Austin filmmaker PJ Raval is toppling heteronormative stereotypes with his gender-bending geriatric flick premiered at SXSW
As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.
For 20 years, SXSW has risen to become America's cultural hotbed of emerging cinematic talent. With the finest selection of shorts, features and genre films and a fierce nurturing of new young talent, SXSW offers us an exclusive glimpse into how they've conquered the independent film scene.
SXSW Head of Film Janet Pierson: "Austin is rich in filmmaking talent but PJ stands out for the breadth of his artistry. He's shown superlative skill as a DP, directed award-winning docs like Before You Know It and Trinidad, and collaborated on highly provocative videos with Paul Soileau (aka Christeene Vale). What's so beautiful about PJ's films is how they manifest the same generosity, warmth and humility we see in PJ himself. It's a rare gift to find a filmmaker with that kind of authenticity, and his films reflect that."
"I used to make fun of filmmakers, and here I am now one of them," laughs filmmaker PJ Raval from his office in Austin. The California raised director's rise to prominence has been a long time coming but, eight years after he was named one of the "25 new faces of independent film" by Filmmaker Magazine, he finally looks set to arrive – in a big way.
After dabbling in photography and installation art in his formative years, Raval began making short films at grad school before carving out a successful career as a cinematographer on the American micro-budget circuit. In 2008, he released his feature debut, Trinidad, a documentary about a town in Colorado labelled "the sex-change capital of the world", and the transgender community within it.
"I'm interested in stories that challenge mainstream opinions," says Raval. "For me, making a documentary about three gay seniors is challenging what we consider gay culture to be." This film, Before You Know It, follows the lives of three gay senior citizens in different parts of the USA over the course of three years, and intimately examines the societal issues they face on a day-to-day basis. "I really wanted to find people in areas that people don't necessarily think of when they think of the LGBT community," he explains. "I wanted to show that the issues they face aren't limited to one person or one city, but it's something that's across the nation."
“I'm interested in stories that challenge mainstream opinions. For me, making a documentary about three gay seniors is challenging what we consider gay culture to be”
This kind of universality is what makes Raval's documentaries so interesting, but it takes on a totally different form in his short work. In 2010, he began working on a series of music videos with "drag terrorist" CHRISTEENE that he describes as "aggressive and provocative, but also sweet in a way." The films have all screened at SXSW, and have all, as proudly displayed on his website, been banned from YouTube and Facebook. But despite their apparent polar opposition to his non-fiction work, Raval insists they're all of a piece.
"I make all these antagonising videos and put them online, and then people read about the social issue documentaries I make and ask me, 'What's the connection?' For me, it's about making work that tells different kinds of stories and pushes the boundaries of what's considered queer."
After he finishes the newest CHRISTEENE video, Raval's next project is a long-in-development narrative feature, but don't expect his sensibilities to shift too far from his non-fiction work. "Even if I was given the opportunity to make a mainstream romantic comedy," he posits, "I'm sure I'd figure out a way to make it a little bit queer."