[D]irector Paul Frankl was trying to finance his new film short ROXANNE when he reached out to Absolut on social media. Getting funding for new creative projects can often be tough but, luckily for Frankl, Absolut agreed to help.
ROXANNE presents the lives of Roxanne a transgender sex worker and Lilly a motherless, lost child. Shot on 35mm, the film provides a moving and powerful insight into what happens when two seemingly separate lives meet. They occupy opposite worlds but both are touched by darkness. Both seem to fulfil a need in each other for caring companionship. Their instant bond, even by the end of the short, starts to heal both of them. The short really wets the appetite for more of Lily and Roxanne, which is pleasing as Paul Frankl is planning a feature film. Roxanne is played by actor and performance artist Miss Cairo. Often performing as a drag queen in the burlesque and club circuits, Miss Cairo uses her work to provoke discussions about gender and sexuality.
The film provides a touching insight into the often-misunderstood lives of people who are transgender. Whether part of the LGBT community or not the themes of isolation, friendship, hope and acceptance are universal.
I interviewed Paul Frankl and Miss Cairo to find out more about the film.
Paul, Where did the inspiration for the film come from?
When I was younger I was friends with a transgender sex worker, and was tired of seeing depictions of sex workers (especially trans sex workers) in film and the media as drug addicts, who are out of control, and who normally end up dead.
While opportunities for trans women are changing, historically sex work was often one of the only jobs that trans people could turn to, as a way to earn a lot of money quickly (often to pay for surgeries) so I felt that it was a story that is still relevant and needed to be told. However, I didn’t want to focus on the fact that she was trans, or a sex worker. I wanted to tell a relationship story about a person who learns to connect with someone from outside of their world, and by pushing the fact that she is a trans sex worker to the background, I hoped to humanise her and make her a character that everyone can relate to.
How did Absolut become involved?
I approached the marketing team for Absolut via twitter, knowing that they had a history of supporting LGBT rights. I’d previously won Bombay Sapphire’s Imagination Series competition in 2012, so had already worked with a brand on a short, and used that experience to pitch them the idea. Thankfully they were supportive and agreed to help make the film!
Why did you choose to shoot the film on 35mm?
I think 35mm gives a visceral and beautiful quality to the film. It catches light in a way that digital never can, gives texture and grain to the image, and creates a strong atmosphere in and of itself. I think when you watch the film you can really tell that it has been shot on 35mm. We barely had to grade (colour correct) the raw footage, as with the great lighting of cinematographer Rina Yang, and the natural quality that film brings, the images were beautiful with very little modification.
Part of the key to the film was differentiating between the light and dark aspects to Roxanne’s life. We wanted to visually separate the day from the night scenes, and show the duality of her life – her real self vs. her masked self – and I believe shooting on film helped us to do this.
Paul, what drew you towards depicting someone with a fluid gender?
The fluidity really came from working with Cairo (who plays Roxanne). Cairo refuses to be categorised as either male or female, and identifies as gender fluid – sometimes feeling more male, sometimes more female. This brought a really interesting dynamic to Roxanne’s character, because we didn’t end up putting her in a box of either gender. She is just a person, with her own identity, regardless of what biological gender she is. I think this is a really important viewpoint, that needs to be seen more of in the media.
Miss Cairo, why do you feel it’s important that people of fluid gender are portrayed in films?
I think it is important that people of all different spectrums are portrayed in film. For a world, which produces a high amount of this media, the Hollywood blockbusters are dominated by white, cis gender males, rife with cultural appropriation and very minimal groundbreaking content. This makes it incredibly difficult to relate to for someone such as myself. I think before we look at more gender fluidity within films, we need to be steering trans roles away from the hurtful stereotypes, as well as breaking down the very misogynistic qualities films possess. The world isn’t ready to grasp its head around the gender fluid concept as it’s still trying to work out binary trans identity. Let’s not run before we can walk!
You identify as genderqueer and perform as a drag queen on the UK circuit. Did this help you relate to Roxanne?
Roxanne is a very lonely person, but also chooses to be alone. Living in London can be a very isolating place, so the loneliness was something I could relate to. Also as someone who suffers from depression, I also understand that I do at times enjoy and relish being left on my own, and the older I grown, the more I enjoy that space.
Initially the role was a MtF trans sex worker, but through discussions with Paul, I felt uncomfortable portraying myself as that character with those tropes. It wasn’t important to the role, and by adding those dimension, in detracted away from the human element of the character and became more about sexualisation/fetishisation of the trans body. When we started working together, I identified more as trans as the concept of gender fluidity was relatively new to me, so it helped me understand gender a little further. Through my drag work, I try to often break down the conventions of masculinity and felinity, regularly performing on the burlesque and cabaret scene, where I also explore nudity to question people perception on gender and our bodies. I am also a pro sex work activist, having experienced sex work in different forms, and creating a film, which doesn’t demonise or victimise sex work was important to me.
Paul, the character of Lily enables you to show Roxanne’s caring side, was this always an intention?
Definitely. The crux of the story is a lonely and isolated person, who is forced to let someone else into her life, therefore giving up a little bit of control, and allowing herself to care about another person.
As a child, Lily can’t look after herself, and Roxanne is forced to take some responsibility – she can no longer act as selfishly, without putting the girl at risk. I hope this is a story that everyone can relate to, as we all have baggage from our pasts that make us build up walls/guards against others, and have moments in our lives where we’re forced to bring these barriers down.
Miss Cairo, what impact do you think Lily has had on Roxanne?
Lily almost is a reflection of Roxanne and is her second chance of being able to give love. I fell that Roxanne has had quite sometime of not loving herself, she has got to the point where she needs to put this energy onto someone else before she can receive love herself. Lily disrupts Roxannes very meticulous life, releasing emotions which she has been trying to repress. Lilly makes Roxanne very reactive, and awakens her sense of instinct and nurturing capacity.
Miss Cairo, LGBT characters and films are becomingly increasingly popular. Do you think there can be further progression?
The progression would be to get them into the mainstream. When the world sees images of different kinds of people, it reduces hostility for people start seeing it as something to accept. We need films that break down stereotypes, which don’t just reduce the characters to two-dimensional forms. We need more films which have a cross selection of races, films which don’t culturally appropriate.
You are an actor as well as a performer. How do the two genres differ?
I come from a very theatrical background, having been on stage since the age of five. I’ve played around with many different art forms and disciplines and it’s really helped with my adaptability. When performing in cabaret, everything is a lot more organic, I’m someone that likes to improvise and riff off an audience. Cabaret really allows me to have freedom of expression, from creating my costumes and props, to have complete control of my concepts and process. But with acting, I get to fine tune my subtleties. I sometimes struggle in the acting world, I find it so binary and regimented and I don’t feel I have the freedom to use my body in the way I do. Everything is magnified, everything is final and it always makes me second guess my performance. Working on Roxanne was an amazing learning curb for me as it allowed me to start being able to constructively criticise my performance. I love the thought that goes behind filming, and I really enjoy lifting the character off of the page. With cabaret I can see my evolution quite quickly due to the nature of being in the moment, but with acting for screen, I can really appreciate why actors flourish later on in life, as the process isn’t so immediate – you have to rehearse, shoot, wait for processing, wait for editing, wait for the final touches, so you have a long time in between jobs to see the progression and know how to grow from it. I recently did a student film, and could immediately see a change in my performance, which was great!
What’s next for you both?
MC: Well I’m young, I have a long way ahead of me, which can be daunting, but is really refreshing to know I have so much space to grow and learn about the world. One of my more immediate projects is creating a series of cabaret shows which tackle issues on race. I have recently started up a new support network called ‘People of Cabaret’ which is for People of Colour and those that wish to be educated in other peoples experiences regarding race, and I’m trying to forge a space in which people can comfortable speak up about issues which affect them and others. I also want to focus on my one person show which tackles identity by exploring my sunny disposition, as well as releasing some innovative burlesque routines which I’m hoping will shake up the industry! I will be taking some time out of the UK next year to go and explore the world, which will be a time of development and learning and I will hopefully have the opportunity to play in some amazing places! All I can say is watch this space!
PF: Well, there’s the Roxanne feature film, which will take up a lot of time and effort! Aside from that there’s also potentially a couple more short films in the pipeline, that, like Rox, hope to give a voice to those who aren’t always heard.
The film will also be screened at
East End Film Festival (London) – 8th July
Leeds Queer Film Festival – 16-19 July
Rhode Island International Film Festival – 4 – 9 Aug
North Carolina Gay and Lesbian FF – 14-22 August
London Transgender Film Festival – 15 August