Review: 'Transformistas' Captures Joy, Elation

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 15, 2021


Despite its setting of poverty and oppression, there is a real sense of joy and elation in the lives of the Cuban drag queens captured in the new documentary "Transformistas" (the local term for drag).

Cuba has always held conflicting and ambiguous views on homosexuality. In 1981, the Ministry of Culture stated in a publication entitled "In Defense of Love" that homosexuality is a variant of human sexuality. They argued that homophobic bigotry was an unacceptable attitude inherited by the revolution, and that all sanctions against gays should be opposed.

Yet, in reality, homophobia was rampant and probably encouraged by the Soviet Union, who bankrolled the country until its own collapse in the 1990s. Many LGBTQ people chose to escape when and if they could. Even now, with Mariel Castro, the daughter of President Raúl Castro, spearheading change with her Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana, many in the country's LGBTQ community have to lead restricted or closeted lives for their own safety.

This is so much the case that Filmmaker Chad Hahne shot the entire film on his iPhone on the down low, without permission from the Cuban regime.

The story is set in the inland city of Santa Clara where, in 1992, a small group of drag queens defied the government and set up weekly performances in a gay bar/community space called El Mejunje (The Mixture). They called themselves El Futuro (The Future).

The space was founded by Ramón Silverio, an impoverished local man who had always dreamed of a place where artists, rock musicians, drag performers, and intellectuals of all kinds could gather and find acceptance. It was set amidst the trees of a ruined hotel's courtyard.

This ragged, makeshift theater was the setting for the drag queens who discovered both their art and fame. Most of them were penniless, but they used their ingenuity in making their costumes and discovered alternatives for makeup.

They could survive well on their dollar tips in a culture where, even now, a factory job just pays $13 a month.

One performer, Samantha, achieved such star status that even though he was locked away in one of the isolated state sanitariums where the authorities banished everyone with HIV, he was allowed out (under escort) to perform once a week. It seems like another contradiction in the regime's attitude towards gay men.

Hanhe's film includes some glorious archival footage of the club's early days, which he mixes with some talking head interviews featuring some of the performers. There are evidently more drag queens in this small town than in Havana itself, so even getting a spot to play at the club is tough.

Younger transformistas have to rely on an invitation to participate from one of the older queens, which are rare and so can be problematic. This new generation of performers have moved on from the traditional lip syncing acts to old-school Cuban/Spanish divas, and it's sad that they lack the opportunities to perform.

There is a downside to being on the down low in Cuba, with all its restrictions. Cosmetic surgery is banned, so when performers like Omega decide to do illegal back-street gender realignment surgery, the results, as in her case, can be fatal.

Despite all the restrictions, the homophobia, the poverty, and the shabby living conditions, Hanhe captures the sheer joy the queens get from performing, and also their remarkable optimism. It's quite a revelation and makes us feel somehow connected to them, even though we may not always be able to completely understand why they are so proud to be Cubans under these circumstances.

This fascinating documentary makes a valuable contribution to our LGBTQ history by highlighting this remarkable community.

Playing at the Seattle Queer Film Festival

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.