I was on FaceTime with my best friend when it dawned on us that COVID-19 was really about to cancel pride month—no parade, no all-ages drag dances, no gays making out in Cal Anderson. “I want to vibe with queers!” she said, flipping her green hair at the camera in frustration. I want to vibe with queers, I nodded back. Although coronavirus is dealing a massive and reverberating hit to our community, and to our teen summer pride fantasies, the Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival (put on by Capitol Hill cultural cornerstone Northwest Film Forum and Three Dollar Bill Cinema) is a nourishing socially-distanced dose of representation and genderqueer luv.
Closing night film So Pretty (directed by and starring Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli) portrays the dynamics of a tight-knit group of five gender-nonconforming friends and lovers. They hold immense tenderness for each other, a care which is shown through touch—casual kisses on the lips when they see each other in the crowd at a protest, an arm thrown over a chest the morning after. It’s a healing portrayal of affection between people whose identities are treated as ideological battleground sites by a violently binary society. Before quarantine, So Pretty would have read as sweet and radical. Now, it’s achingly bittersweet.
The film renders the viewer a fly on the wall as five beautiful—or let’s say pretty—androgynous queers (Franz, Tonia, Ericka, Helmut, and Paul) make coffee, sleep together, and talk in their enviably-decorated apartments. It felt like approximately half of the film was panning shots of interior decorating: immaculate white linen curtains, pink mood lighting, blurry polaroids on the wall of genderless neon bodies in motion. A brief shot of a mug printed with “ASS IS THE ONLY FORM OF ETHICAL CONSUMPTION UNDER CAPITALISM.”
Characters wander in and out of frame to erratic electronic beats, or sometimes to the ambient soundscape of the city in the summer. The soundtrack is one of the more compelling parts of the film, composed by Rachika S, a transwoman who also played the character of Ericka, and performed by female musicians. Though there might not be cohesive melodic lines, the soundtrack enhances the film’s delicate aesthetic. The polished texture of the rhythmic pulses underscore a dream of New York City as an effortlessly-cool queer utopia. That there might be darker or less-pretty nuance to the pretty apartments and relationships is hinted at, but ultimately glossed over.
The title is a translation of so schön, a 1980’s German novel by gay writer Ronald Schernikau that serves as an uneven throughline for the film. The book follows four friends (all gay, white, and cis) as they navigate Berlin’s gay scene in the 80’s. So Pretty superimposes this narrative onto a transfeminine, genderqueer, and multiethnic (although still predominantly white) squad, attempting to explore the tensions in the juxtaposition between so schön’s history and So Pretty’s present.
So Pretty is a fitting choice for the Translations Film Festival beyond just its trans characters. The film explores acts of translation: linguistic translation from the original German of so schön, and cultural translation from the gay scene of 80’s Berlin. The queer community is constantly grappling with the semantics of identity—is “queer” itself a fair umbrella label, or is it still considered by many to be a hurtful slur? What letters do we include in the LGBTQ+ acronym? The connotations of the labels we use have evolved so rapidly over the past 50 years. Trying to identify with queer media from the past is always going to encompass some type of translation to the language of our present subculture.
So Pretty embraces this fluidness to the point of being too slippery to hold onto. These themes were touched in passing, but I wish they’d been hit more consistently and in more detail. The allusions to the source material are too subtle and the meatier themes feel obscured by a gauze of white sheets and shimmery eyeshadow. It’s a beautiful film that certainly appears to have something thematically complex to say—the lack of accessible context, developed character, or narrative just makes any real emotional resonance fall flat.
Still, if all you take away from the film is the image of Tonia—graceful and thin with tattoos snaking out from under a white sports bra, reaching out to her lover Franz as they attempt to make the bed while still lying in it—it serves its purpose. We’re all just watching and waiting till we can sit on the counter in our friends’ kitchens, drinking coffee, and making plans to go out dancing again.
So Pretty was screened online on May 10, 2020, as part of Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival by Three Dollar Bill Cinema and Northwest Film Forum. For more event information see here.