Wu Tsang’s film Wildness is a portrait of the Silver Platter, a bar on the eastside of Los Angeles that has catered for the transgender, queer and Latino communities since the 1960s, and the conflicts that occur when a group of young artists and musicians, led by Tsang, start a club night there.

Ahead of the film’s UK premiere in the Tanks, we spoke to Tsang about making the film, the role artists play in gentrifying cities, and why he decided to make the bar itself a character in the film.

  • Wu Tsang, Wildness 2012 courtesy the artist FM13

    Wu Tsang
    Wildness 2012

    © courtesy the artist

How did you get involved with the Silver Platter?

I started throwing a party there with my friends Ashland Mines (Total Freedom), Daniel Pineda and Asma Maroof (NGUZUNGUZU) in 2008. The Silver Platter had a drag show on a Friday night, so we decided that we wanted to do a party inspired by their scene for our crowd, who were artists, underground musicians, DJs, performance artists.

I didn’t plan on making a film when I started out. Initially I was throwing the party [also called Wildness] and I was doing interviews with some of the people from the bar – the owners and some of the patrons who had been coming there for a couple of decades. As I became friends with people I was really interested in the history of the place – I wanted to create oral histories of how the bar had changed over time.

But then in the process of making it, there came a point where I decided to start making a documentary film about the Platter. I had to start engaging with the politics of what it meant to represent the place as someone who was both on the inside, because I was involved there, but also on outside, because of various race, class, and cultural differences.

So the film ultimately became a personal journey about trying to understand how the Silver Platter is a ‘safe space’: which I have come to call a ‘safe space’, a really special, protective, warm, energetic space for people for the people inside, who have a hard time existing outside. Who is it for and what does it mean for different queer communities to access it? What kinds of alliances and conflicts happen when we all end up mixing.

It’s a personal story about what happened to me at that place but I tried to find a way to tell it in a way that could potentially be relatable to a lot of people in a lot of places. Because underground scenes happen all the time and they are very ephemeral and they are really important to the people involved and then when they end it’s usually for some petty reason nobody can explain.

Also I think that gentrification is something that a lot of cities everywhere are struggling with. Especially young artists who might have really good intentions but struggle to see the role they play in making neighbourhoods more culturally ‘acceptable’. And trying to find a responsibility in that but not letting that stop you from doing things that are pleasurable and important.

The Silver Platter tells its own story in the film, through a voiceover. Why did you decide to give the bar a voice?

It made it quite obvious in a fun way that the story was fictional – because bars obviously don’t talk in real life! – but it also was a way to address problems that I was having with representation. I didn’t want the film to be in this objectifying way about ‘the women of the Silver Platter’ because there is a very strong scene of trans women who hang out there.

The film is inspired by and is centred on the stories of these women who I came to know and hang out with. But we needed to mediate what would happen for a viewer who maybe had no relationship to this subject matter. I also wanted to really make the voices plural, so the experiences conveyed were neither individualistic nor overly simplified as cohesive.

The bar is a composite of several things: of me and the lessons I learned; of my co-writer Roya Rastegar and her experiences with diaspora and cultural difference; of my collaborator Mariana Marroquin, who is Guatemalan a trans activist living in LA, and she plays the voice of the Silver Platter - her story is personally connected to some of the stories that are in the film. Finally it is a composite of all the interviews we did with people at the bar, all their stories. The bar ends up being a channel for many voices.

One time a journalist asked me, ‘How did you feel the bar said this to you…’, which I think is funny because obviously the bar didn’t say anything to me! But apparently it comes across very convincingly as a character, that there are very different perspectives going on.

Do you still go to the bar? 

I do. And I still do events with all of the Wildness organisers. including a performance at the Tate with Ashland Mines (Total Freedom) and another performer/singer named Kelela Mizanekristos. We’re doing an after-party with DJ Sprinkles (one of the ‘Gender Talents’ participants) and some local DJs (Felix Lee & DJ Manara).

What effect do you think Wildness had on the bar?

I think it remains to be seen. People often ask: ‘Are you worried about Wildness exposing the bar and isn’t the film even more likely to do that?’

My answer to that is of course, yes, I have those fears and those worries but I also have to keep them in check. Because the film was about exploring what those fears are really about and what they lead to.

There’s this incident where a journalist writes a very transphobic article about the bar. Because basically he was coming to cover Wildness and it ended up completely attacking everyone in a very messed up way. He goes on to apologise and we did an interview with him. Then Nicole who works at the bar as the door person said, ‘What he saw is what the Silver Platter is. It is not what his mind dictated to write later.’

I understand this to mean that the bar is a place of business, it’s open to the public, anybody can look it up and find the address and go there. But as soon as anyone goes in and tries to make a representation of it, it’s always going to come out the other side as being at least partially a representation of themselves.

The film is about a very specific place and culture. Do you think it will work for a London audience?

Yes, I think in some sense it is a film about a very LA experience, which I think can be interesting to people who aren’t living there, because it does show sides of the city that people aren’t familiar with. It’s not the cliché of palm trees and Hollywood.

I also think all the effort Roya and I put into figuring out the story was about what would really make it relatable and translatable to different audiences everywhere… Having great ideals, wanting to fight for them, trying to figure out how and what happens when that bumps up against the realities of life.

I have found in different cities where ever I go people often do have a story about a club that’s very important to them that’s had a similar fallout. I think it’s a story that’s relevant to this moment in time.

The screening of Wildness is a part of the event Charming for the Revolution, taking place 1-2 February in the Tanks at Tate Modern