Open Letter to Melbourne Queer Film Festival attendees

This guest post is from Jonathan Williams, a member of the MQFF trans selection panel, a body which did NOT select one particular trans-themed film which has been included in the festival program.

MQFF trans program:

Many Melbourne/Victorian queers and others have already had a look through the program for the 2011 Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF). As one of the people on the trans selection panel, I can recommend the Trans Phats session, curated to highlight the theme of ‘family’ – different kinds of families, what family might mean to different people, and how trans people negotiate their families of origin and choice. The double bill of “The Regretters” (a Swedish documentary in which two de-/re-transitioned people interview each other and talk about their lives) and “Latecomers” (about people who ‘come out’ as gay or trans later in life) is also sure to spark some interesting discussions. While I haven’t seen every film in the Oz Docs or {also} special presentation sessions, they both appear to be great packages looking at sex and gender diversity in Australia. There are also a few feature films featuring trans characters in major roles (e.g. “Black Field” and “Paulista”).

The inclusion of “Ticked Off Trannies With Knives”:

One of those feature films is “Ticked Off Trannies With Knives” (TOTWK), screening as one of two Midnight Movies at the festival*. TOTWK is often described as a ‘transploitation’ film, in which three “trannies” exact bloody revenge for a brutal transphobic attack (shown onscreen) in which two of their friends were murdered. As many people will be aware, TOTWK has received a lot of negative press from trans people internationally and in Australia. You can read some of the debate and get some background at the following links:

* Gudbud T’Jane talks about appropriation of trans deaths by cis directors

* “Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives” Fails, as a Movie and as a Concept by Rebecca Juro

* Wu Tsang argues that boycotting/not screening the film is not a productive response

* Bitch Magazine talks about how TOTWK relates to TDoR and TDoV

* Zoe E Whitten criticises the idea of exploitation films

(There are many, many more articles, blog posts and forum discussions about the film out there if you want to look them up for yourself!)

As one of the people on the MQFF trans selection panel, I want to emphasise that we were not involved in the decision to screen this film – that decision was made by the main selection panel. The trans panel has not seen the film and we did not know it was being considered for inclusion in the program. We were certainly not consulted regarding the decision to make this an ‘event’ screening** by encouraging audiences to attend “dressed as your favourite horror/exploitation character or Ticked Off Trannie to win great prizes” (MQFF 2011 program, p64).

The trans selection panel agrees with the festival organisers that Melbourne viewers should have access to this film if they want to watch it and make up their own minds about its value (or lack thereof). However, while film screenings can be sites of discussion about trans issues, whether trans people feel comfortable paying money to take part in such a discussion in the context of a ‘fun-and-frivolous’/‘dress-up-as-a-tranny’ event is a another matter.


I am not calling for a boycott of MQFF, nor am I asking that the film be removed from the program***. In recent years MQFF has definitely made an effort to increase trans-focussed programming and trans involvement, and the festival is certainly more trans-friendly than some other ‘queer’ (read: “cis gay and lesbian”) venues and events in Melbourne. However, this situation demonstrates that there is still room for improvements, including: more and better active consultation with trans people about the films selected for the program (see ‘festival response’ below); more and better liaising with trans people about how the films are framed through marketing and screening practices; more invitations for trans people to speak at MQFF screenings (either to introduce films or take part in panel discussions).

Moreover, I think that a broader discussion about the politics of production, circulation, marketing and viewing – about what constitutes ‘trans content’ within queer and other film festival spaces, and about who gets to decide how transness is going to be included – should (continue to) take place both within trans networks and groups and between those groups and festival organisers.

I do suggest that, if you feel strongly about the matter, you write to the festival organisers and perhaps to Victoria’s queer media (e.g. Southern Star, MCV, SameSame) outlining your concerns and suggestions. I particularly encourage regular attendees of the festival to join the discussion.

Festival response:

I have spoken to the festival director, Lisa Daniels, at length via email about the situation regarding TOTWK. I have aired my concerns about the decision to screen this film when other trans-positive films were available, without consulting the trans selection panel, and with seemingly little regard as to how both the film and the ‘event’ screening might impact on trans people’s comfort attending the festival. As a result, the online program now contains a disclaimer noting that the trans selection panel was not involved in the decision to screen TOTWK. The director has also suggested that the festival should have trans representation on the main selection panel in the future – a praiseworthy step in the right direction. Hopefully there will be a call for expressions of interest disseminated through Melbourne trans networks in the coming months, and I encourage trans people to take up this opportunity to increase trans inclusion, representation and awareness of trans issues at MQFF****.

I am pleased that the festival director has taken some of these criticisms on board, and I hope that the discussions we’ve had will result in long-term changes.

In conclusion:

I will be at the festival introducing the Trans Phats session and the double bill of “The Regretters” and “Latecomers”. I hope to get to some other sessions as well, so I might see some of you there. I will not be attending the screening of “Ticked Off Trannies With Knives” as a viewer or as a protester – I don’t think that particular session deserves my patronage, (any more of) my time, (any more of) my energy or my money. Also, regardless of how ‘ticked off’ I am about it, it’s way past my bedtime!

Jonathan Williams

* The program asks viewers to “Join us for two fabulous sessions of late night fun, film and frivolity” (p64).
** The festival needs to hold a number of ‘events’ to secure certain types of funding.
*** I understand that some Melbourne/Victorian trans people and allies may feel differently and wish to respond accordingly.
**** Also, you get to preview a bucketload of films – who doesn’t like doing that?

Categories: arts & entertainment, ethics & philosophy, social justice

Tags: , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. The two documentaries you refer to sound absolutely fascinating. I won’t be able to get to the festival so I will have to keep an eye out for them around the place. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for that, Jonathan. I wrote a response to the situation here, with a tad more anger to it. I think MQFF should have done much, much better on this.

  3. I’m in Brisbane so of course can’t go, a shame as most of it looks good, but at the same time I want to scream at the TOTWK inclusion, and ESPECIALLY to say ‘dress up as your favourite Ticked Off Tranny!’. OMG. If I showed up dressed as myself, would it count? I’m transsexual and PRETTY DARN TICKED OFF.

  4. I respect anyone’s choice to watch my movie or not, but I feel it’s a bit biased and unfair to post articles that are only negative just to sway people to feel a certain way. Here are others people should consider as well:
    Jonathan, why not attend the screening? Attending does not mean you’re supporting me or my film, it’s you supporting the festival. And remember: don’t judge a book…
    israel luna
    writer/director – TOTWK

    • Israel, thanks for dropping by to offer your point of view, although I’m not sure why you think it is unfair to write persuasively about something one feels strongly about. We’re all biased in one way or another, after all, and on this blog feeling biased against having one’s identity made the butt of “jokes” is something we’re fairly sympathetic to.
      Jonathan is not a regular commentor here, btw. His open-letter made its way here via friend-of-a-friend channels. I’m sure the same channels will eventually let him know about your comment.

  5. Hi Israel, thanks for your comment and links to more ‘positive’ reviews.
    I won’t attend the screening for the reasons stated above – this issue has already taken up (too many) days of my time and energy, I don’t want to find myself in a position where I might have take the role of ‘educator’ within a potentially hostile environment, and the screening is too late for me to attend. I am already supporting the festival by volunteering on the selection panel and attending films and sessions that will (hopefully) include fewer instances of anti-trans violence.
    As I’ve clearly stated, I don’t have an issue with the film being screened (I do have an issue with the framing and the way the film’s inclusion was handled), as I believe that people deserve the chance to view it if they wish. I also believe that there is no one ‘correct’ reading of a film, and think that some trans viewers will no doubt find the film empowering and get a kick out of seeing trans characters exacting revenge on transphobic cis people. Quite frankly, having seen the trailer and some of your comments elsewhere, I have no interest in finding out if that would be the case for me.

  6. P.S. Apologies for my curtness; I have run out of patience with this issue. I have no doubt you did actually have good intentions with making the film, but the issues outlined in my letter are not made any less problematic because of that.

  7. The thing is… transploitation isn’t even original.
    Killer Drag Queens On Dope (2003) did it first.

  8. Hi all,
    Very happy to see the discussion sparked by the inclusion of Israel Luna’s film Ticked off Trannies With Knives – seems it’s been worth it, just for that alone. The MQFF is not into censoring potentially controversial titles on the basis of internet gossip often driven by people who haven’t seen such titles. We’d prefer audiences to decide and discuss for themselves about the merit or otherwise of films in the program. The MQFF accepts and apologises for the insensitivity of the audience participation component of the screening, which is a requirement of our midnight screening funding. Unfortunately I accepted the theme advice from 2 trans (ftm) colleagues who suggested the theme would be fun and irreverent. We’ve now made some changes to our website:

    Ticked Off Trannies With Knives was selected by the main MQFF selection panel. The Trans selection panel of Teague Lee and Jonathan Williams were not involved in that selection process. The MQFF defends the selection of Ticked off Trannies With Knives, and believes that audiences have the right to make up their own mind about controversial films. We encourage discussion about the merits or otherwise of such films. The MQFF acknowledges that our dress up theme of coming along to the screening as your favourite ‘ticked off trannie’, while irreverent for some, is ill advised, and just plain insensitive. In line with this we have changed the night’s theme encouraging audiences to instead come along dressed up as their favorite superhero. As the late night session requires an audience participation element as per our funding agreement, we felt this change better reflected the film’s theme of vigilante justice for the trans characters in the film. The MQFF supports discussion and debate concerning queer representation in the media and believe that audiences should be allowed to critically engage with the film and the concerns its inclusion in this year’s festival may raise.

    Lisa Daniel – Festival Director MQFF
    [edited by moderator for clearer formatting]

  9. Translation follows: we got some men to give opinions on how women should be treated. We didn’t think it necessary to consult with Trannies, because, well, who cares what they think?
    Tell me – if you were screening something about Aboriginals, a film many Aboriginals found offensive, would you not bother running it by your Aboriginal Films panel? Then, when it depicted lesbians, would you ask some gay men if it was OK to dress in Blackface and Drag as part of “Audience Participation”?
    The degree of FAIL here exceeds all rational bounds. “Insensitivity” my (fill in the gap). This was negligence, deliberate indifference.

  10. “Internet gossip” – is Daniels one of those people who still think “Teh Internet” is the preserve of teenagers and pr0n seekers? It’s a communication medium. The characterisation of discussion as “gossip” really shows someone is not interested in engaging respectfully with an argument.

  11. This is just a complete fail. This should never have become an issue, and I think a lot less people would be upset if it was just a movie being shown. But it isn’t, you chose this movie for a special midnight screening, which comes with requirements that are near impossible to meet inoffensively.
    Most of all, though, it shows a complete lack of due diligence. One minute on Google should have been enough to tell you that this was not an appropriate choice for a midnight, dress up showing at a queer film festival. You didn’t just screen a movie that was controversial in order to spark conversation. You chose to make it a headline act, a feature attraction of your circus, complete with dress up. And then were surprised when we were offended. Again, one minute on Google would have shown you the extent of this movies divisiveness.
    By the way, one side being utterly offended and outrage and the other side saying they are overreacting? Not a conversation, that’s typical condescension and ignorance from the GLB to the T. Choosing a “trans” movie without even mentioning it to your trans subpanel says, point blank, that you don’t care about their opinion.
    So, yes, kudos to you for getting people to dress up as ‘superheros’ when your clever idea fell through. But don’t think that resolves the problem neat and tidy, you still have lots to answer for.

  12. “Very happy to see the discussion sparked by the inclusion of Israel Luna’s film Ticked off Trannies With Knives – seems it’s been worth it, just for that alone. ”
    Happy to have upset and offended people who are supposably a part of your queer community?
    “Its been worth it”?
    Seriously.. I dont understand how an MQFF organiser can feel ‘glad’ to have alienated trans* people through the inclusion of this clearly transphobic film.
    I dont actually know how MQFF is structured, but to me it comes off as if MQFF is capitalising on controversy created by the inclusion of this film that it knew was widely dissaproved of by the trans* community. Its sad that such a hurtful and disrespectful film has been included at the expense of leaving out other more empowering, interesting films that more trans* people would probably rather see. I will not be attending MQFF. I think this was handled badly from the beginning, including the light-heartedly written TOTWK update (that the dress up theme is changed) about an issue that is so seriously hurtful to many people.

  13. I attended a local screening of this movie and sat in on the Q & A afterward as the only person on the panel who was both transgender and a film student. I was in a theater full of trans and cisgender people, and nobody could say an ill word about the film. I dunno, maybe it was just us, but we really didn’t see what the big deal was. The only people who had anything bad to say were 3 cisgender lesbians who couldn’t handle the violence. I talked to them afterward on a personal level and they said they just weren’t into violent movies. In my opinion, people should go see it and try to enjoy it.
    Marshall McLuhan said- “When first proposed, new systems of knowledge don’t look like revolutions or breakthroughs- but like chaos.” Now the exploitation genre isn’t really the first thing I think of when I think of revolution, but a message that brings real discussion to the table is a million times better than some safe queer movie that nobody sees.
    I think the biggest disservice we can do to the LGBTQI movement is to start policing it from the inside, while movies like Transamerica get lauded for authenticity. Next time you see that movie at the store, you may notice they use a lenticular image that interchanges between Felicity Huffman as her character in the movie and Felicity Huffman as she would look on the red carpet, as if the movie can’t sell itself on its own merits. THAT is offensive.
    Also, this business of a cisgender person making a trans movie and if they have the right, yadda yadda yadda, is like saying Spike Lee has no right directing movies about white people. These arguments are full of so much fallacy, and I question how many detractors have actually seen the fucking movie.

  14. @Lisa Daniel
    Not that I have any illusion that you will even venture back to this post, much like Mr Luna, your intent was simply to tell trans people that shit smells like roses and your work is done.
    Here is my observation as a trans woman who started transition 10 years ago after living as a gay man for 5 years. The only time cis GLB people mention words like “discussion” and “conversation” to trans people is when they are in the process of screwing us over or got caught doing something that reinforces our marginalization.
    How about we have a conversation about how the cis-GLB uses trans lives and identities as props for their movement. Can we discuss ways to tell the truth about trans history that doesn’t position the needs of cis GLBs as important at all? Would we be able to ponder for a minute how/why is would have been even remotely acceptable to dress up as a “Ticked off Trannie”? It is troubling this came from a couple trans guys – but seriously… “Lets have a drag show at a film that trans women have been very vocally criticizing” – yeah… classy.
    I’ll show up as Capt. Cis-Glb and bumble around and smack into walls.. that’s my superhero.

  15. Natlaie – I saw the film twice. I’m a huge fan of the genre. I didn’t mind some of it, I hated parts of it, and I was impressed with the technical aspects of the film based on the budget.
    I will say, the part you so soundly dismissed is actually an important part. Cis people making movies about trans people have historically been utter rubbish. I can’t think of one off hand that wasn’t full of crap. This film included. Much like straight people have been notoriously bad at films dealing with gay men and lesbians, cis people seem to be really bad with trans characters.
    I don’t want to get into the finer points of the film here, but I can. I will say that the second viewing I watched it with two friends and my bf (all cis one gay 2 straight) who had no knowledge of the film beforehand. They all assumed the characters were gay men who did drag, not trans women. We also thought the final scene – the “empowerment part” was played for laughs and that the final revenge was flat.
    I’m also curious – and genuinely so, what Real discussion is happening around the film? What was discussed at your panel? Because I’m really not seeing much discussion beyond “This movies has problems” > “STOP CENSORING ART!!! XOMG!!11one!!”

  16. Hi Lisa, thanks for your comment. I apologise for the typo of your name in the open letter.
    I personally think the change in theme makes a big difference symbolically. As a trans person, I would be a lot more comfortable going to a session where the audience is encouraged to identify (with) the trans characters as heroes rather than belittle anti-trans violence and mimic/mock our appearance and anger.
    It’s good to have public acknowledgement of the problematic handling of the event, and I do believe that MQFF will learn (and is learning) from this debacle. Thank you.
    I don’t think I will make it back to comment here again, as I need to take a break from the issue. However, I also want to say thanks to Hoyden About Town for your continuing support of trans people and issues.

  17. “Very happy to see the discussion sparked by the inclusion of Israel Luna’s film Ticked off Trannies With Knives – seems it’s been worth it, just for that alone.”
    Lisa, I beg to differ. This is about way more than Ticked Off Trannies. Let us put this in historical perspective. MQFF has always been rather blind where trans representation is concerned. The trans programming panel only happened, in fact, because so many frustrated Melbourne trans people bitched about MQFF’s constant devaluing of trans films in private that one or two people decided to step up and change things from the inside of MQFF. Kudos to them. However, the trans panel appears to function as a tokenistic way to demonstrate that MQFF cares about trans representation. The existence of the trans panel appears to have had no effect on the way MQFF programs way less representations of transness than boring, homonormative gay coming out stories. At this year’s festival, like every other festival in recent memory, many people will miss out on seeing trans-themed screenings because MQFF doesn’t bother to put them in the larger cinema. This is not just about “bums on seats”. The trans and allied community DOES turn up every year, and we have to compete with each other for tickets to the few films shown. This is the history that informs the current controversy.
    Additionally, your comment that you’re “very happy” to see discussion happen is clearly disingenuous. The only discussion happening right now is about how MQFF sucks. It’s not about the content of Ticked Off Trannies With Knives (which is why your snarky comment that this is just “internet gossip by people who haven’t seen the film” makes no sense). If your intention was to facilitate community discussion, you would have screened the film with a community panel inclusive of the trans people who might feel angry about this film — as has been done elsewhere, and at MQFF for other “controversial” programming choices. But trans people evidently matter so little to MQFF that you thought it would be fine and dandy to stir up some controversy and get more people along to the film. After all, that’s what matters, isn’t it? “Bums on seats” — at the expense of alienating the Melbourne trans communities or having any shred of political integrity. What a pity.

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