Dallas filmmaker Israel Luna takes his ‘Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives!’ to the Tribeca Film Festival — but not without controversy
NY OR BUST
Film fundraiser at JR.’s Bar & Grill,
3923 Cedar Springs Road.
April 13 at 10 p.m.
When Israel Luna submitted his latest film, Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives, to the Tribeca Film Festival, he expected the usual "Thank You For Your Interest, We Wish You The Best Of Luck" letter. Instead, he got the news that his comedy-slasher-exploitation revenge fantasy had been accepted into one of the nation’s most prestigious film festivals, established in 2003 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkof in New York City.
The low-budget feature — shot in Dallas last summer over 18 days — follows a group of transgender women who are violently beaten by three men and left for dead. After they regain consciousness and fully recuperate, they are stalked by their attackers but turn the tables in graphically sadistic ways, resulting in a lot of blood … and a glimpse into the mind of a filmmaker with a seriously dark sense of humor.
"The idea actually came up when a group of us were watching the Grindhouse movies that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez did," Luna says. "After, we were just playing around and someone said I should do this with drag queens. That would be so much fun. I thought, ‘Well, let me try to think of how we could do this with absolutely no budget whatsoever.’ I thought a simple, old-fashioned revenge movie would be easy to write for me. And that’s what I did."
Luna has always been a big fan of ’70s-era movies like Black Mama, White Mama and Cleopatra Jones, so he thought it would be fun to do a contemporary movie in that vintage style.
Rather than blaxploitation, as those movies were commonly categorized, Luna considers his to be a transploitation flick. And just as people argued that the stereotypical blaxploitation movies brought to light the injustices against the black community, many fought for the end of the movies claiming that they were causing more harm through their perpetuation of stereotypes.
Similarly, a Facebook page has been started by Dallas transgender woman Kelli Busey, calling for the boycott of the film at Tribeca based on concerns that it "exploits violence against trans women for cheap laughs" and that it "portray[s] trans women as murderous vigilantes hunting down their abusers [which] is hardly going to improve understanding about this heavily marginalized group of people."
Luna wasn’t expecting this kind of backlash.
"I didn’t think that it would be such a topical thing or an issue, but we’ve been getting stuff about the name, the title, and using the word ‘tranny.’ And then there are people who are like, is it right to do an eye-for-an-eye kind of thing?" he says of the film’s critics. "When I was first writing the script, I just wanted to do an old-fashioned revenge movie. This group of people gets bashed. They come back for revenge. Done."
Luna is puzzled somewhat by the controversy because the main theme of the film is empowerment, not victimhood — and certainly not mocking the trans characters.
"I thought the gay thing’s been done, the coming-out-to-the-parents thing has been done. We’re just so past all of that stuff," he says. "Who’s now the most under-represented and misunderstood? The trans community. And now with all the new rights [issues] coming up and murders [against transgender people] happening, that’s what I wanted to do. Everyone says I have the corner on the market with the drag queens and the transgender women here in Dallas because I have them in all of my projects. I just have this fascination and love [for them]."
According to Luna, the Tribeca honchos told him this is the first featured they’ve screened where actual trans women play transgender characters in central roles (Krystal Summers, Kelexis Davenport and Erica Andrews), a bit of ground breaking he’s especially proud of … particularly since he didn’t condescend to the characters.
"When I was writing it, I saw them as women," he says. "That’s why when Tribeca called us and said they wanted to include us [I was thrilled]. It was huge because this to me isn’t a gay story and Tribeca isn’t a gay festival."
The title seems to be what has galvanized opposition to the film (so far, none of the critics has apparently screened the film).
"I ran [the title] past everybody. I had transgender women in front of and behind the camera. And I asked all of them what they thought of this. They were all OK with it. I even had other transgender women in the community say it was cool. There are people that disagree, but it’s not all of them," he says.
Krystal Summers, who plays the leading role, says she was converted to its message.
"Just the other night Krystal said that she was a little iffy on taking the role, but now that all of this is happening, she’s proud to be transgender and she loves the fact that it’s in the title now," he says. "It’s brought out this confidence in her."
On top of that, it’s entertainment, Luna says.
"There are so many other elements filmmaking-wise that you have to think of to get people in the seats and the title is catchy. The biggest thing is that we beat anybody to the punch that wants to make a joke about it. We’re already telling you that these are transgender women, now let’s move on."
Though that may be easier said than done for those offended by the title or plot, Luna hopes his movie simply achieves what he set out to do: Make people laugh, give them a good scare and fulfill latent revenge fantasies of anyone who has ever been a target of hate.
Whether its detractors will see it and find the transgender women who turn the tables on their attackers to be empowering remains to be seen. But Luna’s main goal will always be to provide escapist entertainment through his films by exploring taboo themes or putting his own twist on tried-and-true genres. Next up on his development short list: A (straight) musical hard-core porno.
Nope, that won’t be controversial at all.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 26, 2010.