Sundance Afterglow: Rhys Ernst and the Wilds of Trans Filmmaking

LOS ANGELES, Ca. -- Rhys Ernst's films are a tactile fusion of art and queer theory with tones of subtle surreality that nudge at gender identity and real life fabulousness. Ernst's recent short film The Thing, about a woman, a transgender man, and their cat en route to a mysterious roadside attraction, was invited to internationally premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January.

Still basking in the Sundance afterglow, Ernst has now begun work on a short film called She Gone Rogue with celebrated artist Zackary Drucker. Ernst is also directing another upcoming short based on a segment of the documentary Forever's Gonna Start Tonight, about legendary trans performer Vicki Marlane.

"I don't want to be sensationalist or reductive of trans stories in my filmmaking," said Ernst in an interview with me. "I choose to downplay identity issues and focus more on the broader human struggle -- larger than life characters in often close-to normal life situations."

Ernst, whose short with Drucker will debut at the first Los Angeles biennial, Made in L.A. 2012, organized by the Hammer Museum incollaboration with LAXART, will have a shot at the Mohn Prize alongside Drucker, a new $100,000 award that will be given to a Los Angeles artist participating in the biennial. The winner will be chosen by the public after a jury of art experts narrows the choice to five finalists. Ernst and Drucker are two of 60 artists highlighted in the biennial, held June 2-Sept. 2 at the Hammer Museum in L.A.

"The film stars Zackary, Vaginal Davis, Holly Woodlawn and Flawless Sabrina," he said. "It features some amazing trans archetypes from over the years in a wacky and surreal narrative. We co-wrote it, produced it, and I directed it. We are really excited."

As for showing films in a biennial, Ernst happily has one foot in the traditional film industry while still producing creative art-based work. With the hope of bringing transgressive representation into the mainstream fold, Ernst recently applied for an HBO directing fellowship.

"I want to make more of these weird, outsider films," he said, "but I also want to be a go-to director for more mainstream work that involves gender identity."

As such, Ernst is beginning work on a yet untitled short film based on Forever's Gonna Start Tonight, the documentary on San Francisco drag icon Vicki Marlane. Michelle Lawler, who directed the documentary, wrote the short, and will serve as cinematographer while Ernst directs. The film depicts an early chapter of Ms. Marlane's life, when she was arrested for wearing "women's" clothing, escaped men's prison, threw on a smuggled dress, and hitchhiked to freedom. She passed away last year after performing for the last time on stage at 75 years old.

"With a lot of my work, I want to engender an empathetic reaction from a group of people who might never have heard a story like this before," he said.

Ernst's work is extremely personal, tactile and raw. His film The Thing featured a "traditional" cinematic boy-girl narrative.

"But it was actually this transgressive story," he said. "Really, I am always trying figure out different ways of making art out of this ever-evolving dialogue with myself about the politics of gender identity."

Ernst also described a need on his part to investigate societal constructions of masculinity within his films.

"I think (masculinity) is really under-studied in our culture," he said. "It's like how whiteness is considered a norm that doesn't need to be inspected while everything else (around masculinity and whiteness) is considered other."

Post-Sundance, Ernst's The Thing is enjoying an extended life, and will show at numerous film festivals over the next few years, the direct result of a "big note" debut at an internationally acclaimed film fest.

"It's starting its festival life," said Ernst. "The slow trickle out that happens after Sundance is an amazing thing." Ernst's personal path to film started with a deep interest in art-making. "I was a musician, multi-instrumentalist, I did video art, photography, and was really invested in queer theory, but I didn't know how to tie all those things together," he said.

Ernst saw what seemed like disparate mediums gel as soon as he began making movies. "I realized, 'oh I can score this film, write it, animate it, and tell really personal stories with it,'" he said. "That's what I want."

Visit the She Gone Rogue Kickstarter page.

This post was originally published on Wild Gender.