Drag Kids filmmaker Megan Wennberg didn’t know what she was getting into with her first feature. Yes, the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia based filmmaker knew what the film was going to be about, but she wasn’t prepared for the glamourous highs and fierce energy of the subjects she would be profiling in her documentary (which makes its television premiere this Thursday on CBC Docs POV): young kids who have worked tirelessly to become sensations in the world of drag and performance.
“At this same time last year, I didn’t even know that ‘drag kids’ existed,” Wennberg says during a phone interview shortly before the film was to make its world premiere at the 2019 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. “This came together really fast, which isn’t normal for a documentary. Then again, this is my first feature, so I don’t really know what normal might be for this sort of thing.”
But in the world of Drag Kids, everything seems to come together fast and suddenly, so Wennberg’s experience was an immersive one akin to being thrown into the deep end of a glitter filled pool. Wennberg, who has backgrounds in short fiction and documentaries, was approached to direct Drag Kids by producers Erin Oakes and Edward Peill and to examine and profile several young people who dress up in campy, vampy, over-the-top costumes and strut their stuff on whatever stages will let them perform (which aren’t many since most drag performances are held in bars and nightclubs). Wennberg says that Oakes, who loves drag as an artform, was the guiding light for the project and the person who had done a fair bit of research on the relatively new and booming topic of drag kids before the director signed up. It would be up to Wennberg to follow the lives of four exceptional young people from varied corners of the world and their families as they prepared for a major group performance at Montreal’s Pride. In their search for funding, CBC commissioned the idea as a 44-minute film for television broadcast, but Wennberg and the producers discovered – perhaps unsurprisingly – that their young subjects gave them enough “looks” to produce a feature length version of Drag Kids, which entertained audiences earlier this year at Hot Docs and the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival.
Wennberg followed the day to day lives, preparations and friendships of four young artists who love what they do and continue to hone their craft in vastly different ways. Nemis, a.k.a. Queen Lactatia, is a detail oriented nine year old from Montreal with a huge personality and a lot of confidence who has become a viral sensation. Jason, a.k.a. Susan Bee Anthony, is an eleven year old person of colour from Springfield, Missouri with supportive parents who know all too well what it was like to be teased and bullied growing up. Eleven year old Bracken from Vancouver is the only young woman profiled here that’s dabbling in the heightened fashion, make-up, and performance style of drag, but her drive and work ethic has garnered her a lot of attention within her older peers. Stephan, a.k.a. Laddy GaGa, is a nine year old who’s originally from the UK, but currently resides in Spain with his family, with boundless energy, a wealth of emotions, and an undying love for – you guessed it – Lady Gaga.
Before Montreal Pride, Wennberg notes that none of her documentary’s subjects had met each other in person. They were only familiar with each other’s work through online posts and the proverbial grapevine. The concept of a “drag kid” is something that didn’t really exist until several years ago, but Wennberg observed just how much it meant to each of her young stars to meet other like minded kids and their families.
“A lot of these kids are aware of each other, mostly because there are still so few of them, and a lot of them are isolated,” Wennberg says. “We were filming in big cities where these kids were still the only ones that they knew of who were doing drag, whether it was in Spain, Missouri, or Montreal. They’ve connected through this shared passion because they can’t really be a part of the drag scene where they live, either because there isn’t much of a scene, or they’re minors who can’t go to the kinds of places where drag shows typically happen.”
“For these kids to come together and perform alongside one another at Montreal Pride was really amazing for them. Here they were allowed the opportunity to meet and connect with each other in real life instead of just seeing videos on Instagram or YouTube. Capturing the first moment of them all meeting was probably the most special moment that we saw. Everything starts off kind of slow and awkward, but then they just lose it and are beside themselves with happiness when they realize who they’re meeting for the first time. Watching them almost immediately sharing things with one another was phenomenal to see. They were so excited and so scream-y that it was just infectiously fun to see it all happen.”
On their own, each of the subjects in Drag Kids exhibits a seemingly unending reserve of energy, which is probably a good thing when one considers their chosen pastime, but something that Wennberg had to match if she wanted to keep up with them as a filmmaker.
“It was terrifying!” Wennberg jokes when asked about the challenges of following the energetic drag kids around during large scale events like the one in Montreal. “When we were alone with each of them in their hometowns, we were only trying to get a handle on one kid and their family, but once we got to Montreal it was a gong show. There’s so many big personalities and so much energy that trying to coral them together was frequently impossible. I started keeping a journal around that time to try to sketch out possibilities for things that might happen because a lot of times things could just go sideways in an instant. But you just have to stay present and be ready for anything around kids, and that’s also what I love about documentaries. You just have to be present and in the moment and open to anything at all times. It forces you to be completely there and ready to go. You have to be reactive and you have to be ready to adapt. It’s equally fun, stressful, and rewarding.”
Although Drag Kids is a film meant to show the work of these young people in a positive light, it’s also a project that hasn’t been without some degree of controversy. As Wennberg’s movie points out, there are still many within and outside of the drag community who think that children shouldn’t be performing these routines at such a young age. Many see the art of drag as something deeply sexual, and something that pre-sexual youngsters shouldn’t be attempting, Others openly rebuff the kids and their parents like they’re doing something wrong or that the children are being insidiously pushed into such a lifestyle. Wennberg understands the criticism and says that it all comes down to the degrees of permissiveness that the viewer brings to the material. She also admits that she had questions of her own going into the production, but that they were easily answered by her subjects and their families.
“The biggest question I had going into this was making sure that the desire to be a drag kid was coming from the kids themselves and not something that came from the parents or had otherwise been forced on them,” Wennberg said of her primary concern when signing up to direct Drag Kids. “With these kids, it was clear that they were doing it because it was something they loved and had a passion for. This is who these kids are, and it’s who they’ve been from a young age. They’ve been passionate about dressing up and performing since they could walk and talk. They’re being true to themselves, and they’re fortunate enough to have parents that are supportive of who they are. Hopefully the film conveys the importance of that support and that this is the choice of the kids. The parents are just along for the ride. If you ever see one of the parents trying to tell the kids there’s something they can’t do, I’m not sure how that would go. (laughs) They know themselves better than most adults I know, including myself, and that’s what’s so captivating and inspiring about them. They just have this self-awareness that I was in awe of. They know exactly what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and that they love it. We wanted to make sure that these kids were protected, first and foremost because even a small documentary crew showing up at their house might be leading to something bigger than they expected. We always wanted to be in communication and make sure they were safe.”
Like most performers, drag kids find their centre not only through performing, but by creating their own boundaries, something Wennberg had to be aware of while making her documentary. Each of these young people bring with them their own creative process. Some of the preparations for the stage are rather intense and solitary, while others can easily come up with something on the fly and need space for other performative considerations. Regardless of the artistic process, one of the most fascinating things Wennberg took away from Drag Kids and was inspired by in her own life was how dedicated each of these young performers were when it comes taking their work to the next level, and it’s something that was difficult to capture, but one of the most rewarding things to watch unfold as a viewer.
“I was already entering a world where I had almost no knowledge of it before I went in, so I was already hyper-respectful of any boundaries there might be at all times. I was trying to be as invisible as possible and just allow these kids to express themselves. Nothing was going to be orchestrated or pushed because they’re all artists who are all very different from each other. They can share certain things and sometimes they can be territorial, and I think anyone who works in the arts knows exactly what that’s like. They’re like any other artists, and all artists have different boundaries, especially with other artists. There are scenes in the film where these young people will learn about the boundaries of others, and they deal with these issues in respectful, mature ways, sometimes better than some older professionals do. Some like Stephan are more experimental, while others like Bracken are a lot more controlled and precise. She needs about three hours to herself to make herself up and get to a place where she feels comfortable about how she looks, whereas some of the boys need only about fifteen minutes sometimes. But regardless of whatever time and space they needed, we made sure they were given whatever they needed.”
Drag Kids premieres on CBC Docs POV on Thursday, July 25, 2019 at 9:00pm (9:30 NT) and on the CBC Gem app. It also airs at 6:00pm EST (6:30 NT) on Sunday, July 28 on CBC News Network.