If you had the chance to support a short film about two trans women of color whose bravery changed the course of history for LGBTQ people in the United States and globally, would you do it? Of course you would!
Happy Birthday, Marsha! tells the story of legendary best friends, Marsha “Pay it No Mind” Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and the bold everyday decisions they made that helped spark the 1969 Stonewall riots. Filmmakers Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel believe that how we tell the stories of our heroes matters, and they are drawing upon their community to fundraise for the production costs.
Reina and Sasha are wonderful, and I am so excited to have been able to ask them a few questions about the film. Take a look, and then head over to their Kickstarter page!
I wanna start by saying: this looks amazing y’all. I wanna know about the birth of this idea. When did you all decide you were making a short film about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson? How did you start working together?
Reina and I first met one another through participating in the first Trans Day of Action in 2005, where we also learned of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson. Shortly after we began collaborating on short films for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. While I was working on my first feature film, WE CAME TO SWEAT, a portrait of Brooklyn’s oldest black gay bar fighting eviction (co-directed with Kate Kunath), Reina was undertaking groundbreaking work, researching and documenting the lives of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, much of which can be viewed on her blog.
One day Reina and I got talking and decided to make a documentary together about Sylvia and Marsha. In 2012, we were awarded a fellowship with filmmaker Ira Sach’s Queer Art Mentorship and under the guidance of Ira (Keep the Lights On, Love is Strange) and Kimberly Reed (Prodigal Sons), we found ourselves developing a hybrid film and writing a script based on Reina’s extensive archival research on the lives of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson. The film we are making combines compelling archival material and documentary footage with scripted, highly stylized narrative scenes performed by actors. We like how this method of blurring fiction and non-fiction allows us to use archival documents as a point of departure to creatively re-imagine the events that took place that day. We felt that the hybrid form would also address the history of transgender people being systematically excluded and erased from historical record.
I love that you describe the film being about the everyday choices people make that can change the course of history. Can you say more about that?
While Sylvia and Marsha are certainly our heros and a source of inspiration for the work we do, we are also interested in destabilizing the very idea of a hero. We believe that we all have the power to make broader change through the everyday choices we make. For this film, we were particularly interested in investigating what was happening in the lives of Sylvia and Marsha in the hours leading up to the riots. What were they experiencing and navigating that day? What led them to be so fed up? to fight back? We wanted to show that the daily micro-aggressions that two trans women of color might experience are symbolic of larger systems of oppression like transphobia, racism, and sexism. It takes both large scale actions like the Stonewall Rebellion AND daily resistance through our everyday actions to create change.
The film takes place in June of 1969, but the issues you describe Sylvia and Marsha’s characters going through are things queer and trans folks, especially people of color, still experience today – issues of isolation, police violence, street harassment. Clearly, we’ve come a long way on some things, but have so much left to go, particularly on issues that affect trans women of color. Are y’all interested in drawing those parallels, or are you just trying to tell the stories of two women that we need to know more about?
We are absolutely interested in drawing those parallels. While this year we have seen an enormous increase in visibility of trans people (for example, Laverne Cox on the front cover of Time Magazine), the National Coalition of Anti-violence Projects also reported that this past year was the highest number of murders of trans women of color ever documented.
We are interested in showing that while there have been many advances in transgender rights, trans women and gender non-conforming people of color are still navigating the same violence, harassment, and isolation that Sylvia and Marsha and other trans women of their time were dealing with.
Happy Birthday, Marsha! continues to increase visibility by focusing on historical transgender figures, and their integral role in the modern LGBT rights movement. Transphobia, racism and sexism operate through historical erasure of rich legacies of trans activism. As cultural workers, we are working to transform oppression through art, specifically creating a film to address cultural violence.
What’s your target release date? I want to watch this film so bad!
Anything else y’all wanna tell us about what to expect?
We also have a feature screenplay based on Sylvia and Marsha titled Star People are Beautiful People. If Happy Birthday, Marsha! is well-received, we hope to secure funding to produce and release our feature film shortly after!
The history of trans women of color’s pivotal role in today’s LGBT movements has been systemically erased, and that needs to end. Reina and Sasha have just a few days to raise over $5,000 - donate if you are able, or share widely. Let’s get this film made y’all!
Verónica is so hype about this short film!