• UO Interviews: Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel

    Meet Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel, directors and friends who have turned a shared passion for social justice, LGBTQ rights, and storytelling into a film that explores all these ideas through the lens of often-unheard voices in history. Gossett and Wortzel's upcoming short film, "Happy Birthday Marsha!," tells the story of transgender artist and activist, Marsha "Pay it No Mind" Johnson and her life in the hours before the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. 

    This month Urban Outfitters is proud to share a series of two tees — one featuring a portrait of Johnson and the second featuring trans Latina Civil Rights pioneer Sylvia Rivera — created in collaboration with writer Kate Schatz and artist Miriam Klein Stahl. Urban Outfitters will be donating 100% of the proceeds from these tees directly to an LGBTQ charity organization of the artists’ choice. A portion of proceeds will also benefit “Happy Birthday Marsha!”

    To celebrate the collaboration and the film, we went behind the scenes on the "Happy Birthday Marsha!" set to learn more from the directors about the important work they are doing to preserve and share Johnson's legacy.

    Above: Sasha Wortzel addresses the cast and extras before rehearsal.

    Can you share more about each of your backgrounds, how you met, and how you decided to work on this film together?
    Sasha: I'm a filmmaker and an educator whose work is largely concerned with our relationship to place, past, and memory, and how these relationships shape our understandings of the present. My films revisit and reimagine marginalized LGBTQ histories by intimately exploring the politics of space in relation to race, gender, queer desire, and temporality. 

    Reina has an art and activist background, and for over a decade has worked in social movements around issues faced by trans & gender non-conforming people, people of color, disabled people and people doing sex work. Reina and I met about 10 years ago through organizing work in LGBTQ racial and economic justice movements, and became friends. Over the years I have closely followed Reina's archival research and writing about transgender activists and artists, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). We had a lot of discussions about the deep erasure of the history of pride — how it started off as this radical march led by transgender women of color but was now a very corporatized and sanitized celebration with many people participating not knowing its origins. We wondered what we could do together about this as activists, storytellers, and artists. We decided to make a film, and five years later, here we are bringing "Happy Birthday, Marsha!" into the world at this really interesting moment in LGBT politics. 

    Reina: That’s all true! But I think Sasha and I met at a party :)

    Can you explain the premise of the film?
    Sasha: The film follows transgender artist and activist, Marsha "Pay it No Mind" Johnson and her life in the hours before the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. We meet Marsha and Sylvia and their friends and follow them through some of the mundane everyday moments of their lives from hanging out piled into one bed in a hotel room to doing sex work and encountering the police. The film ends with Marsha inviting people to wake up and fight back against the daily, systemic oppression she and other LGBT folks encounter, but the film isn't so much about the riots. It's more about how did we get to the riots, to the eruption, and how everyday choices by everyday people affect change. 

    Reina: We thought this was a powerful story that has yet to be told on the big screen from the perspective of people most vulnerable to the every day violences, whether from the cops, strangers or family, that were happening all over New York City at the time. While this is a story about the past, these issues still face our communities and are very much alive and present in the way we created the film. 

    Above: Sasha Wortzel and Mya Taylor (Marsha P. Johnson); Mya Taylor (Marsha P. Johnson); the film's cast, pictured L to R — Rios O'Leary-Tagiuri (Bambi), Eve Lindley (Sylvia Rivera), Mya Taylor (Marsha P. Johnson), Cherno Biko (Andorra), Miss Egyptt, and Stefanie Rivera. 

    How did you decide to anchor the film around this specific time in both Marsha and Sylvia’s lives? 
    Reina: We thought this was a powerful story that has yet to be told on the big screen from the perspective of people most vulnerable to the every day violences whether from the cops, strangers or family, that were happening all over New York City at the time. While this is a story about the past, these issues still face our communities and are very much alive and present in the way we created the film. 

    On a more macro level, can you speak to the conversations you aim to start with the film, and by sharing the story of these two influential figures?
    Sasha: "Happy Birthday, Marsha!" is about 1969 and it is also about now. While there has recently been an increase in visibility for transgender people in the mainstream, there is still a huge gap in terms of who is visible and what the conversation looks like. We're interested in utilizing Marsha and Sylvia’s stories as an entry point into dialogue about the very real and pressing harsh realities of what trans people—especially trans women of color—are navigating, and the lack of access to resources like health care, housing, and jobs. We hope that in drawing parallels between Marsha and Sylvia's stories and the present, the film will provoke a dialogue about what needs to change, and how. 

    Reina: Marsha had a deeply generous spirit, so generous that at a moment where she knew she would face incredible violence from the police she still fought back.The afterlife of her boldness and generosity are very much still with us, and so is the afterlife of the cross dressing laws that the NYPD was enforcing that night.  Honestly, little has changed when it comes to the NYPD or criminalization of black people, particularly queer and trans black people in the US.  

    So much of what Marsha had to deal with on a day to day is still a reality for trans women of color.  The beginning of 2015 had a trans woman of color murdered every week, and those were just the ones we know about! It would be a dream if black trans women and the people who love them left this film feeling more connected to ourselves and our sense of power, in the broadest sense possible.  If people saw this film and understood that Marsha’s weird and fabulous self was actually central to her ability to have a larger than life effect on her community —and continue to affect people years to come— then I could imagine that people would see that things like doing sex work and supporting sex workers, people with disabilities, living outside and fighting back against rigidly policed racialized gender norms, fighting back against criminalization in all its forms and supporting one another really only happen when we give ourselves permission to not be normal but instead be our complicated, weird and beautiful selves. 

    Above: directors Sasha Wortzel (L) and Reina Gossett watch Mya Taylor (Marsha P. Johnson) on the monitor; Mya Taylor in character, reading a poem as Marsha P. Johnson. 

    What was the research process like for putting the film and archival materials together? 
    Sasha:  We did a ton of archival research and interviewed and collected oral histories from people who knew Sylvia and Marsha. We read everything we could get our hands on that was written about that moment in New York City. All of this culminated in a screenplay that is based on and inspired by real people and real events. But that source material is really just a creative point of departure for us to reimagine what took place that day, and what this story says about our relationships. 

    Reina: We were really blessed to be sharing stories of a community we are already part of, to have so many relationships with people who loved Marsha and her friends.  It made a huge difference, people donated a lot of time and resources because they were deeply impacted by Marsha P Johnson.  People met us for drinks, took us into their homes, offered their music, showed us their home videos and blessed us with hilarious and moving stories of Marsha.

    Above: Performer Miss Egyptt; film extras on set

    Can you share more about how the film blends fiction and nonfiction in telling the story of the day?
    Reina: We had been researching this project for years and had a series of revelations about the information we were getting. We started to wonder why there wasn't more information on Marsha and Sylvia and even less on their friends and family. We realized that  so often what we come to know as facts or what we come in contact with inside an archive happens through a violent discerning process of whose lives are valuable to record, whose actions are important to note. So we started to understand that more important to us than “who threw the first shot glass at the NYPD,” “who had a birthday party on what day” or even “who was present at what time and on what day during the days of the Stonewall rebellion” was giving space for the for the lives and relationships of people who have been treated as disposable when it comes to recounting history in general or even LGBT history to fill the screen and to be the focus, full of agency rather than simply victims of violences. 

    Marsha P. Johnson had a crucial role at the Stonewall Riots and in the movement but we always wanted to share a fuller scope of our social history that extends beyond when we were simply only oppressed or acted incredibly exceptionally. As storytellers we wanted to tell something much more complex that challenges the hierarchy of what counts as history and that so often keeps our stories as trans and gender non-conforming people from ever surfacing in the first place. With that in mind we wanted to tell a story that wasn’t constrained by what these archives tell us we can say about their lives. As the author Saidiya Hartman writes, I wanted to write a story “that exceeded the fictions of history…that constitute the archive and determine what can be said about the past." We decided to get weird, to tell a story that reflected Marsha's emotional landscape as we have come to know it through are research and work. We are pretty excited about how the world will receive it. 

    Above: Kate Bornstein and friend play Stonewall patrons; Mya Taylor (Marsha P. Johnson)

    Can you share more about the casting process, and who will be playing Marsha and Sylvia? 
    Sasha: We put a general call out for Black and Latina trans women who were "confident, outgoing, and fabulously creative" to audition. We met so many talented performers this way. One of them was Eve Lindley, who in addition to being a phenomenal actress, also had an undeniable resemblance to Sylvia Rivera. Also Tangerine had just premiered at Sundance and a new actress, Mya Taylor, was getting a lot of attention. We saw her performance and knew she'd be a great fit for the role of Marsha. Many of the other roles were cast through our pre-existing relationships with queer and trans folks in the arts and in organizing work.  

    Reina: Cherno Biko and Rios O’Leary-Tagiuri who play Bambi and Andorra, the friends of Sylvia and Marsha, really brought it every day. Grace Dunham who plays Junior turns up just when Marsha needs a friend and is the friend that Marsha needs. We are also incredibly fortunate to have such talented friends who were close to or shared community with Marsha supporting this film. Marsha P Johnson’s theatre troupe director Jimmy Camicia has a cameo along with Jay Toole who has been a legendary presence in the West Village and NYC LGBTQ scene since the early 60s and during the Stonewall Riots. We also cast Stafanie Rivera, who lived with Sylvia Rivera in the early 2000s and now works at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project as well as my hilarious former co-worker from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Gabriel Foster.  

    Above: Eve Lindley (Sylvia Rivera) and producer Luisa Conlon share a laugh

    Can you share more about the filming itself — how did you recreate 1969 in NYC?
    Sasha: A lot of sweat, tears, and a small budget! We worked with a brilliant art department — Production Designer Gigi Rose Gray and Art Director Kaitlyn Darby — to transform modern NYC streets into the Village in the 60s. We also built original sets in the Bowery artist studio of our friend, artist Constantina Zavitsanos. 

    Reina: Without a doubt our cinematographer, Arthur Jafa, who has been a cinematographer for Stanley Kubrick, Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay brought a level of expertise and talent that I still don't know what we did right to be so lucky to have him with us.  That made a huge difference in terms of what and how we were able to film under a very small budget. Having AJ was like behind the camera left me confident that this film is gonna look and feel so good! Sasha and I had our first chance to look at the footage this week and all I can say is WOW.

    And absolutely we couldn’t have done it without the talented crew and real generosity of our community! We had a group of committed volunteers who helped us time travel alongside the brilliant art dept folks Gigi, Kaitlyn and John! 

    Above: the film cast, pictured left to right — Rios O'Leary-Tagiuri (Bambi), Eve Lindley (Sylvia Rivera), Mya Taylor (Marsha P. Johnson) and Cherno Biko (Andorra)

    Are you planning to make more films or expand this into a larger series? When do you expect for the film to be released?
    Sasha: The short film will tentatively be released in January 2016. This definitely is just the beginning of this project, and we are staying open to what form it may take, whether a feature film or even a series. "Happy Birthday, Marsha!" is, in many ways, a prequel to a much larger story since it really just hits this one moment, the beginning of the Stonewall Riots. We have been imagining that a series could be an excellent way to expand on these character's stories which span from the '60s to the early '00s. Series are also how people tend to consume media these days, and we want to share this work with a broad audience and reach many. 

    Reina: We really can’t wait for people to just see "Happy Birthday, Marsha!" It has been a very long time in the making and reflects the incredible process and relationships we built along the way.  That being said, there is so much more of this story we want to tell!

    How can readers who are new to the story of Marsha and Sylvia learn more?
    Sasha: Readers can check out Reina's work on her website. They can also watch the documentary, "Pay It No Mind — The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson" by Michael Kasino for free on YouTube. I also really like a book by historian Martin Duberman called Stonewall. And follow our film on Facebook and Twitter!

    Urban Outfitters will be donating 100% of the proceeds from these tees directly to an LGBTQ charity organization of the artists’ choice. A portion of proceeds will also benefit “Happy Birthday Marsha!” 
    Shop the Sylvia and Marsha tees