Berlinale Bloggers 2018 Interview: Shakedown’s Leilah Weinraub on creating a documentary, "Paris is Burning", and utopic moments

Shakedown
© Shakedown Film

As I’ve previously written about, Shakedown, Leilah Weinraub’s documentary about attending a queer black club for ten years, has so far been my highlight of Berlinale. I was lucky enough to get some time with the film’s director, Leilah Weinraub, to discuss the film further.

How did you find out about Shakedown?
 
I was at another gay club - a huge one where there’s like 2000 people, and someone gave me a flyer. The flyer was very good - it was one of the flyers that’re featured in the film.
 
What was it that made you want to keep going back?
 
Everyone was gorgeous. I was like… (looks to the heavens) thank you!
 
You spoke in the Q&A I attended after the film yesterday about having had to edit hours’ worth of footage - how many hours of footage do you actually have?
 
400.
 
And you spoke as well about other propositions for projects that you’ve had, do you think that this footage is something you’ll ever come back to?
 
I think… this is it. I mean, I like this story. So I filmed for a decade. The stories evolved in really interesting ways, but to be able to understand what happened in that decade, you needed to start somewhere. I really wanted to make a film that felt true to the experience of the club, and the experience of what I call a utopic moment.
 
How would you describe a utopic moment?
 
I feel like I’ve been able to be part of a few utopic moments. Inside of that Shakedown moment, I was like “something is happening”. It happens when people are connected, and working on something together - it’s an agreement between people that’s almost non-verbal, but it’s happening.
 
When I watched the film yesterday, I was struck by how revolutionary it felt. Did you feel like that at the time, or were you just trying to document what was happening in your life?
 
Well at the time, it was the beginning of reality TV, and like the democratization of celebrity. If there was any niche subculture, there was demand to find it, publish it, make a reality show out of it. I just wanted to make sure that this didn't get masticated in the same way. So there’s more of a protective imperative about this film.
 
When you came to make the film, were you conscious that it had to have a narrative structure - so like a beginning, middle and end?
 
It was a back and forth process. Sometimes you feel really influenced by traditional narrative structures, and the way that traditional documentaries are made. I feel the way that a lot of documentaries and social issue-based films work is that they’re problematizing something, and I didn’t want to do that with this film. I didn’t want it to feel like someone needed to intervene into this world and help. I wanted it to be more introspective.
 
When you were making the film, did you have any specific influences you were trying to draw upon?
 
Well I really wanted to make sure that it was cinematic, and not just like a TV documentary publishing a new subculture. There were so many influences… really I’m more influenced by fiction and narrative work than documentary. It was a combination of these very political documentaries, and films that are very cinematic and experimental.
 
I’m sure I won’t be the first or the last to say it, but it seems like comparisons to Paris is Burning are inevitable.
 

There’s a similarity between the films, but there’s also a difference. I don’t know if it’s a difference in time periods, or a difference in culture. There’s this whole thing in Paris is Burning where they’re talking about how voguing is about wanting to be a rich white woman. I would disagree with that, but I can’t tell if that’s what the movie imposed narratively, or if that’s what people were going through at the time. It doesn’t seem to me like ballroom culture [LGBTQ subculture in the US] is derivative of anything, it seems like it’s its own thing. There’s so many other origins I feel you can point to, in terms of black culture and couture fashion.
 
And it was directed by a white woman.
 
Right. So I feel like maybe she was problematizing, and I just wanted to make sure that what I saw was fab black culture just innovating, period.
 

Shakedown © Shakedown Film

Were you conscious at all about representation? It seems like there’s such a range of types of black women in this film that I’ve not really seen before.
 
I think that that’s how the world really is, and there’s an editing process where people try to simplify things, and that’s a problem. I just tried to be accurate, and that was what I saw.
 
With the subject matter of the film and yourself, are you worried about this being pigeonholed as a “black film”?
 
I would love for it to be labelled as a black film! I would love to be able to add to the catalogue and history of black cinema.
 
How important do you think it is to have these spaces that are so specifically for queer black women?
 
I think it’s important for people to have an idea about something, whoever you are, and just go ahead and make that happen. It’s each individual person’s role to participate in a collective fantasy, you know?
 
The film’s score is by Tim Dewitt (of Gang Gang Dance) - it seems sometimes at odds with the footage. Did you have a certain mood you wanted to achieve with the score?
 
I think in general, Tim is very moody, so there was no way we’d create a fictional upbeat moment. The sound is very introspective, and they kind of push you towards thinking about something. The score isn’t to traumatise the action, it’s to give the viewer space to think about things...
 
What else do you want to do next?

 
I’m interested in money, sexuality, power. I’m also interested in women and history, and telling these stories in ways that make you feel like you’re right in the middle of a storm. Those ideas are coming together - I’m filming again this year.