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Queering the Frame: Close-Up on “Casa Roshell”

A documentary-fiction hybrid about a Mexico City transvestite club is revolutionary in its demand for patience and respect for drag culture.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Camila José Donoso's Casa Roshell (2017), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from June 15 - July 15, 2018 as a Special Discovery.
Casa Roshell
Camila José Donoso’s Casa Roshell begins backstage. An early scene shows one of the titular club’s guests dressing up as a woman. Donoso carefully aligns camera with changing-room mirror so that their profile is only visible through a reflection. We witness the covering up of stubble and and the fastening of corsets, with the focus not on the drag illusion but the moment of self-discovery. It is a prolonged scene and the lack of performance and glamour typically associated with drag culture is perhaps alienating; however, the demand for patience and respect from the viewer that the mirrored—and thus queered—frame makes is profoundly subversive, proving Donoso a low-key revolutionary.
It is in these contrasting but complimentary gestures of intimacy and estrangement that produce the queer vision of Casa Roshell—one which uses the utopian space of the changing-room and theatre-stage to produce endless depths of possibility, privileging the power of self-fashioning over the need to please an audience, both at the club and the one watching the movie.
The Roshell Club, also known as the transvestite house for sexual diversity, is located in the Alamos neighborhood of Mexico City. The business functions as a bar, cabaret and performance space, as well as venue for workshops, exhibitions, and events about diversity and what it means to be trans. Despite becoming relatively well-known on the Latin LGBT circuit, Donoso retains a sense of the club's underground secrecy; often heard is the overhead soar of aircrafts, emphasizing its peripheral status. With the absence of windows or scenes outdoors, space is conjured inwards rather than outwards. Reality is contingent on the potential for personal transformation; the politics of the interior space is negotiated by the transwomen themselves. With the interplay of documentary and fiction, and the combination of film stock, digital, CCTV and camera phone footage, Donoso refuses to let her film settle into comfortable binaries.
The documentary-fiction hybrid takes its source material from lines of dialogue recorded by club's guests on their phones. As a result, the non-actors' performances come across as highly staged— however, this is the intention. The film stock Donoso uses makes a contrast against these scenes which are very clearly directed, heightening the divide between the more naturalistic back-stage self-fashioning and the audience-centric theatricals. The celluloid is cut raw, with lens flares, light leaks, scratches, burns and dirt still visible. Donoso emphasizes the imperfection of experimentation, the roughness of her style perhaps a tribute to the courage of those who venture into the dressing rooms for the first time.
This is Donoso’s second feature after Naomi Campbel, which she co-directed with Nicolás Videla. Naomi Campbel follows the struggle of transgender woman Yermén to save enough money for her gender reassignment surgery so she can “be exactly the same” as her supermodel namesake. Traditional power dynamics are toppled with grainy low-fi footage shot by Yermén herself on a Hi8 camcorder predominating. Passing a transwoman the camera is—although in an ideal world it wouldn’t be—truly transgressive filmmaking; evident in this 2013 feature are the preoccupations—both political and aesthetic—of Casa Roshell.
Despite recent legal reforms in Mexico including same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption, there is still widespread violence towards the LGBT community. This is particularly true for trans-people with a rise in the number of asylum seekers looking for a safer life in the United States—proving the necessity of spaces like Roshell’s Club. Casa Roshell is a portrait of the club and of its owner trans-activist Roshell Terranova in equal measure. Roshell delivers personality workshops in which the participants learn about the silhouette and posture of a feminine body. Like many of the club’s guests, she is older and has been through the struggle for civil rights with many other Latin American trans-women throughout their lifetime. While it is a carnivalesque space of limitless possibility and apparently endless nights out, the club is introduced through surveillance camera footage associating the outside world with a sense of risk.
As a consequence, Donoso offers us a fragmentary portrait of women from every walk of life rather than limiting her film to one person’s coming-out narrative. The film is unique in its mix of experienced drag artists and complete newcomers. From wigs to eyebrow pencil, the dressing rooms of the club are equipped with everything its guests might need to complete their transformation. The guests are at liberty to do what they like as long as they strictly adhere to Roshell’s ten commandments. These stipulate that guests must never covert their neighbors’ wigs, and never speak in fake female voices: “we all know you are men in drag.”
Teasing the viewer with snatches of conversation or glimpses of blossoming romance, we drift through the club as if there for the first time ourselves. A particularly memorable encounter is between two men in dresses who, behind their elaborate head-pieces and heavy make-up, recognize each other from their past lives. With the club’s festivities audible in the background, they conclude that it is fate that brought them together and joke about how they look so much better dressed up in the club. Drinking brightly colored juice cocktails and wearing heavy metallic jewelry, it’s as if they’ve found each other in the afterlife.
Heterosexual relationships are under scrutiny with Donoso’s camera devoting as much attention to the straight-identifying men who make the transition to desiring trans-women as it does to the trans-women themselves. It is in this dislocation of the outsider that she so radically undermines expectations and that renders the films so fresh and contemporary. Moreover, as an audience, we must question—and therefore transition—our heterocentric bias, challenging the ideologies contained within straight-desire. For Donoso, sexual repression is something that is largely self-imposed and can be liberated through the queered frame.
At the end of the film the viewer wakes from this one-night stand with a heart full of hope. Casa Roshell offers a glimpse of the future, blending fact and fiction to illustrate the fantasy of trans self-fashioning, the freedom of non-binary sexual orientation and the limitless possibilities of trans-activism.

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