Cleveland International Film Festival } March 27 – April 7, 2019 } Tower City Cinemas

Skills Picked Up Along the Way

April 08, 2018   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

alaskaisadrag-shazbennett.jpeg

Shaz Bennett has led a life every bit as colorful as RuPaul’s outfits. From working in a cannery in Alaska to bartending in a mafia bar, her life has been full of adventure. But it was a moment in New York City that gave her one of the first kernels of her new film, “Alaska is a Drag.”

“I performed in a drag sister act with a 7-foot-tall black drag queen,” she recalls. “Once, after a show, walking home dressed in matching fabulous outfits—we were attacked by two homophobic jerks. I’m a pacifist and a wimp and immediately cowered but my sister was fearless—she ran straight at them throwing hard punches and they ran away. She saved me. I asked her where she learned to fight like that and she said, ‘A girl picks up skills along the way.’”

That moment contributed to one of the many facets of Leo’s personality, as Bennett began exploring the complexities of gender and performance. It was something that had always been an issue for her.

“I wanted to explore gender and the labels of masculine and feminine—and why is one considered stronger or more powerful,” she explains. “Femininity is not a bad thing. A lot of the movie was coming from that. I wanted to explore the time in someone’s life where they don’t even know what their sexuality is, but people are defining them for how they present themselves on the outside. I grew up with four brothers, played basketball, and was more of a tomboy. I remember being told I was in the wrong bathroom when I was a kid.”

Even then, Bennett fought against the constraints people put on her. “I grew up a mutt in Salt Lake City, Utah. I felt trapped and dreamed of living in Paris in the 20s or ‘Paris Is Burning’—somewhere else.”

Working as a ticket taker at the Sundance Film Festival showed her the world that she wanted to be part of, but it would still be a long journey to get there. Along the way, she took an unexpected detour into Alaska.

“I fell for an ad that said you’ll make $50,000 in a summer,” she admits ruefully. “What I ended up doing was slicing and processing fish in a cannery, being paid minimum wage for a really horrible job. I think I responded to being in a small town that’s so gorgeous and beautiful and there’s such incredible ethereal beauty in landscape, but the people there can be unforgiving, and if you stand out in the crowd you can kind of be ‘other-ized.’”

That setting, Bennett realized, would be the perfect foil for a character like Leo, who is struggling for a more complex identity and careening between the hypermasculine world of boxing and the ultrafeminine world of drag.

“I’m drawn to and obsessed with the flamboyance and bravado of boxers and drag queens—they are the funhouse mirrors of each other,” she points out. “One is wholly female and the other wholly male—in a way that doesn’t always exist in real life.

“I love the power of drag—there’s great strength and energy in tapping into and subverting the norms.”

Lara Klaber

PDF  Download Related PDF [1.7 MB]

Related Screenings:
04/07/18 @ 7:35 PM – Alaska is a Drag
04/08/18 @ 11:05 AM – Alaska is a Drag

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