Words by Katie Hagan.
We all need to be watching Xavier Singer-Kingsmith and collaborators’ short dance fashion film Unapologetic which premiered in October 2020 as part of BBC Arts’ New Creatives programme for filmmakers. Latticing movement and music with words, clothing and space, Singer-Kingsmith along with a medley of creatives including movers Naissa Essart-Nielsen, Katayoun Jalilipour and Sakeema Crook articulate the polylithic identities queer, and trans folx individually express and embody, using fashion and movement to elide any monolithic or romantic notions of what queer, and trans identities are.
Although Unapologetic runs for only five minutes, it most certainly packs a punch in more ways than one. It’s super impressive to see so many intricate strands woven into what is a fleeting tapestry of work about the beauty and trauma of being trans, and queer (I’ve included a comma here to make queer identity and trans identity distinct).
The film opens with three dancers standing apart back-to-back in a triangle, arms curling and swooping to the sound of white noise accented with heavily synthesized moans, ooos and eees. Mist tinged with sweet hues of purple, blue and pink envelops unabstract arms, limbs, faces, heads.
The bulk of the film features in segments, with each of the three movers taking it in turns to be in front of the camera. Dressed in a teal harness undergarment, Katayoun comes first. Singer-Kingsmith explained to me that: “the choreography was created by the dancers not myself. It was for them to tell their own stories.” A key decision in my opinion.
Katayoun rubs their tongue against the slippery slopes of their teeth and pops their chest to the words “infinite body” uttered overhead. Hands press on the torso as the second set of words “confronted by an infinite gaze” enter the space; “my body is ever-changing” marking the move to Naissa’s part. His head twitches to tsk tsk sounds; Naissa’s hand grips his wrist and eyes roll back as Hollie Buhagia’s soundscape switches in gear to soar. Naissa swallows the poisonous words “spit” and “dirt” and falls to the ground, their scapula bones undulating like the wings of a wounded butterfly. The film lingers on this great expanse of the human body, perhaps a nod to Naissa turning his back on the derogatory words and judging looks that wilfully gaze with no desire to actually see.
As I mentioned at the beginning everyone needs to watch this film, especially to see the movers individually reclaiming and refashioning their traumatic experiences, and to do so on their own terms.
It is affirming to see this film has debuted on a platform where so many viewers need to do their work in order to get rid of heteronormativity. On this point, it feels important that cisgender viewers be mindful of the following.
Unapologetic goes against this problematic idea that art must conform to the needs of its audience. This is a big issue of its own and a stance which in part has created a lot of the beige mainstream stuff we see today. It also begs the question of whether we can learn anything new when everything is the same. But I digress.
Refreshingly, Unapologetic goes against this grain. It isn’t, for instance, designed for viewers to conjure, project and get caught up in any romantic notions of what trans, and queer identities are (without really seeing for themselves). Romanticisation is a form of othering and a way of denying the reality of really shit situations.
In order to see trans, and queer identities, cisgender people need to do a lot of listening and learning. Cisgender people must understand the struggle – the spit, grit, feelings of unbelonging. Cisgender people must understand the difficulties, shame, and toil it takes to rise after being repeatedly pushed to the ground. In Unapologetic Katayoun, Naissa and Sakeema balance reclamation with struggle, beauty with dirt to create an unapologetic, anti-romantic account of these identities and their experiences. They do it with so much conviction and without pandering to the audience. I love that.
Sakeema’s solo articulates Unapologetic’s final tones of power and possibility. Dressed in puffs of pale pink tule – I heart Guia Bertorello’s fashion designs – Sakeema flicks, turns and arches swanlike to affirming utterances of “understated beauty” and “elegance”. Clothing, movement and words intersect at this stunning moment to celebrate her iridescence.
Unapologetic ends with the dancers replaying the star-like triangular shape. We have come full circle and much has changed. Unapologetic cleverly, not overwhelmingly, touches on various areas including abuse, resilience and power. Katayoun, Naissa and Sakeema look into the camera with questioning dispositions. Do cisgender people now see trans, and queer experiences? Are cisgender people starting to recognise their privilege if they were completely ignorant of it before? More importantly, do the movers feel seen?
Unapologetic gives rise to many questions that for years have needed attention. It’s great to see this film featured on a major platform. It is equally brilliant to see Unapologetic appear at the SF Transgender Film Festival and be officially selected for the Fashion Film Festival Milano. With such success in a short time frame, I am sure the momentum will continue.
Writer/Director: Xavier Singer-Kingsmith
Producer: Carolien Tiendalli
DOP: Michael Filocamo
Costume Designer: Guia Bertorello
Composer/Sound Designer: Hollie Buhagia. Images: Nova Lindblom @_itzn0va