Through a uniquely glamorous lens Adrian Russell Wills’, Black Divaz, reflects the incredible diversity and otherness that exists in the world
Black Divaz goes beyond the glitz, glue guns and glamour of black drag to reveal a fun, fabulous and sometimes fearful place. A sassy, intimate portrait of what it means to be an Indigenous Drag Queen today. Ahead of its World Premiere at Queer Screen: Mardi Gras Film Festival we spoke with its director, Adrian Russell Wills.
Can you tell us why you wanted to make this documentary?
I wanted to make this film to celebrate the courage it takes to live your life using all your colours. In the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, for example, there is still an incredible amount of young people taking their lives because they are afraid to reveal to their family and communities who they are within. Also, in our communities, the role models and people we are steered towards - to look up to - are often sports people, singers, and actors. So, a film like Black Divaz is vital in presenting a new role model for our communities showing we are all beautiful, special and unique, because of our spirit, not despite it.
With some old school role models spruiking homophobic and antigay vitriol, we need to stop looking up to these people who incite hate, and exclusion of others because they are different from themselves. It is so dangerous and irresponsible, it can actually effect someone’s will to live. A film like ours shows that we need to show people that it is okay to be you.
Can you share with us something that surprised you during the film’s production?
The biggest surprise during the production of the film for me was the expectation that a drag queen contest would be competitive and bitchy, and it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Was it competitive, absolutely! But what surprised me the most was the sisterhood formed between the queens over the week, and the respect they gave each other, and the respect for what each queen brought to the table. The competition was fierce but the spirit was respect.
Black Divaz is a documentary about LGBTIQ people of colour that also explores ideas sexual identity and being Aboriginal. Do you think it’s challenging to get stories this diverse funded - and what advice do you have for filmmakers thinking of taking on high-stakes documentaries like this?
I hope films like Black Divaz are funded more and more. I hope we have shown with a film like ours that it is worth taking the risk! Not that I think of such content as risky, but I know the industry does. The world is changing rapidly, audiences are watching a lot of shows out of US and Europe because they are hungry for fresh, current, forward thinking content, which challenges and that reflects the incredible diversity and otherness that exists in the world today. I think one of the biggest issues we have in this country is we don’t listen to our audiences enough, we don’t listen to the filmmakers trying to be on trend or ahead of trend, we are too safe in this country, we are too conservative and too scared to back product that represents experiences and worlds different to our own.
Black Divaz is a small but great example of backing a vision and a voice, and trusting the risk! We were heavily supported and championed by both our broadcaster and our investment partners with this project, such as Create NSW, and it makes me very humble to feel as though they are glad they backed us. As a filmmaker, this is very important to me. I’m not a take the money and run kind of filmmaker, I’m about pushing forward and into areas that do make people uncomfortable and question what they believe is the norm. My whole edict has always been to challenge audiences to think outside the box they live in. If I am not doing this, what is the point?
At the heart of Black Divaz is a social justice framework that puts the subjects at the centre of the story. Can you talk on how you will use this film to achieve social justice and what you hope it can achieve?
I push myself to make films that must add to the conversation and as I have said above, challenge audiences to venture outside their own bubble. The justice aspect for me, and films like Black Divaz, is important but hard to quantify. I can only say, by making this film I hope things get better for young people trying to explore who they are and what they really feel within, and I’m not just talking about sexuality or even gender.
One of my favourite artists and songs is Tina Arena’s Burn, because it tells us to be anything we want to be, as long as you burn, burn bright, shine hard. And I truly feel Black Divaz, and any films I am lucky enough to go on to make, will add to the conversation and challenge us to think forward; treat each other with respect and dignity because we are different from one another, not because we are all the same. So, social justice, to me is about respect. But let me say this, I also make films in the hope that they do effect some change, or force a shift creating a new and maybe different normal.
The film will be screening at the Queer Screen: Mardi Gras Film Festival this month in Sydney. How important is it for you to have your World Premiere with this audience?
It is everything for me personally, and for my wishes and dreams for this project. For me screening at Queer Screen is like I would imagine screening at Cannes is for new feature filmmakers. The Queer community is a community I am proudly a part of and they are a community that deserve to have their stories told and heard. Personally, I have wanted to begin a relationship with Queer Screen for many years, and to begin that relationship with a film like Black Divaz is everything! I couldn’t be more excited to screen Black Divaz to this audience.
Black Divaz, is a story of drag queens competing for a crown. And drag queens have more often than not been a group of people who are so often marginalised, or often used for cheap laughs. How did you ensure that this film represented them with dignity?
Dignity had nothing to do with our film! No, I’m kidding. Drag queens are my people, they are the norm to me. Not that they are the same by any means, but I grew up around transgendered queens who had no employment opportunities other than sex work. Particularly because of the time and the environment, and to be honest they were amongst the greatest role models in my life. They taught me never to apologise for who you are and what you are, and I have always been incredibly fascinated with trans male to female people, specifically. I am not sure why, it’s not a gender question for myself, but to me they are my heroes. And drag is also a form of the same attraction for me, they are my heroes!
What did the film’s fabulous subjects think about the film?
I am not sure as at this point they haven’t seen the film. They will see it for the first time at our Premiere at Queer Screen.
The film also has a phenomenal soundtrack. Can you tell us about pulling that together?
One of the smartest things we did on this film was to approach Paul Mac to compose the film, and another smart thing we did was hiring Nikki Stevens as the editor. It was important for the full vision of this film that the sound track was also bold and showcased music by black and/or LGBTQI artists. My creative collaboration with Nikki and Paul has expanded the experience for audiences. The music and the soundtrack is a tribute and truly pays honour to both of them. Special mention must be made of Level 2, incredible work, going beyond and above.
Thanks to a really strong movement in Australia and Hollywood, there is a push for more diverse stories on screen. Despite the increase in visibility, the representations of people of colour and LGBTIQ people on screens large and small has a long way to go. What do you think needs to change?
Broadcasters. In that we still make too much non-colour, non-diverse, hetero-normative content. We don’t have nearly enough content that represents the reality of experiences of this country, and to do this Broadcasters would need to shake up the establishment and listen to their audiences more. I keep hearing we need more subscriptions, we need more of this age group, more numbers. This will only happen when we understand what’s really happening out there for our audiences. Our industry needs to be browner, gayer, differing abilities, different beliefs, more diverse and differing ages. If nothing changes, nothing changes.
With Black Divaz, NITV, Screen Australia Indigenous Department and Create NSW all supported our vision and trusted the team to deliver a film that would transcend outside the norm of pageant drama and get to the heart of Black Drag in Australia.
What are you working on next?
More queer, brown, challenging projects that reflect the world I live in and the world I don’t live in.
Black Divaz screens at Queer Screen: Mardi Gras Film Festival
Wednesday 28 February 6.30pm Events Cinema George St, Sydney: http://bit.ly/2GLVqjB