'Saturday Church' Shines a Light on Growing Up Trans

'Saturday Church' uses the ball scene, magic realism, and bold musical numbers to plot one child's queer self-actualization.

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Jan 12 2018, 8:43pm

Ulysses (Luka Kain) in a still from Saturday Church

One of the most impressive things about Saturday Church, a vibrant queer coming-of-age film opening in NY and LA theaters and VOD today, is that it’s the first feature from filmmaker Damon Cardasis. With bold musical numbers and bits of magical realism, Variety has described the movie as something like Moonlight meets La La Land, and the film represents a promising first step for Cardasis, as well as perfect timing for audiences seeking a new kind of coming-out film.

Saturday Church tells the story of 14-year-old Ulysses (exciting newcomer Luka Kain) as he wrestles with his gender identity and is ultimately thrown out of his Bronx home by his conservative aunt (Regina Taylor). Ulysses finds a new kind of family with queer youth on New York City’s Christopher Street Pier, who invite him along to “Saturday Church”—a weekly sanctuary where they eat, hang out, and practice voguing for upcoming balls. The film traces his ensuing queer self-actualization, as well as the love, mentorship and support Ulysses finds among his chosen family.

Cardasis was inspired to make Saturday Church while volunteering with the outreach program Arts & Acceptance at the Church of St. Luke’s in the Field in New York’s West Village. On Saturday nights, volunteers serve food, offer social services, clothes, emergency assistance, and provide homeless queer youth space to dance, perform, and channel their creative energy. St. Luke’s hosted a special advance screening of Saturday Church last week for its community of volunteers, administrators, and the youth who inspired the film (some even make cameos). VICE spoke with Cardasis a few days after the screening about his experience working on the film and sharing it with the people who inspired it.

It was moving to see a screening of the film at St. Luke’s in the Field. Tell me about your experience volunteering with the Arts & Acceptance program.
I found out about the program through my mother, who’s an Episcopal priest in the Bronx. I’m not very religious, but I’ve never felt ostracized or beaten down by religion because my priest is my mother and she’s a freedom fighter. I know that’s not the case with a lot of the LGBTQ community. I thought it was fascinating that these kids—many of whom have been thrown out on the streets due to their parents’ religion—are now being taken in by a church. It’s like two sides of a religious coin.

I met with the kids over the course of a couple months and listened to their stories. I also did the volunteer work of serving the kids food and cleaning up—anything that needed to be done. These kids have gone through tragic, horrible things at such young ages—abuse, having to live on the streets, everything they have to do to survive—and yet they were still finding community, strength, and joy where they could while caring for one another. I found that really inspiring.

How did it feel returning to St. Luke’s to screen the movie?
Surreal—I feel like I haven’t processed it. I remember going in and trying to say, "Oh, I want to make a movie." You have to convince people you’re not some creep. So to go back and screen it for them feels like a dream.

I'd given the script to the social worker who runs the program for her feedback, and she burst into tears the first time she saw it and said, "Oh my god, this movie validated the last 10 years of my life." That’s a testament to her work. It was amazing to watch her see it again, and to hear the kids who were part of the program be like, "You need to make a movie about me!" To have people proud to see themselves in a movie or feel like their story was told—that’s everything.

How did you decide to make this a musical?
I knew I wanted there to be magical realism and elements of fantasy. I liked the idea of Ulysses escaping his harsh reality through everyday beauty. The character is loosely based on myself as a kid; I was very quiet, I’d always daydream, and I was very in my head all the time. When someone's in difficult circumstances, what do they latch onto to get them through it?

When I saw the juxtaposition between the cafeteria conversations and some of the awful things these kids have been through, and then walked into the gymnasium where those same kids would perform and dance and vogue—there was a freedom and empowerment there, and for a moment they were the kings and queens of the ball. Just seeing that, I knew it needed to be a musical.

Did the musical aspect feel integral in constructing a queer narrative?
The first time I volunteered, I walked into the auditorium and saw one of the girls in the movie, Sasha Washington, doing full-on Beyoncé performances into her hairbrush—there was an arena she was performing to. There's a power through music that a lot of queer people feel—a strength, a fierceness, a "fuck you" attitude. And who doesn’t love a good musical?

The cast includes several trans actors—including Mj Rodriguez and Indya Moore, who are going on to star in Ryan Murphy’s Pose, about the ball scene in 80s New York—and it’s almost entirely people of color. Was that important to you in telling this story?
It was important in the sense that I wanted it to be accurate, and that’s the reality. The majority of homeless youth are LGBTQ, and the majority of LGBTQ homeless youth are people of color. To whitewash it for whatever bizarre reason would've been fucked up.

Have there been any reactions to the movie that surprised you?
One of the trans actresses in the film reunited with her mother, who had never fully accepted her. She said her mother told her she was proud of her for the first time after seeing the movie. That was pretty amazing. I’ve been getting a lot of texts and messages on social media with people saying, “I finally see myself on screen,” and I always said that if somebody could see themselves on screen and feel proud, it would all be worth it Someone in the UK wrote me about how they'd always picked on their brother and realized how wrong they were. One person wrote that he’s angry this film didn’t exist when he was younger, and that he felt proud to be himself. That means a lot.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I want the community to feel proud, and to feel they’ve been given a voice. I want people who aren't so exposed to the community to become more aware, open-minded, and supportive. I also want people to enjoy the movie—it is obviously a queer movie, but in some ways I also feel like it’s very universal. I always say it’s a human story first and foremost; anyone who’s been bullied or felt isolated and alone or remembers falling in love for the first time, and you can relate to what he’s going through.

It’s important to feel that everybody is connected, whatever your race, gender identity, seuality, whatever. Within the LGBTQ community, white gay men have it a lot better than trans people of color. If we’re all part of the same LGBTQ family, we have to fight for each other’s causes—we can’t just ignore what someone else is going through. It’s important that the trans community is respected and seen as individuals—not as the butt of jokes or clichéd characters. They’re talented, smart, creative human beings just like everybody else. I also wanted to show parents dealing with kids who are struggling with gender identity that all you have to do is really love them for who they are—it’s that simple.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter.

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