June 14, 2021

Kronstadt as Gender Anarchy

from CrimethInc.

In 1921, the Russian Revolution came to an end with the storming of the island of Kronstadt, where soldiers, sailors, and workers had revolted against the autocracy of the Bolshevik Party in favor of grassroots Soviet power. In the early years of the 21st century, a trans and queer filmmaking collective set out to shoot a film evoking the story of this rebellion. Featuring what is arguably the largest cast of trans actors in the history of cinema, Maggots and Men reimagines the Kronstadt revolt from the standpoint of a queer utopianism. The result is a haunting masterpiece that breathes life into the memory of the past.

Continuing our series commemorating the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Kronstadt rebellion, we interviewed filmmaker Cary Cronenwett, who conceived and directed Maggots and Men. Our discussion explores the film’s significance as a radical affirmation of trans bodies and identities, the historical sources that the participants engaged with, and the overlapping political and gender revolutions that the film envisions, exploring the possibilities of cinema as a vehicle for the utopian imagination.

“I don’t think that revolution is dead. I think there are revolutionary possibilities all around us and avenues to work for change.”

You can stream Maggots and Men here.

Trailer.


How did you first encounter the story of the Kronstadt Rebellion? How did the idea of formulating it into a contemporary trans and queer feature film take shape?

Maggots and Men started with the concept of setting a film in a definitively all-male environment (such as a naval base) then casting it with actors of different gender expressions and bodies, thus redefining “male” for the audience. I’d done this previously with schoolboys in boy’s school in Phineas Slipped, a short I completed in 2001. I’d spent several years making Phineas, so after it was finished, everyone was asking me what was next. When I visited my friend Allison in London and she asked, I told her I wanted to make a sailor movie and I was looking for ideas, something historical—I didn’t want to make anything light or sexy about the US military, so it needed to be set in another time and place.

She said she’d heard of an island of anarchist sailors—“What could be dreamier?”—and I agreed. In that moment, that was actually all she could tell me. So it was funny that it was already mythologized and told to me as a rumor. Who were they? Were they pirates? I did a search and quickly found Kronstadt. I’d made up my mind right away that they, whoever they were, were perfect for my movie.

My imaginings were enough, but as I delved into the research, I got more and more involved in the actual history of Kronstadt. I’m excited by revolution and ways we can transform society; that was my impetus to start making films, to challenge people’s perception of gender. I’m influenced by anarchism and communalism, and the film was a way to engage with these ideas. The conversation above with Allison took place in a squatted funeral parlor where she was living at the time. She was part of a squatting community in South London, where I visited as often as I could and had lots of magical times. I’d wanted to move there, and because I never did, I had this romanticized idea of what it would be like to live in that anarchist utopia.

In making Maggots, there was a lot of emphasis on the process of the filmmaking; we prioritized the experience of being on the set or in a scene. The politics of how we ran the set, recruiting, casting, etc. were important and discussed at length. We were constantly revising and in a state of flux. We collected building materials off of the Craigslist.org “Free” section and dug through dumpsters. We were on a tight budget, but we were also consciously trying to minimize our footprint—buying as little as possible and using things that were otherwise going to waste. While making this movie, in a way, we created our own intentional community.

Photograph by Andrew Wingler.

It’s all non-professional actors. Very few people, cast or crew, were paid beyond travel expenses. We drew people in from different networks: trans folks, radical queers, and film people, and also through activist groups people were part of, networks of radical left that were already quite strong in San Francisco. We were excited by the aspect of different people attracted to different aspects of the project (left history, film, queer) coming together and working with each other.

It took five years to make, and there were a couple of years when we were in production when it was a lifestyle. It wasn’t a typical movie set. We built a studio in Ilona’s backyard [Ilona Berger, the Director of Photography]. Actors would do cooking shifts and build sets, and the crew served as extras. We had sort of a “shoot-then-recover” approach. Between shoots we had Sunday night sewing parties, where Flo would cook fabulous meals, and we’d put people to work sewing or making stencils. Both Flo McGarrell (one of the Art Directors) and Travis Clough (the actor that played Kilgast) moved out to San Francisco to work on the film and moved into my flat, and we sort of lived in the project. My relationship with Travis and close friendship with Flo really added to the lack of boundaries between the film and my life and also the sweetness of that time. The film consumed us… Looking back, it really was a kind of utopia.

I think the pinnacle of this immersion came when we’d built the set for Kilgast’s sleeping quarters in the basement of an apartment building. Travis and I slept on the set so that we didn’t have to load the equipment out that night and back in in the morning. It was a fake bed, just boards and some burlap bags that we’d made for the scenes at the fort. Still, we thought it was a good idea. It was cold, but it was fun. I remember we felt like we crossed through and became the movie that night.

There were a lot of sort of uncanny connections to source material. One example is Battleship Potemkin. Of course, Potemkin is historically relevant because it involves the same fleet of sailors; but once we dug into the material, the relevance became quite layered. When I watched Potemkin, I was surprised that it was so homoerotic. As I researched, I quickly learned that Eisenstein was gay, and through this lens, I could understand the homoeroticism in Potemkin as his way of inserting his own interventions into a retelling of history. This loosely paralleled what we were doing, and this through line connected us personally to the material.

When describing the process, I have to say that there was a sort of a cosmic element in the way things aligned. Flo felt compelled to work on Maggots because of a dream he had that connected him to the project. He brought a lot of magical energy and had sort of a way of divining or manifesting things. And magic aside, there was a real sense of a higher purpose. We felt like we were a part of something special—there were the revolutionary ideas and the inspiration from and fascination with the source material. It was also a unique collaboration of trans folks and much needed celebration of trans self-acceptance. I think we all felt compelled, for one reason or another—that we had to make this film.

Ilona Berger. Photograph by Andrew Wingler.

Among those who were involved in the film, how did you engage with the history of the rebellion? Were most of the participants familiar with it, or learning about it for the first time? What conversations did you have about the history and how it connected to what you were trying to do?

We would share the history of Kronstadt with each new person. People got interested and borrowed books. Most people hadn’t heard about the story, including the handful of Russians (who had been born in the Soviet Union) that worked on the film because the history was erased. We would have books on set that people could read in their free time—not just the history of Kronstadt, but also the Blue Blouse theater. We had a couple of giant Constructivist Art books and folders filled with photocopies of Russian art and design from the time period, Meyerhold poses, etc. Ilona Berger, the Director of Photography, was always bringing Russian films on VHS. We got excited about things and hosted movie nights. We felt very connected to the Constructivist and protest art—the props made out of cheap materials mirrored work that we had been producing as artists and activists.

The history of Kronstadt became very important to us when Ilona and I were writing the script, and likewise for Blake Nemic and I when we were working on the first draft. I had originally intended it to make a much more experimental film—less story, more sex, less history—but over time the history became very important to us and got shifted to the forefront. I think anyone involved in any social justice movement asks themselves how much they are willing to sacrifice, and it was fascinating to imagine what it must have been like for the sailors.

Cary Cronenwett and Samara Halperin. Photograph by Andrew Wingler.

So far as I know, this film probably has more trans actors than any other in the history of cinema. Yet it includes practically no explicit or direct invocations of trans identity; it conjures a world in which trans embodiment is totally unmarked (to the point where a cis/straight viewer might not even register how profoundly their assumed gender and bodily norms are being subverted). Tell us about the choices behind this approach, and how the film’s aesthetic choices relate to it—lighting, color, camera angles, voiceovers and dialogue or lack thereof.

Yes! There are lots of trans actors. We were intent on getting as many trans folks in the film as possible. (I finally counted and came up with something like 77.) We were particularly excited by the mushroom picking scene because the trans kid in the scene was only eight at the time. We had fun recruiting people for cameos, such as Susan Stryker who is yelling out of a window in the strike scene. I felt that the film could function loosely as some sort of testament to the gender revolution that was taking place at the time with San Francisco at the epicenter. It was an important aspect of the filmmaking process that we were consciously collaborating on an art project with other trans people in both cast and crew.

While trans identification was definitely part of the discussion while making the film and trans camaraderie an important aspect of production, in the space of the film, for the viewer, I wanted the sailors to simply be accepted as male rather than necessarily specified as trans. As far as the lighting, color, and camera angles, those choices were primarily about mimicking early film, though we did knowing use the low camera angles, typical of Russian film, to portray the sailors as heroes. We consciously placed trans bodies into the sort of iconic imagery of the revolutionary hero. The use of voice over (by a cis actor) was not at all about taking away the voice of the (trans) actors, though that aspect was actually discussed at one point. (I often had to defend my decisions to the group or at least to Ilona and Flo.) The actors had spent so long rehearsing and learning their lines that it was disappointing for some to learn that the audio wasn’t likely to be used. The decision to use voiceover came from wanting to create cohesion and have the film be in Russian, as well as to create the feel of a silent film.

Esa Schneider. Photograph by Andrew Wingler.

The film makes a number of allusions to the classic film The Battleship Potemkin, from its title to scene of the sailors in the hammocks. What tricks and tropes did you draw from Eisenstein and early Soviet cinema? Are there other references to past films or artistic works? What were some of the other works that inspired you in the process of making the film?

I had some of the ideas for the general approach going in: that the film feel more like a collage than a seamless narrative, that’s some scenes would feel chaotic and tight, while others calm, and open; the film would be sweet and sad, gritty and grainy like Un Chant d’Amour. These ideas became more refined with research. Flo showed me Daisies, which became an example of the collage I’d had in mind. Ilona showed me the contrasting editing styles of Soviet cinema; the quick, jarring cuts of Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera) and the flowing, wide open landscapes of Dovzhenko (Earth)
The hammock scene, the plate smash, the maggoty meat all reference scenes from Potemkin.

Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin.

I read Eisenstein’s texts about his dialectical approach to editing. The juxtaposition of the meat grinder shot between the sailor smashing the plate and Trotsky demanding the sailor’s surrender and inserting the maggots into the battle is meant to push the viewer into drawing a conclusion about where the sailors were heading—to make a statement that war is death. That soldiers are pushed into battle like meat through a meat-grinder. These scenes loosely parallel the scene in Strike, in which Eisenstein intercuts a demonstration that is suppressed by the Army and a cow being butchered.

The windows in the cabaret are a nod to Querelle (Fassbinder). The group exercise draws inspiration from Beau Travail (Claire Denis). The Young Pioneer (Justin Kelly) who is executed while holding the jug of milk is inspired by a scene in a Soviet film, The Commissar (Askoldov).

The Blue Blouse Theater Troupe actually existed and many of the tableaus in the film are recreated from photographs from their actual performances. There’s an excellent text about them called Revolutionary Acts
by Lynn Malley. In the boxing scenes that reappear in the battle, The Blue Blouse are performing biomechanical exercises developed by Meyerhold, who was a Soviet theater director at the time. Meyerhold had this fascinating approach to acting that had to do with total muscle control and trained actors with yoga-like poses, gymnastics, and breath control. The person who worked with Zoe Fife, the Blue Blouse choreographer, to develop the scene was actually trained in biomechanics by someone who had worked with Meyerhold.

The Blue Blouse agitprop group in Maggots and Men. Photograph by Daniel Nicolleta.

We’ve been debating the meaning of the title. Who are the men—and who are the maggots? How should we understand the brief powerful moments when the wriggling maggots appear, in the 1917 conflict between Stepan and the officer and the disturbing climactic montage as the Red Army attacks at the end? What other binaries does the dichotomy between maggots and men stand in for—or destabilize?

The title, Maggots and Men, references one of the chapters of Battleship Potemkin that is actually called “The Men and the Maggots,” in which the sailors complain that the meat is maggoty; the officers deny it and tell them to eat it anyway, and mayhem ensues. This event spurs the mutiny on the ship. An abbreviated version of the scene where the sailors point out the maggots to their commanding officer is recreated in Maggots and Men. The maggots are evidence of the intolerable conditions that the sailors are forced to live in. In my film, the maggots also represent death on the battlefield. In a historical revolutionary context, the term “maggots” has been used to refer to bureaucrats or non-party members as parasites that are leaching off the people, as opposed to the workers that are contributing to society. Maggots and Men asks what it means to be a man, and shows more than one answer, with Kilgast and Petrichenko choosing different paths.

Rhani Remedes and Brody Elton. Photography by Andrew Wingler.

Maggots and Men offers a powerful visual celebration of the transmasculine body. The scenes of the sailors working, playing, swimming, dancing, fucking, and fighting offer a fascinating portrayal that both celebrates and remixes masculinity. How were you and the other participants thinking about this during the filmmaking process? How did it inform the visual aesthetics? How does the film encourage us to rethink gender and masculinity?

There was definitely an awareness on the set around trans/body positivity and it was really beautiful. It was sort of a celebration of self-acceptance. I think the swimming scene is really important—that the actors, that trans bodies are portrayed as beautiful and natural, and that their backs are to the camera in an organic way, not as if they are hiding. Then in the sauna scene, we see a reveal and though it’s somewhat obscured by the steam, there is a penis. The idea is that the film is not going to give you a clear answer as to whether the actors are trans or not and is making the argument that it shouldn’t matter.

The path to living as trans can be challenging. I can’t speak for everyone, but many of us share a common feeling of being at odds with our bodies, and that alone can be the cause of a lot of pain. Many people are processing the fallout from experiencing rejection or lack of support from families and friends, face challenges at work or have trouble finding a job. While living as trans and expressing one’s gender can be a positive force, it can also be stressful or feel isolating. I think Maggots was fulfilling a need—by collaborating on something artistic, it was a way to be part of something affirming. To find the actors, we put flyers up at Tom Waddell, the trans health clinic, and recruited people from bars around San Francisco like The Eagle and The Lexington. We also did call outs on the internet and such, and people came from all over to participate.

The locations were primarily in San Francisco and the surrounding area, but we did the frozen ocean scenes in Vermont where Flo was living before coming to San Francisco. Flo’s parents had a giant house and he put people up for a long weekend. People came from all over the East Coast, including a whole vanload of people from New York, because they wanted to participate. It was really special. Maybe people were curious and maybe it sounded like fun, but I think people came because they were jumping on the opportunity to collaborate with other trans people.

Other people were drawn to the project because they’d seen Phineas Slipped. A lot of people really identified with Phineas Slipped—one person wrote on his LiveJournal that he felt beautiful for the first time when he saw that film, which was why he was working on Maggots and Men. It was really moving for me to hear stuff like that. The project took on a lot of importance, like a responsibility, which I took very seriously. We all did. These films really come from not only wanting to be accepted as male, but desired as male. I think that’s something lot of trans guys can really relate to.

Photograph by Andrew Wingler.

One of my favorite scenes is the first one in the bar, with wild music and dancing and gender chaos. What experiences or fantasies fueled this vision of an unruly trans and queer utopia?

Wild parties and picnics (as well as flyers and endless meetings) are important parts of an anarchist utopia. We wanted to show a mix of cosmopolitan and rural folks, arty weirdos like the bartender. The wild women are party girls that came from St. Petersburg, and if we’d had a larger budget, we would’ve seen them arrive in a sleigh. The women were also important because it is problematic to imagine a utopia without them, so this scene carried that importance.

One cool thing about the scene is that the costume design was done by Flo and a team of five women, all of whom are in the scene, including Flo in a dress he designed.

I really wanted them to be doing the Charleston, but after extensive research, I decided the foxtrot was more appropriate. The folk dances are meant to visually show that people had a peasant background, though they’re not historically accurate; we tried to get proper folk dancing lessons, but couldn’t make it happen. In the end, the folk dances were pieced together from somewhat random internet clips.

The cabaret scene is a fun example of how we emphasized the experience of participating in the scene. There was a lot of planning and dance rehearsals that took place before, and on the day of, the party-goers did get to have a party. It did get pretty wild. I remember one person got out of hand and had to be asked to leave. There was also a misinformation campaign on set, with someone trying to convince people that the sailors drank cocaine-infused vodka—and they brought some to share. The shoot just sort of transitioned into the wrap party. We were a wild bunch, and celebrating making it through a long stretch of shooting.

That shoot was towards the end of our longest stretch, 17 days, which nearly destroyed us. We were hanging on by a thread. We hadn’t slept. The set was built in the garage of the Bakers Dozen Co-op; we had to move a bunch of bicycles and tools out of the way before setting up and we had very little time. We’d been shooting the meetings right before and lots of thing fell through the cracks—like how the widows in the cabaret were meant to be set into walls with light behind them, but the walls of the set never got built, so the windows are just hanging against the garage wall. I remember thinking that that was a crisis, but we had to move forward with the day anyway. In the end, the dancers did great, the outfits were amazing. We’d gotten all of our shots and pulled it off. It was pretty amazing, and we all had a lot of fun.

Rhani Remedes and Abby Schkloven. Photograph by Heather Rene Russ.

One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way the narrative advances through a combination of expository theatrical scenes, with dialogue in English, alternating with scenes told through letters from a revolutionary Kronstadt sailor to his sister, narrated in Russian. What theatrical or cinematic traditions helped you craft this narrative structure, and why did you choose this way of framing the narrative?

We were fascinated by the images of the Blue Blouse and needed to have them fit in somehow. I also like the idea of interruptions in the film that show our hand in telling the story, rather than the film taking place seamlessly in sailor-land. The theater occupies a liminal, anachronistic space and the narration in English help to set it apart from Kronstadt in 1921. The narrative function of the theater is to lay out the facts of a potentially confusing story, taking that burden off of the letters so that they could be more poetic.

In the film, we can recognize the texts of actual broadcasts from Kronstadt, copies of the Kronstadt Izvestiia, and other archival materials. Was the character of Stepan based on a specific historical individual, or a composite of the rebellious sailors? Are the letters imagined, or archival? How did you access and choose between archival materials?

Stepan Petrichenko was the reluctant leader of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee, appointed by vote. I know very little about him other than that he was of peasant origins and fled to Finland along with around 2000 other people, including the whole provisional revolutionary committee. There is a short list of names written in the front of a book by Ida Mett, and all the names of the sailors used in the film were taken from that list. The names are of real people but very few personal details were included in the texts. Valk was a civilian from the island. Vilken and Kozlovky were real people. Vilken did come across the ice disguised as a Red Cross worker and offer them a deal. Kozlovsky was formerly a czarist officer and he did recommend that they blast holes in the ice (so the Army couldn’t walk out across the ice to kill them), which could have saved them, but the sailors told him to shut up because, basically, they didn’t trust anyone over thirty. The broadcast by the sailors acknowledging International Women’s Workers’ Day while they were under fire actually happened. The sailors didn’t agree on what to do. Many stayed behind and refused to believe that the army couldn’t be persuaded join them, while others ran. The sailors calling out to the army to join them and trying to persuade the army with leaflets was historical, and they did this to the last minute.

The letters are completely fictitious, as is Petrichenko’s sister Anya, to whom he’s writing. The letters were written by Icky A., and I think he did an amazing job of making the story come to life. We had a separate script that we used while filming, and the letters were added during post production as a way to make the story both more cohesive and more accessible.

Max Wolf Valerio as Kozlovsky. Photograph by Andrew Wingler.

Your portrayal of Lenin and his fancy for young Communist twinks to shine his boots is both one of the funniest parts of the film and also disturbing. What motivated you to use this combination of humor and creepy homoeroticism to drive home the film’s critique of Bolshevik authoritarianism?

The aim of the film was to present the story from an anarchist perspective and prioritize the sailors’ voices. Lenin and Trotsky are sort of cartoon characters, villains that forsake the sailors. Regardless of the communist ideals that they promoted, they chose to diverge from the ideals of the revolution, and in the following years were responsible for an unforgiveable number of deaths. Lenin’s and Trotsky’s lines are taken from their actual speeches and are left untranslated, to take away their voices. I’m not sure exactly where the Daddy Lenin characterization came from, though it was an obvious choice. Lenin was played by a leather fag who could bring his own boots. Portraying Lenin as a creep was just us trying to have a sense of humor and show his abuse of power; and, of course, pedophilia is the ultimate abuse of power.

Justin Kelley, Jeff Stroker, and Walt Thorp. Photograph by Heather Rene Russ.

Maggots and Men uses the format of tragedy powerfully, as we taste the sweetness of the sailors’ revolutionary utopia, only to see it overrun and the participants killed or dispersed. Tragedy evokes the hunger that embattled communities today feel for gender/sexual freedom as well as political revolution—but it also frames moments of joy and freedom as temporary ghettos under siege, ultimately doomed by more powerful forces. What were the advantages of framing Maggots and Men as a tragedy, and what limitations did that introduce? How does genre inform the politics and possibilities of a work of art?

With this project, it quickly became important for me to do the history justice, to do right by the sailors and tell their story responsibly. It really wasn’t much of a choice at the time; I didn’t see how to frame such a tragic event as other than a tragedy. In some ways, we did a very straightforward telling of the history. We didn’t discuss other options, like making it a time travel story, or whatever would need to happen for it to have a happy ending. I think it’s OK, and appropriate for the story, to have a sad ending. But one thing I really struggled with was that the story was too hopeless, that the takeaway would be that the revolution was dead, as my friend Omar Wilson commented after watching it. I don’t think that revolution is dead. I think there are revolutionary possibilities all around us and avenues to work for change.

The theme I was trying to explore with Kilgast and Petrichenko was: what does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean to be true to one’s convictions? It functions loosely as a metaphor for transitioning gender, in the sense that there’s not always a clear right or a wrong, and each individual needs to determine their own path. I worry that one reading could be: damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. For me, the real heart of the film is between the strike and the meeting when the sailors sent to observe the strike report back to the group—utopia before its unraveling. I’d like these images to prompt the viewer to imagine that another way of life is possible.

Travis Clough, Alex Polotsky, and Ilona Berger. Photograph by Heather Rene Russ.

What was the significance of the making of this film for the trans and queer communities who took part in it? Were there ways that the political visions and ideas expressed in the film formed part of the process of making it?

There was a direct connection between the politics of the film and our approach. The artists who were doing the poster art, Icky A. and Zeph Fishlyn, are both involved with print-making collectives that make political posters as a way to engage with the public and disseminate information. The band in the strike scene is a group that formed to play at protests and the actors in the scene and the people making props were mirroring their participation in real demonstrations.

We really were a work in progress; we never stopped revising the script, and the project was constantly redefining itself. I feel like this approach is a way of engaging with our radical queer politics. We welcomed input from actors, and often reworked scenes as they were cast and scheduled. For example, the sex scene with Kilgast and Petrichenko was negotiated between the actors. They basically just got to say what they wanted to do. They are actually having sex on camera, which was important because it was also a way to assert our radical queer approach and put our politics in motion, so to speak.

There were also moments where the film diverged from the Kronstadt commune. Most decisions were made by a small group, which was primarily Ilona, Flo, and I, though the group did fluctuate. The set builders and costume designers had a lot of freedom. It may have seemed as though we were consensus-based because most of the time we were all in agreement and we tried to operate like that, and a lot of us had previous experience with consensus-based groups. But there were a few times when it was put to the test, where I used my executive power, so to speak, and there was a lot of pushback around that. There were discussions about whether or not I was entitled to executive power, and I had to make a case for myself. Not only to discuss the issue at hand, but explain why I felt I was entitled to have veto power over other people. I made some decisions that people disagreed with, and I remember that a lot of trust was lost, which took some time to get back. There were definitely a few rifts, but I feel like we worked together quite smoothly overall.

It’s normal for a film to rework lines and develop characters as they go along. We really embraced this approach and applied it to all aspects of the project. We were continually asking ourselves, How can we be doing this better?—both from the standpoint of learning a craft and of our efforts to live up to our ideals.

Esa Sneider and Brontez Purnell in a deleted scene. Photograph by Andrew Wingler.

In several scenes, the film self-consciously reflects on the place of cinema: as the camera shows a camera filming the exercising sailors, or Lenin watches a film of the attack on Kronstadt and says, “Cinema is for us the most important of the arts.” Indeed, after the attack on Kronstadt, the Bolsheviks restaged and filmed a version of the storming of the island base purely for propaganda purposes. This film is part of a now century-long effort to continue the fight—the fight between the partisans of freedom and centralized authority, or between petit-bourgeois adventurers and the true revolutionary party, depending which side you take. How do you see the film within this historical tradition of artistic intervention?

I did wrestle with the idea of the film as a Propaganda Movie and how to have a sense of humor about engaging with that medium. This is seen in the portrayal of Trotsky and Lenin as cartoon characters, sort of writing them off; this is propaganda, because promoting a certain vision takes priority over truth. We were also conscious of how some framings, such as low-angle shots of Soviet film, overlapped with fascist imagery.

But the tone of the voiceover is so genuine and the letters are so earnest that the film doesn’t feel like propaganda. Furthermore, the film calls attention to itself as a storyteller, rather than presenting the story from a point of authority, or as a seamless immersive drama. The hand of the storyteller is revealed, and the viewer is aware that this is a telling of the history, rather than the history. Interruptions, such as varying film stocks and hand processing, call attention to the medium and remind the viewers that they are watching a film, as well as structural interruptions with the Blue Blouse Theater. The voice of the narrator is familiar, contemporary, and English-speaking, which also situates the storyteller’s perspective.

In the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, agitprop theater groups made performances that were a means to disseminate ideas to a mostly illiterate population. They performed the news of the day as well as communicating a new ethos being ushered in by the Revolution. I’d like to imagine that Maggots and Men offers a way for people to engage with history and a call to envision the future.

Strike! Photograph by Andrew Wingler.

How should we understand the relationship between social revolution and gender and sexual freedom that the film presents? Is one a metaphor for the other, or are both contingent on each other? Is there a (trans)gender/sexual equivalent of the Kronstadt Rebellion?

I’d like to think that Maggots and Men links the gender revolution or the movement for trans rights with other social justice movements. The film references issues of police violence, particularly against trans women, and labor organizing (the strike scene). It also touches on the government spreading lies with help of the media—labeling the enemy as terrorist to fight an unjust war—which felt particularly salient at a time when the US government and press were doing something similar during the Second Gulf War. I think it’s important that LGBTQ struggles be linked to anti-war movements and a broader push for human rights and equality. The mainstream LGBTQ movement really falls short in this respect. For example, I’d like the discussion around trans people serving in the military to be inseparable from a critique of the military, and the push to redirect funds away from the military into education and social programs.

Trans murders have been an ongoing problem and each one is its own tragic story. I think that the rate that trans people are murdered, particularly Black trans women, is a true failing of our society. The deaths related the government’s mishandling of the AIDS crisis shouldn’t be overlooked. There have been a lot tragedies that the government has had a hand in and there are certainly battles being fought, but I’m not aware of a trans equivalent of Kronstadt, and I wouldn’t want to use such a unique event as a metaphor. What really defines Kronstadt is that they were a politicized group of people who were on the side of justice that declared a position that made an authoritarian government feel threatened. Rather than attempting a diplomatic resolution, the government had them surrounded by the army and slaughtered, and thousands of people were killed in battle or executed. It’s notable that they were literally revolutionaries trying to steer the government back on track as it drifted off course. Because the sailors were on the side of justice, the Bolshevik government felt that their mere existence was a threat, which was the motivation for eliminating them. Murdering people because their existence is perceived as a threat certainly bears a similarity to anti-trans violence.

Cary Cronenwtt and Scout Festa. Photo by Andrew Wingler.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us! What’s next for you?

I directed a short for the ACLU about Eisha Love, a Black trans woman living in Chicago, for a series called Trans in America (2018). I’m currently working on feature doc about the same woman, who is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state of Illinois in an effort to overturn a law that bans felons from changing their names. I will start production in the coming months as soon as COVID-19 permits… and I’m looking for funders, so please get in touch!


Ilona Berger and Cary Cronenwett.

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