Russian Drag Queens In The Spotlight In Berlin

Image from JOLLY FELLOWS

The  Panorama section of the Berlin International Film Festival, affectionately called the Berlinale, has always been devoted to stories about people on the edge. The program strand, which was founded by legendary archivist and distributor Manfred Salzgeber and continues under the exquisite taste of current director Wieland Speck, is also home to the gay and lesbian films that will inevitably cause a stir and make their mark at gay film festivals around the world.

It could be said that the Panorama has a soft spot for drag queens and its continued fascination with gender revolutionaries continues this year, with the world premiere of the section opener on Thursday night.  JOLLY FELLOWS by Russian director Felix Mikhailov offers the glitter of Rosa, Lusya, Gelya, Lara and Fira, five Moscow transvestites who are the last word in glamour and gender politics.

The five bigger-than-life personalities are profiled through the eyes of a journalist who has come to interview them for a magazine. Rosa’s real name is Robert. He is the club’s owner – a fortyish, ex-army man who was once married and fathered a child. His marriage broke up when his wife had to be admitted to a psychiatric home. He hasn’t seen or heard from her in eleven years – but then she walks into his club.

Lusya grew up as Dmitri in a tiny village in the sticks. He’d always dreamed of making it big in Moscow but first had to eke out a living doing all manner of jobs before discovering his talent as a dancer and performer. But now he longs to return to a simple life in the country.

Gelya was still known as Gennady when he once wrote a letter to Madonna at the age of eight. His letter was never answered. When he was ten his mother sent him to dancing school – for which he was mercilessly teased at school and called ‘girl’. Gennady’s mother was a seamstress. He later took great pleasure in taking his revenge by climbing into her gowns and using them to drive the worst of his deriders out of their minds at a party.

Lara began performing as a transvestite in the seventies. One of the members of the audience was a Communist functionary, who, it transpired, was secretly a bird of the same feather. As we see these distinct personalities find their own unique ways in the world, the film becomes not just a polemic for tolerance but a remarkable study of how prolific and varied men and women can be, especially when the line that seperates them is understood to be porous rather than solid. Brava, ladies…….

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