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Sundance Afterglow: Rhys Ernst and the Wilds of Trans Filmmaking
Posted: 05/11/2012 1:06 pm
LOS ANGELES, Ca. -- Rhys Ernst's films are a tactile fusion of art and
queer theory with tones of subtle surreality that nudge at gender
identity and real life fabulousness. Ernst's recent short film The
Thing, about a woman, a transgender man, and their cat en route to a
mysterious roadside attraction, was invited to internationally
premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January.
Still basking in the Sundance afterglow, Ernst has now begun work on a
short film called She Gone Rogue with celebrated artist Zackary
Drucker. Ernst is also directing another upcoming short based on a
segment of the documentary Forever's Gonna Start Tonight, about
legendary trans performer Vicki Marlane.
"I don't want to be sensationalist or reductive of trans stories in my
filmmaking," said Ernst in an interview with me. "I choose to downplay
identity issues and focus more on the broader human struggle -- larger
than life characters in often close-to normal life situations."
Ernst, whose short with Drucker will debut at the first Los Angeles
biennial, Made in L.A. 2012, organized by the Hammer Museum
incollaboration with LAXART, will have a shot at the Mohn Prize
alongside Drucker, a new $100,000 award that will be given to a Los
Angeles artist participating in the biennial. The winner will be
chosen by the public after a jury of art experts narrows the choice to
five finalists. Ernst and Drucker are two of 60 artists highlighted in
the biennial, held June 2-Sept. 2 at the Hammer Museum in L.A.
"The film stars Zackary, Vaginal Davis, Holly Woodlawn and Flawless
Sabrina," he said. "It features some amazing trans archetypes from
over the years in a wacky and surreal narrative. We co-wrote it,
produced it, and I directed it. We are really excited."
As for showing films in a biennial, Ernst happily has one foot in the
traditional film industry while still producing creative art-based
work. With the hope of bringing transgressive representation into the
mainstream fold, Ernst recently applied for an HBO directing
"I want to make more of these weird, outsider films," he said, "but I
also want to be a go-to director for more mainstream work that
involves gender identity."
As such, Ernst is beginning work on a yet untitled short film based on
Forever's Gonna Start Tonight, the documentary on San Francisco drag
icon Vicki Marlane. Michelle Lawler, who directed the documentary,
wrote the short, and will serve as cinematographer while Ernst
directs. The film depicts an early chapter of Ms. Marlane's life, when
she was arrested for wearing "women's" clothing, escaped men's prison,
threw on a smuggled dress, and hitchhiked to freedom. She passed away
last year after performing for the last time on stage at 75 years old.
"With a lot of my work, I want to engender an empathetic reaction from
a group of people who might never have heard a story like this
before," he said.
Rhys Ernst on the set of "The Thing"
Ernst's work is extremely personal, tactile and raw. His film The
Thing featured a "traditional" cinematic boy-girl narrative.
"But it was actually this transgressive story," he said. "Really, I am
always trying figure out different ways of making art out of this
ever-evolving dialogue with myself about the politics of gender
Ernst also described a need on his part to investigate societal
constructions of masculinity within his films.
"I think (masculinity) is really under-studied in our culture," he
said. "It's like how whiteness is considered a norm that doesn't need
to be inspected while everything else (around masculinity and
whiteness) is considered other."
Post-Sundance, Ernst's The Thing is enjoying an extended life, and
will show at numerous film festivals over the next few years, the
direct result of a "big note" debut at an internationally acclaimed
"It's starting its festival life," said Ernst. "The slow trickle out
that happens after Sundance is an amazing thing." Ernst's personal
path to film started with a deep interest in art-making. "I was a
musician, multi-instrumentalist, I did video art, photography, and was
really invested in queer theory, but I didn't know how to tie all
those things together," he said.
Ernst saw what seemed like disparate mediums gel as soon as he began
making movies. "I realized, 'oh I can score this film, write it,
animate it, and tell really personal stories with it,'" he said.
"That's what I want."
Visit the She Gone Rogue Kickstarter page
This post was originally published on Wild Gender
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