Out of the Celluloid Closet

Sundance Premiere The Stroll is Essential Trans Cinema

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Sex work on screen has always been a subject fraught with inaccuracies. More often than not, the storytelling falls into the hands of those ill-equipped to explore or depict what life as a sex worker is actually like, creating depictions that range from fanciful to tragic. Perhaps even more questionably depicted are the lives of trans sex workers, despite having decades worth of history worth exploring and discussing. These stories mostly exist in documentaries, some of which are barely accessible because they were not considered something to prioritize in the realm of preservation. 

That The Stroll, Zackary Drucker and Kristen Lovell’s documentary feature that premiered at Sundance this week, opens with Lovell watching images of herself from Queer Streets and discussing the way her story has been told is particularly telling. “What I discovered,” she states while watching, “was that I didn’t have control over my own story.” It’s this statement that serves as a perfect motivation for The Stroll, a film that serves to enlighten audiences about what it is like to exist as a trans person and a sex worker. 

The film uses the testimonies of various trans folks who, for decades, walked the stroll – which was smack in The Meatpacking District where nothing but S&M bars, sex workers, and meatpackers really existed – to give a distinct glimpse into what it was like to live during this time period. From the moment they’re introduced, these guests become more than talking heads by virtue of the way the film presents their relationship with Lovell. It’s disarming, at first, to see how casually everyone interacts, conversing in a beautifully friendly fashion more so than any traditional separation of subject and filmmaker that might be expected. But it is precisely this brand of personability that makes for such a compelling watch, with each interviewee bringing an unprecedented level of vulnerability to the stories they tell and feeling more like a collaborator than a subject.

The Stroll uses individual stories as a jumping-off point to explore the larger meaning of the strip within New York City’s history.

To limit Drucker & Lovell’s feature to just this would be a grave misstatement though, as the film uses these individual stories as a jumping-off point to explore the larger meaning of the stroll within New York City’s history and the way those with power have criminalized and abused those being interviewed (and many others.) Lovell, whose voice serves as a guiding light through all of the information it provides, paints an extensive history of the ever-shifting landscape that is New York and the way it distinctly impacts the lives of trans folks. The filmmakers rather deftly shift between traditional talking head set-ups, an abundance of archival footage, photographs taken of these subjects and others in their heyday, and fresh footage of the film’s subjects revisiting the same streets they once worked and lived on. 

Beyond that, those who have watched The Lady and the Dale, a docuseries that Drucker co-directed with Nick Cammilleri, will be pleasantly surprised to find the same style of animation used to bring Elizabeth Carmichael’s story to life present here. The way animation studio AWESOME + modest brings to life the stories these people are telling is endlessly inventive, oscillating between playful and outright harrowing, and ranging from fantastical depictions of how these women imagined themselves as heroes (like Wonder Woman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) when protecting themselves and their community from danger to noirish depictions of the lengths that cops and neighbors alike would go through to harass them. 

The Stroll is confrontational about the reality of existing in a world that seeks to destroy and change you.

Some of these sequences carry the same weight that the testimonials do, and that’s largely due to just how confrontational The Stroll is about the reality of existing in a world that seeks to destroy and change you. In a nutshell, it’s a film about gentrification, not just of a community, but of an entire identity, and the way that individuals will attempt to drive out and change anything undesirable. There’s power in how frank and pointed every single conversation is, whether that’s a story about having to sleep in a movie theater because you had no home to go back to or joking about how you went down on a cop only to be arrested by that same man. It has no shame in calling out the mistreatment of a whole community by everyone from the politicians that criminalized merely existing as trans to those who claim to be part of the community, even making it clear that those who exploit trans sex workers for humor, like one RuPaul clip shows, are to blame for the way they’ve been treated over time. 

Each and every cut to a new clip only expands our understanding of what living through this era was like. The words of Lovell and Drucker’s collaborators are complemented by footage that starkly depicts what they’re explaining and each bit of testimonial is slowly elevated from casual recollection into something of a revolutionary act. But existence alone, however necessary it is, is not enough, and The Stroll’s focus on how many trans sex workers have become leaders of their communities and activists, fighting for change and a better life for all, is one of its most compelling features. 

It is nothing short of inspiring to watch this documentary and experience the way life has changed for many of these individuals. Every citation — of Sylvia Rivera shouting for the rights of her community, of an Instagram story in which GLITS founder and executive director Ceyenne Doroshow celebrates raising funds for trans housing, of footage that shows what life was like for trans people who were incarcerated at Rikers — reinforces how much this history needs to be told.

With The Stroll, Drucker & Lovell haven’t just succinctly told a dense history of one street in New York, its inhabitants, and the way they impacted so much of what exists beyond them, but crafted a truly essential piece of trans cinema by ensuring that the very people who lived that history were able to bring their stories to life.♦

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