There are a lot of people talking about this documentary. It’s something of a whirlwind 12 minutes in which Guardian writer Kieran Yates and director Marcus Plowright immerse themselves in one of London, or perhaps the world’s most intriguing, exciting countercultures: Muslim drag queens. Through east London bedrooms and the back seats of taxis we are led into the world of men whose lives revolve around transforming into women and performing in increasingly packed-out drag clubs across the country. Kieran, who originally pitched this idea to The Guardian, kindly allowed us to ask her some questions on what is a small but phenomenally informative and powerful short.
How much did you know about the Gaysian community before making the film?
Logically I knew that a gay Asian contingent must exist. But coming from an Asian background myself where any talk about LGBT is quickly silenced, I hadn’t encountered much of a scene. I had met lots of gay Asians through university, which was my first experience of visible gay people from my community. Through them and friends I had made over the years, they opened my eyes to spaces that exist in London which I never knew about. After that, finding events which championed the drag scene was relatively easy, and I knew I wanted to tell their stories.
Tell us about the crew you were working with and how the film came about
After spending time with Asifa after chatting online, tweeting and finally meeting in person, I was pretty certain that this was a world I wanted to learn more about. And as I learned more I realised how important it was to have some plurality re: the issue of Muslim identity in the UK. In a climate of growing Islamaphobia, and a community of overt homophobia, it seemed timely and relevant. I took the idea to The Guardian back in July and after lots of back and forth and a fair amount of fighting, it got commissioned. I worked with an amazing editor called Marcus Plowright who really opened my eyes about how to sequence documentaries and taught me about the technical visual aspects. The whole process felt really fluid and I learned a lot.
"Logically I knew that a gay Asian contingent must exist. But coming from an Asian background myself where any talk about LGBT is quickly silenced, I hadn't encountered much of a scene."Kieran Yates
How did you first meet Asifa? Tell us about him.
We met online, and then went for our first coffee last year in a Costa in west London. I was pretty enamoured almost instantly, and he really gave me confidence that I was the right person to make the film. He is so self-assured and confident that it made me want to draw confidence out of other queens who weren’t where he was yet. His presence was a real comfort and without him the documentary could never have been made – he introduced me to people, and championed the process all the way. Any respect I had for him on that first meeting has increased tenfold. Even though his experience is very different to some of the queens featured (he’s a British-born Muslim, media savvy, and has experienced online hate before) he was sensitive to different experiences. He’s a role model for newcomers to the drag scene, and I’m glad he’s part of my life now.
Was there anything important that you experienced during the making of this film that you didn’t manage to capture on camera?
I guess like anyone in my position, if I had it my way the film would be a two hour epic – but I guess shorter is more effective in the culture of instant gratification and all that. There was a lot I wish I could have shown: going to Rezzia’s house and seeing threatening letters posted through his door, Shilpa going sari shopping, Asifa talking about wearing a burqa on the bus when he first started out. Their stories are so rich and interesting that really to do it justice, you’d need a whole series dedicated to them, but I think the point that their experiences are diverse is made. I hope.
The documentary gives a fair idea of the amount of danger the girls are in – particularly as they leave the house. Can you tell us about the danger you experienced?
There were a few instances that made me nervous. One was the taxi incident of course, where the boys in question scratched up the taxi and refused to move from the road – that kind of psychological violence is pretty horrible. Then there was stuff like being refused taxis, and getting abuse shouted on the street while filming. But for all the stares from hoteliers, shopkeepers, etc. etc. there were people who stopped to give support. Those moments of warmth were always happily received.
Tell us about the relationship you formed with the girls.
It sounds so saccharine and earnest to say this but I really feel like they are my extended family. I’m not the kind of person that would say that lightly, but we spent so much time together and had so many moments of fun, fear and intimacy that I guess it’s hard to maintain distance. I love them all, and for me personally to be able to speak Punjabi, have Asian in-jokes, dance to Bhangra and talk about Bollywood – and get paid for it – was the best thing ever.
"There was a lot I wish I could have shown: going to Rezzia's house and seeing threatening letters posted through his door, Shilpa going sari shopping, Asifa talking about wearing a burqa on the bus when he first started out."Kieran Yates
What have you personally learned from making Muslim Drag Queens?
That everything we do is political, one way or another, even if we’re not conscious of it. And that minority voices need to be heard now more than ever.
Who do you think needs to watch this?
Everyone, obviously – and if all you get from it is that there is more than one kind of Muslim – or brown – identity, then that’s fine by me.