until the early 2000s, and highlights the intrinsic role that trans sex workers have played in the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Read our ★★★★★ review from Sundance.

Tabytha Gonzalez, Kristen Lovell, Zackary Drucker, and Cecilia Gentili at NewFest and Rooftop Films’ outdoor screening of The Stroll in the Meatpacking District, June 5th, 2023. Photo credit: Mettie Ostrowski.

Earlier this month, a special screening of The Stroll—which debuts on HBO/Max on Wednesday, June 21st—saw the film play outdoors on the cobblestones of the Meatpacking District, in the heart of the neighborhood the documentary explores, with the filmmakers and many of the subjects present. The morning after the event, hosted by NewFest, Rooftop Films, and The Meatpacking District, Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about the experience of reclaiming that space for the screening and collaborating to excavate trans history.

NewFest and Rooftop Films’ outdoor screening of The Stroll in the Meatpacking District, June 5th, 2023. Photo credit: Mettie Ostrowski.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Last night was an unforgettable experience, watching the film for a second time on the streets the Meatpacking District. What it was like for you?

Kristen Lovell: “It was amazing. It was surreal. It was a full circle moment in terms of having the ability to reclaim a neighborhood that worked so hard to discard us. Even taking up space on that very plaza where many girls have stood was a powerful thing. It was an emotional evening, it really was. I’m so glad that I got to witness and experience and be a part of it. I’m so happy that I’m seeing the efforts that the Meatpacking District is now putting in to acknowledge this history and the stories. I’m still blown away and trying to process everything that went down last night. I’m seeing the overwhelming responses now from the community and it’s beautiful. I’m so proud.”

Zackary Drucker: “Oh, my God, what a gift. I’m so overwhelmed. It was a critical mass that we could not have anticipated. I couldn’t even comprehend what was happening. We had really wanted to film some kind of takeover of the neighborhood for the documentary, but we realized late in the edit that we didn’t need that footage because we already had plenty of great material and the film could stand on its own without it. So the fact that we were able to create a situation of screening the film there and having that neighborhood takeover was a dream. I feel like I’m on cloud ten!”

A still from The Stroll by Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Taking you back, I’d love to get an insight into the collaboration between you and how that worked creatively and practically as you went about crafting the film.

Zackary: “We were truly in the trenches. We started working on a development reel back in January 2021. HBO was our partner from the beginning. They were full throttle onboard with The Stroll and our vision. We jumped into making the film by the Spring of 2021. So it’s been two years of my life, but 20 years of Kristen’s life.”

Kristen: “It was a long time coming. As a young person I came to the city trying to find myself and I was living in a homeless shelter and engaged in survival sex work. Back then that was our only means of survival in a society that tried to erase us and eradicate our very existence. To be a part of this change and the shifts of how society is now interacting and dealing with the issue of transness is amazing to see. It’s like when Obama became President. You would never have thought that we would see a Black President. In the same way, I never could have imagined in those years as a young person that life would be like this now. Back in those days, when I was sleeping in a movie theater, I could never have imagined that I would become an award-winning director. It’s surreal and crazy to me, but I’m taking it in my stride, day by day, and I am completely humbled and honored by all of the recognition for the film. It’s an amazing experience. I cry myself to sleep every night. I can’t believe that this is my life right now and that this story is out there. The positive reviews are so overwhelming and it just makes me so proud and happy.”

All of the acclaim is very much deserved. I got even more out of it the second time.

Zackary: “That’s great to hear. Ideally, you make a film with enough layers to sustain multiple views.”

The Stroll. Director Kristen Lovell and subjects Stefanie and Elizabeth. Courtesy of HBO.

How did you decide who you were going to speak to? Kristen, were you still in touch with some of the women who you interview in the film?

Kristen: “I was. It was a struggle at first, even before HBO came on board, when I was thinking about the prospect of doing a documentary. We had made a Facebook group about the Stroll 10 years ago and lots of girls were sharing images and memories from the day along with other people who were Stroll adjacent. It was so powerful and beautiful that after all these years we were all friends on Facebook and we knew what was going on in each other’s lives.”

“When I started to reach out, I wanted to make sure that it was to the people who were a part of my journey, like Cashmere and Elizabeth, who were in the shelter with me. We were going out every night together engaging in survival sex work. As queer and trans people, we were being discriminated against by the other males and females in the shelter system, we were the outcasts and the black sheep. We weren’t even supposed to be going out at night, but we weren’t getting job opportunities at the time, like some of the other young people there. I would work as an intern at a nonprofit, but meanwhile maintaining sex work to pay the rent. So it was a juggle and they made it as difficult as possible, but we persevered through all that. The shelter was right around the corner from the Stroll and I ended up staying in that living situation for a number of years as a trans woman. I transition there.”

Matt Wolf, Ceyenne Doroshow, Mel Mel Sukekawa Mooring, Kristen Lovell, Sara Kinney, Zackary Drucker, Carey, Olivia Streisand, Cashmere, Tabytha attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “The Stroll” Premiere at Prospector Square Theatre on January 23, 2023 in Park City, Utah. Photo by Jim Bennett/Getty Images.

“A lot of people that were apprehensive or didn’t want to share their stories because they wanted to forget that it had happened, but many people did want to talk. I tried to make sure that those who reached out to me first were a part of the process. That comes with a responsibility because they entrusted me with their story and there were expectations involved in terms of how the story is being told or what was shared in the film. I have to tell the girls who feel a little slighted because they didn’t have longer interviews in the finished film that there is only so much story that we can tell in an hour and 30 minutes. You have to understand that this is only a beginning, this is not the be-all and end-all of the stories. They don’t really understand that it’s a juggle. It’s not that I’m trying to slight you or that you weren’t good enough to amplify a certain segment of the film, but there was so much to cover. So I couldn’t focus on who were the realest girls for instance. There were the political implications of the time too that we needed to include, especially in today’s climate.”

“I was told that you usually have up to seven people in a documentary, and we interviewed more than 20. I could make a whole documentary about on certain segments. We could make an entire film about homelessness and being trans. The incarceration is a whole other story within itself too, but we had to make do with the time that we had.”

Zackary: “It easily could have been a series, there was enough material. There were such compelling stories in each interview that we could not include. It was fascinating how many people were willing to talk to us in the end, and oftentimes that would lead us to other subjects. People were constantly emerging throughout the making of the film. Even as we were finishing it, there were still people reaching out to offer to be a part of it.”

Brooklyn Liberation March 2020. Photo credit: Cole Witter.
Brooklyn Liberation March 2020. Photo credit: Cole Witter.

Could you talk about the importance of showing the through line of activism driven by trans women with experience of sex work that we see from Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera with STAR up until the present day with with Ceyenne Doroshow. It’s an incredibly moving moment in the film when we see footage of Ceyenne speaking at the Brooklyn liberation March in 2020.

Kristen: “When I first saw that clip I was blown away by the fact that so many people came out and were chanting ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’. I have lived in New York City all of my life and I’ve been to many trans-related organizing events and I have never seen a crowd come out like that before. Our Trans Day of Action events are usually large, but that day in Brooklyn was one of the largest events ever, where so many people were there uplifting and supporting trans people. That scene is so epic. I’ve never seen Ceyenne like that before and it was so beautiful. When it came across my screen, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we have to include this’.”

The Stroll. Photo credit: Erik McGregor.

“I was so proud of how we’ve evolved over the years from being on those street corners, from my work at Sylvia’s Place for a decade, to all of the community people and activists from back in the day, before my time. I never could have imagined that it would transpire in this way. I’m still trying to process where we’re at now as a community. There are lots of stories that have been lost through the sands of time and I’m trying to unearth them and show how important it is to find them and speak on them and present them to the world so that trans people coming up can see them. Back when we didn’t have access to the Internet, I had to really search for history, like finding Weegee’s books and images of trans people in the back of a paddy wagon or looking at old clips of Marsha and Sylvia. There’s just so much there that has been swept away and it’s important to unearth it and make sure that the history of those cobblestones is known.”

Trans Latinx March, July 2018. Courtesy of HBO.

In Ceyenne’s speech at the Brooklyn Liberation rally, she talked unapologetically about her history as a sex worker, and it feels like you want to do something similar with The Stroll in showing that sex work has been an intrinsic part of trans survival and the LGBTQ+ rights movement and shouldn’t be hidden or forgotten about.

Zackary: “Trans people through time have survived in underground economies. For centuries, for millennia, people who were outside of gender norms, were only able to survive as sex workers and petty criminals and thieves. Then, I think the trans sex worker became so ubiquitous as a trope in narrative film and television that when the trans tipping point happened there was a real effort to expand ideas of who trans people could be. But in doing so, the history of sex work in our community was really swept under the rug as a move towards respectability. It’s incredible to witness the future that we’re in today, where there’s more room for complexity and more room for the truth. We’re not beholden to a different standard than anyone else. As a community we get to show up as our full selves.”

Archive image of the stroll in the 1980s. Courtesy of HBO

Talking about the archive material, what was your approach to using it and did it feel like you were reclaiming it in some ways because most of it was not shot by trans people and has rarely, if ever, been used in films made by trans people?

Zackary: “Absolutely.”

Kristen: “I knew it was there and I was deeply looking for stuff. I must thank our archival producer, Olivia Streisand, who went and ran with it and started giving us things that I hadn’t seen before. That was really powerful. Me and Zackary would kiki about how we were taking back this stuff and claiming it as our own. It’s our trans history. We’ve had a few run-ins with people who didn’t want to share the history, they were cis people who were trying to capitalize off the narrative of trans people. We were like, ‘this is our history and this is why this film has been made, because we’re tired of you taking our stories and making them what you want them to be with no real insight from us’. So it is definitely empowering to be able to see all the archival footage that we have, to reclaim those narratives, and put them in the annals of real trans history told by trans people.”

Zackary: “We got some noes too. We were denied from using some things. We suspect that it may have had something to do with us being trans creators actually. This is a well-represented time and place because there were so many artists and photographers living in the Meatpacking District and there’s an expansive record of trans life in the neighborhood. One of the most exciting things about working in documentary is finding and locating oneself in a history that is otherwise receding and slipping through your fingers.”

By James Kleinmann

Debuts on HBO Wednesday June 21st at 9pm ET/PT. Stream on Max.

The Stroll | Official Trailer | HBO
The Stroll | Official Poster | HBO

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