This Friday, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Champaign-Urbana is screening the film Riot Acts: Flaunting Gender Deviance in Music Performance, a "'trans-fabulous' rockumentary representing the multi-dimensional lives of transgender and gender variant musicians" (Outcast Films). The film's creators — Simon Strikeback and Madsen Minax — are attending the screening, which is free and open to the public.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Riot Acts' producer, Simon Strikeback.
Smile Politely: I actually had not heard of your film until I saw your press release for the screening, so I was delighted to learn about it, and appreciate you agreeing to an interview.
Simon Strikeback: Absolutely.
SP: You and Madsen are from Chicago, is that right?
SP: Have you both lived in Chicago your whole life?
Strikeback: No, I'm from Chicago originally, and Madsen is from Michigan.
SP: And how did you get together?
Strikeback: We met through a mutual friend, around six or seven years ago.
SP: And you're in a band together called Actor Slash Model, correct?
Strikeback: Yes, as soon as we became friends we discovered that we both love music, and so we started playing music together just casually, like getting together and playing music. It was spontaneous like, ‘Oh I know this song; I know that song,' and we decided we wanted to be in a band together.
SP: Is it just the two of you? And what kind of music do you play?
Strikeback: It's just the two of us, and we play mostly bluegrass.
SP/Blue Grass fan (all excited): Will you be playing at the screening on Friday?!
Strikeback (laughing): No, no we won't be.
SP (dejected): Have you ever played in Champaign?
Strikeback: We did. We've screened this movie before at the university. And that was part of a big night of entertainment, so we both played and showed the film.
SP (still dejected): I wish I'd known about that. I'm not very knowledgeable about bluegrass, but I enjoy it a lot. Always loved it.
OK, enough about me. Both you and Madsen are producers of Riot Acts, correct?
Strikeback: I'm the producer and Madsen's the director, and we'll both be at the screening on Friday.
SP: And you created this film yourselves, funded it on your own?
Strikeback: We received one private arts grant and one Chicago arts grant ― it's funded by an Illinois state agency. We also received an arts grant from the City of Urbana. It's the grant that's funding us to be here on Friday. But otherwise, this was a grassroots endeavor. We held keg parties, benefit concerts, anything we could do to raise money.
SP: For those who have not heard of it, can you tell us about the film?
Strikeback: It is a rockumentary — meaning a documentary about rock music. It's not just about music, but there is rock and roll in it. It's a documentary about transgender and gender variant musicians in the U.S. It's mostly interviews and live footage from shows that we've both played in or attended.
Strikeback (cont.): People touch on a lot of different issues, mostly about performance on stage and what it is to be a musician and to be an artist. You hear a lot about people's artistic process and their relationship with their audience and their politics. And you don't hear any sad, isolationist stories about trans people, like the stuff that you get in the general media, which tends to focus on topics like, ‘Trans people are really sad, really lonely. Trans people have an unhealthy sexuality.' Our movie says something else. We meet people where they're at about their art. Anything else that comes out of it is through the lens of being a musician and not like this pathologized identity. It's fun!
SP: I read an interview where you said, ‘We made a film about people, not tragedy.' And you used the examples of The Crying Game and Trans America. I've not seen either of those films, but I've seen Boys Don't Cry and A Girl Like Me. Until I read what you said, and until I heard about this film, I'd not thought about this. It's true; stories about transgender people tend to be either sensationalized or about a horrific murder. Always about the trials and tribulations. And until you said this, I'd never thought about it. I'm ashamed to say this; I should know better, but it's true what you've said.
Is that why you decided to make this film? Or was it more due to your music?
Strikeback: I think probably the latter. Madsen and I, we were in a band, and we decided that we wanted to go on tour and play with other trans musicians, because we're trans musician. And we thought, ‘Wouldn't that be cool? A bunch of different bands on the same stage.' And we couldn't think of anybody; we couldn't think of anyone we could play with, even in different towns. And so we decided to do some research and find the bands, and I think that we got really excited about this idea of finding all of these trans musicians and bringing them together at these shows and documenting things along the way, and then do interviews... it just unrolled really naturally, given our love for music and our desire to travel. Madsen is a filmmaker and I had all of these connections through my travels and political organizing. This was very organic, how it came together.
SP (clueless): This could be a festival! You could put it on once a year.
Strikeback: You mean like a Trans film festival?
SP: A music festival. You could put it on once a year. A festival for trans musicians!
Strikeback (laughing): There are a lot of them, you know. There are a lot of festivals. San Francisco has one. Seattle has one. There's one coming up in Philly. There is a ton of trans organizing.
SP (slowly realizing she knows nothing about anything): Actual music festivals? Or only trans film?
Strikeback: Yeah. There's this event called the Tranny Road Show. I know it's come to Champaign before. It's trans musicians and performers that travel on tour, and they've come through a bunch of times.
SP: Is Trans Fusions a part of that?
Strikeback: Yes, but that's another festival, not part of the Tranny Road Show.
SP (mortified at own ignorance, changing subject): So, the musicians who participated in this film weren't people that you already knew?
Strikeback: No, we found them through word of mouth, MySpace, and we even got one band off of Craig's List. Mostly word of mouth, though, people telling us about bands they knew.
SP: And you've submitted this to a lot of film festivals. What's the feedback been like?
Strikeback: We've had lots of positive feedback. People have been really excited about it. I think it's because we're not outside of the community. The audience welcomes us because we're part of the community that we're filming. Whether gay, trans, or straight, that resonates with them.
Date: Friday, Jan. 28, 2011
Doors: 6:30 p.m.; Film: 7:00 p.m.
Location: Unitarian Universalist Church in Urbana-Champaign
309 W. Green Street
Urbana, IL 61801