Workhorse Queen

Vancouver Queer Film Festival Goes Out and Proud with Sex-Positive Line-up

Fest offers a Drag Racefan favourite, the queer history of Sunset Boulevard, and kinks of all kinds

11 mins read

“There’s always time for a cocktail,” said Mrs. Kasha Davis in her iconic exit line from season seven of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The suburban drag queen headlines this year’s Vancouver Queer Film Festival (VQFF) with a screener of the doc Workhorse Queen, which chronicles her career pre-and-post Drag Race. While Drag Race has provided one of the biggest platforms for queer content ever in the mainstream, Workhorse Queen serves as a fun entry point into the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ experiences at VQFF.

This year’s VQFF has something for everyone regardless of who and what they fancy. The films celebrate gender and sexual identities of all kinds, but also kinks and fetishes of all sorts in a remarkably sex-positive line-up. There are many out and proud films to which doc fans can raise a cocktail (or mocktail) throughout VQFF’s virtual run. So take note of the following docs that are sure to rock your boat.

Workhorse Queen

Dir. Angela Washko
Screens: Aug. 12 to 22

Drag Race fans who loved the classic humour and home-cooked kitsch of Mrs. Kasha Davis might be surprised by this intimate portrait. This character study shares how Ed Popil escaped his unfulfilling life as a telemarketer and went all-in for drag. As Mrs. Kasha Davis and her husband raise their kids in suburban Rochester, the film tracks her hard-fought effort to land a spot on Drag Race after years of auditions. More surprising is the dogged effort to maintain a full-time showbiz life on the heels of her Drag Race success. It doesn’t come easily, and the doc illustrates how much RuPaul’s global hit has changed the face of drag. Fans don’t want to see just anybody: they want one of Ru’s queens.

There are queens a-plenty in Workhorse Queen as fan favourites like Pandora Boxx and Darienne Lake appear in interviews and spill the tea, while regal winners like Bianca Del Rio and Alaska make flyby cameos. For those who don’t win Drag Race, or never appear on the show, the circuit is now a hustle-bustle whirlwind of drag brunches, selfies, social media amplification, and profile boosting to stay fresh. The doc also dives deep into Mrs. Kasha Davis’s personal struggles after she made the leap but still found herself twenty feet from stardom, discovering that she had too much time for too many cocktails while trying to keep up appearances. The film charts her new career obstacle in becoming sober while retaining the charm and spirit that audiences love. Workhorse Queen is a hugely entertaining portrait of a star and the worldwide phenomenon of which she is a part.

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story

Dir. Jeffrey Schwartz
Screens: Aug. 16-22

Workhorse sees Mrs. Kasha Davis’s BFF Aggy Dune makes a Norma Desmond inspired audition tape in yet another attempt to land on Drag Race, so VQFF-streamers who a keen to dive into the queer legacy of Sunset Boulevard will want to catch Boulevard: A Hollywood Story at the fest. This engaging slice of film-on-film unpacks the honour and curse that Gloria Swanson carried after bringing her iconic character to the screen. The talking heads in Boulevard challenge the oft-circulated assumption that Swanson’s turn as the aged icon aiming for a comeback was a feat of art-imitating-life. Moreover, the film unpacks the brilliance of Swanson’s performance and shows how she inhabited Norma Desmond so well that she knew the role to be her ticket to enduring success.

Director Jeffrey Schwartz illustrates this sentiment by uncovering the hidden history of a ill-fated Sunset Boulevard musical, developed by Swanson with writers Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, which predated the Tony-winning Andrew Lloyd Webber sensation. But as the film draws upon rare archival accounts of the play’s development, and intimate confessionals with Hughes, Stapley, and their closest peers, Boulevard reveals how Swanson hued a bit too closely to character and sparked a love triangle by insinuating herself within the relationship of the two writers. Boulevard is, on one hand, an insightful study of one of Hollywood’s greatest classics and its enduring queer legacy, but also a touching study of forbidden love in 1950s’ Hollywood.

Raw! Uncut! Video!

Dir. Alex Clausen, Ryan A. White
Screens: Aug. 12 to 22

A very different kind of film-on-film story appears in Raw! Uncut! Video! This zany doc unpacks the history of gay porn pioneer Palm Drive Video. The doc’s a love story of leather daddies and acquired tastes as it introduces audiences to Jack Fritscher and Mark Hemry, the husbands who founded PDV when the realised the potential for exploring kinks beyond the pages of queer magazines by giving readers full-frontal realizations of their deepest desires. This judgment-free film offers a smorgasbord of vintage smut as it chronicles PDR’s homegrown productions that favoured solo males, often hairy and flabby ones, in ecstasy involving anything from leather, whips, bondage, concrete, hammers—you name it! The film doesn’t revel in the kinks to titillate, but rather to argue for the positive aspects of pornography that are often overwhelmed by censorship and (often valid) fears of exploitation. Directors Clausen and White situate PDV within the exploding AIDS epidemic and argue that porn provided a form of safe sex—and an educational guide for safe solo acts—at a time when gay sex was shrouded in fear and uncertainty. There are also some truly hilarious accounts of the tricks of the trade from the models both gay and straight who bared their bods to the world. But there are also some things in this documentary that you just can’t unsee … whatever works!

Well Rounded

Dir. Shana Myara
Screens: Aug. 19-22

The celebration of well-rounded bodies in Raw! Uncut! Video! receives a festival partner in the premiere of Well Rounded from former VQFF artistic director Shana Myara. Well Rounded celebrates body positivity and gives diverse plus-sized women a platform to speak candidly about their experiences with fatphobia. The film gives voice to women of different races, gender identities, and sexual identities to offer an intersectional study of the body. The film features a chorus of speakers but Toronto comedian and broadcaster Candy Palmater easily steals the show a disarming interview. She shares a traumatic experience in which her doctor referred her to another practitioner when her body size made it difficult to perform a pap smear. Palmater explains how the new doctor proceeded to body shame her and administer the test in an act comparable to a sexual assault. Meanwhile, a subsequent referral to a plus-sized doctor made the procedure a breeze, therefore illustrating a need for deeper and judgment-free understanding of body types and body sizes, even within the medical community.

Can You Bring It? Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

Dir. Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz
Screens Aug. 12 to 22

Blackness and queerness take centre stage in this dance doc that has many fans at POV. In their reviews, Marc Glassman and Rachel Gerry agree that this film is a powerful study of choreographer Bill T. Jones and his groundbreaking show D-Man in the Waters, a significant dance performance born from the AIDS crisis. The film asks how art endures and speaks to future generations of audiences after emerging from such a specific moment, yet Jones’s colleagues and protégés demonstrate how the power of D-Man is timeless because it invites dancers to confront the fire within. “Using historic and contemporary footage, the finale for both performances is filled with high emotion as the dancers, past and present, ‘bring’ D-Man in the Waters to a fitting conclusion,” wrote Marc Glassman while reviewing the film. “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters is a truly emotional documentary, filled with great dance and music.” VQFF also celebrates diversity and queerness in the feature doc Unapologetic and the short series QTBIPOC Joy, which also streams with a live component for QTBIPOC audiences.

The Vancouver Queer Film Festival streams August 12 to 22.
Visit the festival website for the full line-up including shorts and dramas.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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