“Life is a cabaret”, according to Sally Bowles in Cabaret [Bob Fosse, US, 1972], the hit musical with an unoriginal name. In their fantastic and hugely inspiring documentary Beautiful Wotevers, Francesca Schweiger and Louis Gering take us to contemporary London to show just how far the form has come from the days of Liza Minnelli and dodgy German accents.
Held every Tuesday in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Bar Wotever is London’s only weekly queer variety showcase. This documentary interviews performers, as well as showcasing their talent, making a very persuasive argument for why inclusive spaces such as this one are so important in the current arts scene.
The documentary is very stylishly filmed. In particular, the opening scene is striking and intelligent, with colourful smoke billowing over St. Paul’s Cathedral and Nelson’s column, juxtaposing the rigidity and homogeneity of the whitewashed monuments with the fluid and indefinable ripples of multi-hued mist.
Another outstanding feature is the educational aspect of the short. After a series of clips from pre-war 1920s and Las Vegas style cabaret that we are perhaps most accustomed to, the more modern performers fill us in on the problems and potentials of twenty-first century acts. This is a very effective way of framing the focus on Beautiful Wotevers, as it situates the performances within their history and emphasises their growth from a long and problematic tradition.
In the first interview, bar manager Lysander discusses the differences between straight and queer cabaret, drawing attention to issues of racism and misogyny, and the homophobia and transphobia of straight cabaret. There is no illusion, however, that queer cabaret is an issue-free oasis. MisSa Blue, a wonderfully eloquent sword swallower, continues this much needed education by highlighting the racism that taints the industry. What hits home the hardest here is the personal pain that all white and relentlessly cisgender casts cause people. While some people argue that gender neutral bathrooms and checking one’s preferred pronoun is political correctness gone mad, these stories show that these seemingly small acts can make a world of difference.
This is an excellent documentary with both moral and aesthetic merits. Educational and entertaining, it promotes the importance of diverse and inclusive spaces that are vital for new and exciting art forms to flourish. Schweiger and Gering have excelled at inspiring us to ditch the re-runs of Friends [US, 1994-2004] and seek out more innovative, daring and original Tuesday night entertainment.
Last year, new releases were awash with examples of how men plus guns equals disaster (take Netflix’s Highlands thriller Calibre [Matt Palmer, UK, 2018] or David Jackson’s Winterlong [UK, 2018] for example). How refreshing it is then to see a film like A Cowardly Lot, where gangsters stop for a moment to discuss the shortcomings of firearms.
Managing to be at once deadly serious and gently amusing, Timothy Rooney’s short film shows a pre-robbery pep talk derailed by one man who refuses to carry a gun. Rooney successfully manages to pinpoint a lot of worthy themes in just under five minutes, proving that a short film isn’t necessarily a small film.
The nuance and humanity of these criminals is a most welcome alternative to the blindly bloodthirsty masculinity boasted by many cinematic heroes. That said, there is no sense of moral high ground, Harvey’s argument that a hammer is a much better weapon showing that this isn’t a film against violence but a film against guns. Although it is clear that condoning violence of any sort is no good thing, watching a gangster calmly lay out the tactical drawbacks of firearms without being overly didactic gives a strong message: if murderous thieves can see that guns are a terrible idea, then why can’t we?
A quick reference to the Sandy Hook school shooting of 2012 situates this message within the context of America’s issue with guns. Despite the solemnity of this topic, the use of humour to criticise the wide availability and use of these weapons works extremely well. It is extremely difficult to pull off this balance between clever comedy and crude jokes, and this film does it extremely well.
Without giving away any spoilers, the sly twist at the end adds a further touch of darkly comic subtlety to the argument. In this one compact scene, A Cowardly Lot offers up a lot for discussion, as well as for entertainment. We can only hope that future films follow its lead.
‘Beautiful Wotevers’ and ‘A Cowardly Lot’ were films in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2018.