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‘Riot Acts’ Celebrates Transgender Musical Expression

Madsen Minax combines his love of music with his love of film making in the new transfabulous rockumentary 'Riot Acts.'

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When Madsen Minax started planning a tour for his two-man music project, Actor Slash Model, he figured he would bring a camera along to make a road movie. But once he and his musical partner Simon Strikeback got in touch with other transgender musicians, that idea quickly transformed into a plan for what they’re calling a “transfabulous rockumentary.”

Riot Acts is the result of three years on the road, during which some 17 performers and bands who identify as transgender made music and shot footage at venues on both coasts and the Midwest. Minax and Strikeback spoke with these musicians—folks whom, Minax admits, they might not have met if not for the filming process.

“As we were planning the tour, we realized that we didn’t actually know many other trans musicians, or where would be places to perform that wouldn’t make us feel uncomfortable about who we were.”

Minax is the director of Riot Acts, and Strikeback and Minax share the title of producer.

Exploring Diverse Communities

Annie Corrigan: You traveled all over the country collecting footage for this film. What differences did you see between the folks you interacted with on the East and West coasts and in the Midwest?

MM: I can’t really speak for outsiders’ perceptions, because I don’t really have a clear picture of that, but I feel there is a difference in terms of how folks engage with their communities. San Francisco and L.A. and places on the West coast are so heavily saturated with “out” people that are very loud about who they are and making their presence known and organizing and hosting events. There’s this idea from within those communities that [friendly communities] don’t exist outside.

For instance, in San Francisco there’s such a huge trans pride community, [but] I think it’s good for folks to see that there’s a lot of stuff happening other places, too. I like that about this movie, that it’s able to show what’s happening in these different areas. It’s not all about San Francisco, and it’s not all about New York.

AC: Did you find that the musicians featured in your film were eager to tell their stories?

MM: Some were, and some were a little more reserved. It’s hard sometimes when you’re trying to make a living. Not like you’re avoiding tokenization, but across the board people are interested in being known for the music they write or for how they perform, and they’re not really interested in being known for being a trans artist specifically. Obviously no one in this film is trying to conceal their identity or they wouldn’t be in this movie. But, for the majority of them, that trans identity is a part of who they are just as [any aspect of] identity is a part of who any artist is.

Define Yourself However You Like

AC: A variety of musical genres are represented in this film, from rock and punk to folk and bluegrass to hip hop and rap. And then there’s the group Systyr Act, which I suppose you could describe as a comedic cover band that wears nuns’ habits. There’s something for everyone!

MM: We didn’t put a cap on what it means to be trans. All we said was the word “trans,” and if someone responded to that, then we weren’t going to ask them to prove their trans-ness. In the same way, we called for musicians, and we didn’t define that. It’s up to whoever is interested in being in this film to define.

I’ve been asked why the Athens Boys Choir is not in the film sometimes—but there are a ton of people who aren’t in the film! We asked him about it, but he said, “I’m not really a musician. I write poetry and I rap a little bit. I don’t really think I’m a musician.” But Katastrophe, who writes and raps and makes beats, is like, “Yeah, I’m a musician.” I feel like Systyr Act is the same: “We play music but we’re pretty goofy.”

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A Double-Threat Activist

AC: If you had to choose between your two loves, music and film, which would you choose?

MM: I would never choose! Film and video making is a little more esoteric than music is, and it also requires a lot more skill and craft and education than music does in some respects. With music, you can self-teach. And anyone can get a video camera and shoot something, but to present a seamless aesthetic of sorts or to have what I like to call that “filmic manipulation” that happens—to really have [an audience’s] emotions maneuvered—takes a little more craft-building.

AC: What did you learn from making Riot Acts?

MM: I feel like we just got lucky! There were no big surprises with this. One thing I definitely learned the most about was budgeting, as banal as that sounds. This is the first feature-length for me and also a first film that really involved a lot of money. It costs a lot to pay for four people to travel around the country four times! And I was like, “How are we going to pay for that?” But we’re doing okay. The screenings like this one coming up in Bloomington is what helps us out with that.

AC: Do you consider yourself an activist?

MM: I do consider myself an activist. I think we’ve come a long way from defining activism as solely the picket lines. There are a lot of different ways to be an activist, and making yourself heard is a great way to be an activist. Media is the best way to do that, because it’s something that’s accessible to everyone. It’s a language that everyone can speak because everyone can turn on the television. People who aren’t going to go to a protest might go on You Tube. So, I think this is a powerful tool to access—alternative forms of activism.

Watch The Film: Riot Acts will be shown as part of the Pride Film Festival on Saturday, January 29 at 2:00pm at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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