EastIndie: Your upcoming documentary Extravaganza is produced by CINEMQ and takes a behind-the-scenes look at the Shanghai drag scene. For people who are unfamiliar with the scene here, can you give us a bit of an introduction?
Matthew Baren: I’m not a drag performer, but I’ve been involved in the LGBTQ scene in Shanghai for a couple of years now and so I’ve been on the fringes of the drag scene. There’s a fantastic spirit of community and family among the queens and kings here. They’re from around China, Asia, and all over the world.
EI: Is there anything you think makes the drag scene in Shanghai unique or special?
MB: I think, as with any drag scene around the world, it’s the individual performers who make something unique. Creativity, uniqueness, nerve, and talent go a long way. Drag is a lot of fun but it’s also an inherently political art form. Drag performers have been a significant driving force for the global LGBTQ movement—although this sometimes gets forgotten. In China, they’re perhaps one of the most visible local aspects of the queer community, and I think a positive beacon for anyone who doesn’t quite fit in the box society tells them they belong in.
EI: Extravaganza focuses on the preparations for a one-off drag show hosted at The Pearl Theater in Shanghai in July 2017. Can you give us some background on the event and how it all came about?
MB: The show—also called “Extravaganza”—was intended to be the first time so many drag kings and queens had performed together on stage in Shanghai, and to an audience that wasn’t exclusively from the LGBTQ community. Miss Jade— who was Shanghai’s most prominent drag performer until she moved to Canada late last year—was the producer and host. She described it as a milestone for the scene in Shanghai, and importantly proof that there was a big audience out there willing to pay to see drag.
EI: At what point did you first get the idea to shoot this documentary?
MB: It started with a conversation I had with Miss Jade and [another performer] Fantasia Valentina. They were talking about how they often had filmmakers or photographers ask to shoot them, but that almost without fail the finished work showed them as oppressed, sad, or living in the shadows. They wanted people to see the laughter and creative energy backstage—so we decided to have a go at making this and see what came out of it. I’d had an idea of what I wanted to shoot, but the whole process turned out to be very organic and in the moment.
EI: What was the most challenging part about making the film?
MB: There were two of us—myself and producer Will Dai—on camera the night of the show. The dressing room backstage at The Pearl is tiny and we had twelve performers, plus a bunch of other people squeezed in there—and a lot of costume changes. It was nine hours of half-naked, sweaty queens throwing shade at each other in a box room. Filming around that was fucking insane but a lot of fun.
"I hope people see this and are proud to be part of a city where people like the kings and queens featured in Extravaganza live their truth and art to the fullest."
EI: Why do you think it is important for people to see this film?
MB: Shanghai is one of the best cities in China right now for LGBTQ people, but there’s very little queer cinema coming out of here right now. I think it’s important for people to see what Shanghai is made of and to hear about the people who have built our community. Being queer isn’t just an identity you wear on the weekend—it’s something you live every day. I hope people see this and are proud to be part of a city where people like the kings and queens featured in Extravaganza live their truth and art to the fullest.
EI: The film is set to premiere as part of the upcoming DKNSTRKT party this Sunday in Shanghai (event details at the bottom). What can people expect to be a part of if they come to the event?
MB: DKNSTRKT is a new collective exploring ways to deconstruct gender and dismantle binaries through performance and art. They were kind enough to invite us to screen Extravaganza at their launch event, which means anyone coming to see the screening can also expect some great performances and the opportunity to try out a drag makeover.
EI: What are you looking forward to the most about the premiere?
MB: Outside of the crew, no-one has seen the film. I hope the kings and queens like it, because if they don’t, I know they’ll be vicious.
EI: What are your plans for the film beyond the initial screening?
MB: We’re aiming to hit the festival circuit hard, particularly for documentary and queer focused events. Queer film festivals are always a lot of fun to attend, and I think it’s important to see diversity on the big screen.
EI: What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the film?
MB: Fierce inspiration. I hope people in the audience are inspired to go see a show and support their local drag artists.
EI: Finally, CINEMQ has been a bit of a force of its own in Shanghai for a while hosting various screenings and events around town, but this is the first film that you’ve produced under the CINEMQ banner. Where do you plan to take things from here?
MB: I think this year will be a turning point for us. We’ve been growing our team and talking about new ideas, so who knows? We’re exploring taking CINEMQ screenings to other parts of China, and possibly international, as a way of bringing Chinese filmmakers to foreign audiences who perhaps have no idea what culture here is like. It would be exciting to be able to support the production of more films in the future. Watch this space, I guess.