I first met Eric Stanley and Chris Vargas when they came to Chicago for a viewing and panel discussion of their first film Homotopia. The event was packed to the gills and included one of the most thought-provoking public conversations about queer politics that I had been to until then. The film is a queer radical critique of the prison industrial complex and the mainstream gay movement. I recently interviewed Eric and Chris for Bitch, the well-known feminist magazine, about the sequel, Criminal Queers. Here's a brief description of Homotopia:
The 26-minute film had a simple plot but a substantive critique. Main character Yoshi hooks up with a cute stranger in a park bathroom for a hot sexual encounter, followed by a long conversation. Enamored of his new fling, Yoshi sets out to see him again, only to find the man sitting at a café table, making arrangements for his big gay wedding. Crushed at having been taken in by the very kind of gay man he despises and horrified at the thought of yet another moment of assimilationist politics taking shape, Yoshi and his friends plan a queer takeover of the impending nuptials, their conversations abounding with trenchant zingers. Walking down the streets of San Francisco, one friend wonders if gay marriage isn't sometimes justified: "What about people who get married for health benefits and stuff?" Another replies, "Why should only married people be allowed to live?"
More about Criminal Queers after the jump.
But events take a darker turn in the sequel, Criminal Queers, which takes a more somber look at the prison industrial complex. The renegades went on the run at the end of Homotopia, but only one of them, the gender non-conforming "Lucy Parsons," who is also a person of colour, has been captured and now sits in prison waiting for her trial to begin. Via an elaborate system of communications with the outside, Lucy shares her ruminations on the PIC with her friends, who are plotting her escape. As I write in Bitch, "Drawing upon the same visual repertoire as Homotopia, Criminal Queers is a mixture of satire and political critique, wrapped up in a classic prison-break narrative. The presence of perhaps the most famous prison abolitionist of our time, Angela Davis, lends weight to the film's rumination on the prison-industrial complex."
Davis appears as herself helping the queers make a run for it and the person to whom Yoshi turns for an examination of why abolition and not reform is the way to go: "...since I was in jail myself once, I do think it's important to fight for better conditions for people who happen to be on the inside. I can still remember the roaches I had to spit out when I was drinking black coffee.... The difference is: How do you think about reforms that are not going to create a better prison system that is even more entrenched in our social worlds? My answer is: Abolish the prison system."
The film also offers scathing indictments of the gay movement and its link to the PIC, as in the scenes of a city mayor named Gavin Noose (modeled on Gavin Newsom, lauded by mainstream gays for his support of gay marriage), who delivers jingoistic and yet deadly slogans in praise of the PIC: "Malcolm [X] said: 'The ballot or the bullet.' And who needs ballots or bullets when we can build more prisons?" That fact that Noose is played by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, the queer activist and author who has frequently taken critical positions on the PIC and the marriage movement, lends both irony and poignancy to the scene.
In Criminal Queers, gender is overtly constructed, with glam and drag costumes used for the burst out of prison. The critique of the PIC is interlaced with the sense that gender is what we make of it, real or constructed, but it also has material consequences for those who will not abide by the world's rules about it.
Lucy challenges the prosecuting attorney in court: "The question is not how do I defend myself but how do you, as an agent of the state, defend yourself? ... You continue to round up and imprison all of us who cannot live inside your ideas of what is 'normal.'...You continue to teach your sons that it is okay to shoot us dead when we make them Valentines or wear make up to school." Her passionate speech has little effect on the gay jury foreman who makes no bones to the rest of the jury about how he thinks the deliberations should go: "...no matter how much we might feel inclined to try to love him, he deliberately assaulted the institution of holy matrimony and that's a sin. Fortunately, it's also a crime." And then proceeds to serve ceviche, "just to make things go a little bit faster."
I talked to Chris and Eric about their work, the prison industrial complex, the relationship between queer radical film and feminism, and how they managed to shoot scenes inside an HRC shop. Here's an excerpt, which seems particularly relevant in light of the current hysteria around gay marriage:
Yasmin Nair: Criminal Queers makes deliberate connections between the mainstream gay movement and the expansion of the PIC.
Chris Vargas: We point out that Matt Foreman, the former executive director of the NGLTF, was for 10 years a prison administrator at Rikers Island--that serves as a great clue that these liberal gay agendas may be in direct opposition to the safety of the most vulnerable segment of our lgbt community, mainly poor people and people of color.
Eric Stanley: When we toured with Homotopia, people would ask us, "If gay marriage isn't the fight we should be fighting, what should we be doing?" Working toward the abolition of prisons seems to be a good start.
You can read the entire interview and watch a trailer of the film here.
If you're interested in booking Chris and Eric for a screening and discussion, you can contact them through their website. And why, yes, that is me on the poster.