@ The SWSF :: Take a walk on the ’Wildness’ side
The Silver Platter, an infamous Los Angeles nightclub and safe space for the LGBT immigrant community, provides the voice and backdrop for the provocative and intimate documentary "Wildness."
Director Wu Tsang began the project while hosting a weekly art performance and DJ dance party (also titled Wildness) at the Silver Platter, introducing patrons to a new audience, including college kids, hipsters and progressive art-rockers. Accused of promoting gentrification, Tsang, along with his artistic peers, was soon forced to question if he was exposing the bar’s inhabitants, including a host of revered Latin transgendered women, to new a art form or merely a new element of danger.
In 2009, tensions grew when the LA Weekly hailed Wildness as ’The Best Drag Night’ in town, leading the historic hotspot to become more popular than ever.
A newcomer to documentary filmmaking, Tsang lends a magical component to the tale through a series of interviews from colorful locals and a narrative from the bar itself.
Tsang took a few minutes to speak with EDGE about the project.
Capturing a forgotten chapter
EDGE: As a filmmaker, what initially attracted you to document the patrons and performances at the Silver Platter?
Tsang: Actually, my background is as a visual artist. During the Wildness parties I started filming as a performer who was also interested in film. As I became close with the owners and regulars, I began collecting oral histories. I wanted to capture a history of the unknown. The Silver Platter is the oldest gay bar in LA. I was interested in that history as a young gay person.
EDGE: In 1963, the majority of Silver Platter patrons were Latino gay men. What do you believe caused the shift to the bar becoming a beacon for the transgendered community?
Tsang: According to the locals, the owner Gonzalo, who inherited the bar from his brother, was responsible for that. He was very welcoming to the transgendered community... people dressing up. The transition happened in the 90s.
A safe space
EDGE: Some of the performers are illegal immigrants discussing their difficulty getting into the US. Is there a fear the film could foster deportation?
EDGE: On every level, this project has been about confronting the question of what it means to go into a safe space and open it up. So yes, that always was a fear.
EDGE: Along with a group of artists, you started Wildness, a weekly art/dance party at the Silver Platter. It brought a new demographic to the bar, including college kids and hipsters. How well did such cultures blend with the seasoned locals?
Tsang: That’s the thing... before Wildness, they already did. Personally, I didn’t see the differences between the groups. There was never the thought of white kids taking over. All of the promoters were people of color. In the end there was a lot of cultural exchange. Wildness had a crowd of rich, poor, white, black...and fashionistas.
EDGE: What type of talent were you seeking for Wildness performances?
Tsang: We were interested in thinking of the bar as a performance space, not just the stage. We wanted to include the audience and the DJs in the artistic experience. It started within our network of artists developing a scenario for the night. We were approached by bands and we would say no unless they put together something for the night that wasn’t a song. Sometimes it was a success, sometimes a failure, sometimes really weird.
EDGE: Can you give examples of artists who have performed at Wildness?
Tsang: Ron Athey, a well-known performance artist, who was important in the 80s and 90s LA nightlife scene. The bands Mirror Mirror and Light Asylum. The artist and filmmaker Ryan Trecartin. We also had members of the ball community like Lady Ariel Prodigy.
EDGE: You became upset when an LA Weekly journalist performed a write-up on "Wildness," exposing the event to a broader audience. What was your fear?
Tsang: Initially, there was anger due to the transphobia of the writer’s language. We were also freaked out about the circulation of the La Weekly. Still, I learned the limits on deciding who comes and goes to the bar.
EDGE: As an intriguing twist, the documentary is narrated through the voice of the Silver Platter. What inspired that?
Tsang: When I initially completed the film, I felt like there was a piece missing. My co-writer Marianna Marroquin proposed that I re-write the film. So we decided that the Silver Platter should talk and be the main character. In the film, I play the idealistic one, new to the space. So the bar has a longer view, bringing wisdom.
EDGE: What do you hope the film captures about the Silver Platter that viewers might miss on a visit?
Tsang: I hope the film creates a space for dialogue, opening up questions about gentrification and what is a safe space and who belongs to it. Also, I think the viewer will take away the emotional truths of the people, despite race and class differences.
"Wildness" screened at the SXSW Festival. For more information about the film, visit the film’s Facebook page.