Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel

Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel talk about their film Happy Birthday, Marsha!

Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel, Happy Birthday, Marsha!, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 14 minutes, 24 seconds.

Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel’s short film Happy Birthday, Marsha! (2018) is a moving celebration and evocation of trans activist and artist Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, set on the eve of the Stonewall riots in 1969. Tourmaline and Wortzel bring archival intimacies and a deep sense of care to the project of representing Johnson’s life and legacy, resulting in a remarkable fifteen-minute film that ranges in feeling from soaring uplift to deep loss. Created through extensive community collaboration, the film features lush cinematography by Arthur Jafa, an expressive score by Geo Wyeth, and star turn performances by Mya Taylor as Johnson and by queer New York City stalwarts Jay Toole, Jimmy Camicia, and Egyptt LaBeija, among many others. After premiering at Outfest Fusion in Los Angeles earlier this month, the film will make its European premiere at the British Film Institute London Film Festival on March 22, 23, and 24, 2018.

MARSHA P. JOHNSON was a black trans woman. She was an activist, part of a group called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and a kind of political theorist. She was associated with the anti-policing Stonewall riots. She was a performance artist in a downtown theater troupe called the Hot Peaches. She was a fixture and icon in the downtown scene and the queer, trans, and gender nonconforming landscape of New York City up until 1992, when she was found dead in the Hudson River.

A birthday is all about putting the focus on someone, and depicting Marsha’s birthday felt like an intentional choice for us: Happy Birthday, Marsha! is about celebrating Marsha. Her birthday wound up being this beautiful metaphor; so many people talk about Stonewall as the birth of the gay liberation movement, and in a way, we wanted to trouble that, because there have always been moments of disruption, rupture, riots, and fighting back. Following Stonewall, Marsha, Sylvia Rivera, and their friends occupied a building at NYU in 1970, after the university refused to allow a queer dance to take place, and that’s when they formed Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

We initially thought Marsha’s birthday was on the date of the Stonewall riots, which would’ve made her a Cancer. We are both Cancers, and Sylvia Rivera was a Cancer. But then we came across Marsha’s birth certificate through Randy Wicker and found out that her birthday was actually on August 24. That was a real reorientation. Marsha was a Virgo, and they are all about everyday care, which relates well to how Marsha lived. She was consistently a caretaker. She was really there for her people.

There are reasons—anti-black racism, transphobia—why a lot of people, up until we started this work, hadn’t heard of Marsha. Isolation and historical erasure separate us from a past, from a legacy and a lineage. We were conscientious about making a work about somebody that would be built off of archival research and traces, without reproducing the violent, discerning system of archives. Archives aren’t neutral places. Having an imaginary realm allowed us to be freed from a lot of trouble or conflict. The whole process was not about trying to tell some strict, factual story. It was about using the material to inspire us, as a departure point that would allow us to reimagine the events. Our work is hybrid—we use documentary techniques to create a narrative experimental story. An impulse we’re both following is finding these absences and gaps in the historical record. We’re not so much interested in correcting and filling them, as we are in creating entirely new historical documents that are looking to the past in order to imagine what other possibilities could be.

Now that the film is finished, we just want people to see it. A priority for us is making sure that it’s screened in accessible spaces, and freely. We’ve also thought about bringing together the amazing scenes that got cut from the film, as well as the archival material, and having a tribute exhibition to Marsha, where we would invite people who were part of the production and who are currently making work in conversation with Marsha’s legacy of art and activism to add to the show. There’s also an idea of it being a proof of concept: Could it be a series? Could it be a feature?

Excerpts from an interview with Sasha Wortzel and Tourmaline.

The way respectability politics plays out in Marsha’s case is that a lot of times we don’t hear that she had disabilities, that sometimes she lived on the streets, that she was HIV-positive, that she did sex work, that she organized in jails and prisons. Often when we put a person on a pedestal by mythologizing them, their lived realities that can’t be assimilated into a mainstream narrative get erased. We’re invested in an intervention in the smoothed-over, respectable trans narrative that’s happening right now.

In Happy Birthday, Marsha!, we have two Marshas, who have similarities but also kind of clash with each other. We start with archival footage of Marsha from 1991, a year before she died. She becomes the narrator as she welcomes us to experience this world we’re about to enter, looking back at the past in 1969, from a future that’s already a past in 1991 for the viewer. And then we’re with Mya Taylor, who is performing as Marsha before and during the Stonewall riots in 1969. As the film progresses, Marsha is being channeled more and more to the point where at the moment when Mya is performing a poem that is sort of a wake up call, Marsha from 1991 pushes through, and and the two Marshas share the screen, and blur.

When we think about disability, impairment, and psychiatric illness, we tend to think in an ableist way that instability and incoherence are deficits, a form of lack. This film asks, “What if those things are actually a form of surplus?” This is a framework emphasized by Park McArthur and Constantina Zavitsanos in their performance It’s Sorta Like a Big Hug. We represent two different time periods, with high-production-value shots recreating 1969 and low-resolution VHS archival material from the early 1990s, which are edited really beautifully but often are not completely coherent. There’s a kind of inconsistency in having two different Marshas. We are offering that as a form of disabled beauty, an aesthetic of movie magic that pushes back against an idea that you have to keep it all together. Because we know that Marsha didn’t have it all together a lot of the time, and actually that was a part of her beauty. You don’t have to have it all together to have tremendous impact on the world. In part, what we learn from Marsha is that not having it all together can be its own form of beauty and power.