Casa Roshell (Camila José Donoso, 2017) is a 71-minute documentary about a trans club in Mexico City. Some of the customers and performers are transvestites and some are trans-identified. We hear them chat about shopping and boyfriends, and about their hopes or plans for gender reassignment surgery. All of the customers are caught in fraught and poignant webs of public presentation and self-understanding.
What is striking about this film is Donoso’s frequent decision to refract viewer access to these trans bodies through mirrors. Often she uses more than one mirror, as in the still above (I screen-grabbed these images as I streamed the film on Mubi). The body we see is ‘actually’ just to the left of the filmic space directly in front of the camera, but viewers see the back of the torso refracted (and inverted) to our right, and we see the face only by a mirroring of another mirror inside that mirror. The technique repeats itself too many times to be happenstance or even, I would submit, simply to signal a familiar trajectory of self-discovery and coming-out. (See Mubi’s writer, Laura Davis’s article, “Queering the Frame: Close-up on Casa Roshell“)
The image above of Roshell, for example, might be easily explained as an attempt to show her off in 3D, as it were, but I suggest that the accumulated affects of absorbing these multiply mirrored images contribute to another kind of cultural and gendered work. Consider the screen grab I showed initially, of the customer transforming himself into his herself, and the many images of Roshell, such as the one above, in conjunction with quite complicated shots such as this one, below, which clearly must contain at least two mirrors…but which image of the blue-garbed woman is the mirrored image and which is the camera representation, or are both of them mirrored, indicating a body behind the camera?
The shots of all of these women–bringing to Casa Roshell many different careers, neighborhoods, and sexual desires– are intermittently but persistently supplemented with images of the club’s secure lobby, which evidences at least two surveillance cameras:
…and also images of non-transvestite and cis men who come to the club to dance and hook up with the women. These images are not always as starkly shadowed as this one, below, but they are all caught on camera by a starkly different gaze:
It has been a number of years since I read and taught David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category (Duke 2007) but in watching Casa Roshell I recalled Valentine’s suspicions about reducing trans identity to a politics of recognition. He writes, “despite the differences and complexities of transgender politics, the logic of identity-based claims often silences that complexity, reducing the panoply of political arguments made by transgender-identified activists to the ‘recognition’ model” (272).
It seems to me that Donoso’s film shares this suspicion and uses the camera to insist not only on the “panoply” of identities and arguments to which Valentine points, but also the stark precarity of (especially) non-White trans bodies, their open vulnerability to murder. This latter is, in fact, what the editors of Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility call “the trap of the visual.” They write,
we know that when produced within the cosmology of racial capitalism, the promise of ‘positive representation’ ultimately gives little support or protection to many, if not most, trans and gender non-conforming people, particularly those who are low-income and/or of color–the very people whose lives and labor constitute the ground for the figuration of this moment of visibility (xv).
Instead of rebuking recognition or representation, however, the editors shimmy down into the heart of their paradoxes:
representations do not simply re-present an already existing reality but are also doors into making new futures possible. …Put simply, if we do not attend to representation and work collectively to bring new visual grammars into existence (while remembering and unearthing suppressed ones), then we will remain caught in the traps of the past (xviii).
It is this quite Hegelian “labor of the negative” that I see Donoso performing so beautifully with her camera. Mirrors do not completely usurp the narrative terrain of this short film, but they are regular enough to be felt as interventions or interruptions, conveying ‘upset’ to viewers who might want–Romantically–for Roshell and her customers to come to a stable and “achieved” sense of self. The film refuses this kind of self, and this fact also refracts in multiple directions: the lived truths of nonbinary bodies; the fluxes of gender or sexual “identities”; the Shangri la of a club that enables bodies to perform, practice, be, and play with who they are; and the real shortfalls of current trans and other justice-oriented activism that has yet to stem the tide of trans precarity and, especially, of non-White trans women’s murders.
From this POV, the security camera footage of the club’s dingy lobby, and the shadowy images of cis men who come to visually and sexually consume trans women seem to me to clang out punctuated warnings about the dangers of trans visibility. It is remarkable, then, that the overall feeling of the film is one of hope and promise, not the promise of happiness, perhaps, but the availing promise of a space which, like Dr. Who’s TARDIS (and yet real!), is bigger on the inside because it is saturated with profusions of positionalities and desires that dodge and tiptoe around its death-haunted shadows.