Becoming Community in the Archives: In Conversation with ‘Desire Lines’ filmmaker Jules Rosskam

By Miruna Tiberiu

 

Experimental filmmaker Jules Rosskam’s latest documentary Desire Lines (2024) delves into the oft-forgotten histories of transmasc communities in queer spaces. Genre-bending, the film weaves fictionalised stories with archival material and present-day interviews that forge an American transmasc community across time. Following Desire Lines’ UK premiere at this year’s BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival, I sit down with Rosskam to discuss the co-creation of queer identities, community-building through documentary-making, and the future of LGBT+ archives.

You find yourself in a dark, warmly lit room, its walls covered top to bottom by wooden panels. The gay anthem ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ by Sylvester holds your hand as you dive into the 80s. Your gaze languidly scans this space that oozes sensuality; men, wearing next-to-nothing, walk slowly in and out of shot; you begin to understand that you are in a gay bathhouse. Another person appears and addresses you, grinning: ‘First time here, right? Let me show you to the room.’ The space is suddenly replaced by a sterile, cold hallway. You had been following the gaze of a fictional protagonist, Ahmad, as he is led through a queer archive for the first time by one of its employees, Kieran. Ahmad is looking for answers about an identity he has not been able to grapple with fully until now. He is looking for transmen who, like him, are attracted to men; looking to communicate with their lives in the past in an effort to insert himself in the footsteps of their histories now. Thus, Rosskam’s opening sequence inserts us into his film’s intricate world.

Jules Rosskam at the BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival 2024. Courtesy of BFI & Millie Turner.

Jules Rosskam at the BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival 2024. Courtesy of BFI & Millie Turner.

Inspired by Ahmad’s journey through the fictional archive, I begin by asking Rosskam what his own process of discovery through research was like. ‘I make films because I have questions, and I follow that curiosity organically as it emerges and changes throughout’, he acknowledges. ‘The film starts by looking at this phenomenon that I had been witnessing among transmen, which is that when we come out as trans, so many of us seem to develop an attraction to men’. His journey started in the most organic of ways: through the present-day interview-conversations we see in the film with transmen who are attracted to men. The Covid Pandemic soon made this impossible. Rosskam has no qualms about this, though. He tells me that this challenge was ‘ultimately for the better’; he was prompted to continue his research from the confines of his computer screen. As he delved into digital archives, his film took on a new shape. He recalls being pleasantly surprised as several of his interviewees mentioned the crucial role that gay bathhouses had in providing them with a community that embraced their gender and sexuality alike. Delving into digital archives allowed him to further explore this beautiful, often unknown, part of trans history.

Pandemic permitting, Rosskam was eventually able to swap his computer screen for the physical spaces which hold such queer histories. He joyfully recalls his journeys through queer archives around the United States: ‘the first archive I went to was the Sexual Minorities archive in Western Massachusetts. It’s a non-institutional archive in someone’s beautiful Victorian home, and every room is named after a trans figure’. He tells be about how he slowly took in this physical space, thinking ‘I am literally sitting on a futon in a room just listening to an audiotape’. The archive slowly founded its place as one of Desire Lines’ protagonists. He tells me, ‘I then went to the GLBT Historical Society archive in San Francisco, which is the archive that – visually, at least – the film’s archive is based on. It’s cold, institutional, it’s in a basement, the lighting is terrible, and it’s devoid of colour and life, which is so ironic because it is ostensibly a place that holds the history of lives’. One such life is that of Lou Sullivan. An American author and trans rights activist, Sullivan was at the forefront of the conversations about the community of transmen who identified as gay, himself part of this community. He wrote back and forth to transmen like him, offering validation and support, and spoke publicly about his identity in the media. He was also a fervent advocate for a more comprehensive healthcare system for trans people living with AIDS, an illness that would eventually take him too soon. Rosskam’s film celebrates Sullivan’s life; a scene where Ahmad is introduced by Kieran to videotapes of Sullivan’s last interview on a televised talk show seeps slowly into the film’s fabric, punctuating each chapter.

Still from Desire Lines. Archival material clip of Lou Sullivan from 'Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I - Gender & Sexual Orientation' By Ira B. Pauly MD Professor & Chairman, Dept. of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences University of Nevada School of Medicine 1988. Courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society and the filmmaker.

Still from Desire Lines (2024). Archival material clip of Lou Sullivan from ‘Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I – Gender & Sexual Orientation’ By Ira B. Pauly MD Professor & Chairman, Dept. of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences University of Nevada School of Medicine 1988. Courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society and Jules Rosskam.

Rosskam names this material interaction with archival objects as another turning point in his conception of Desire Lines. At this archive in San Francisco, he was able to come into contact with the letters that Sullivan had written and received. He recalls realising the importance of touch as forging a dialogue: ‘I had a really powerful experience in the archives of holding and touching and being in actual proximity to these items that Lou and other people that are no longer alive had held’, he tells me. ‘That was when I thought that this film had to be about archives. They’re so important.’ Archives thus become spaces for community-building, for establishing a connection with those who share your web of identities and form the history you are continuing now, in the present. Time occasionally seems to collapse in the film, as the cold light of the archive is injected with the dreamy violet hues of life, and Ahmad and Kieran feel as if they are in the very gay bathhouses where transmen in the past found community as they delve into materials which immortalise these stories. This sequence is particularly illustrative of the narrative strategies that run throughout the film, collapsing the confines of the ‘documentary’, and opting instead for a polyphony of trans voices past and present, real and imagined. I ask Rosskam about such practices of imagining from the archives. ‘I’m interested in pushing against this binary we have between fiction and non-fiction’, he illustrates, ‘because I think that like all binaries, it’s false. [As trans people], I think that our lives are pushing against these binaries, and I think that films should also. Form and content are in dialogue with one another. For me, a more holistic way of telling these stories is using different genres that are available in order to explore different emotional, intellectual, and historical aspects of the kind of subject matter we’re taking on’.

Still from Desire Lines. Ahmad (Aden Hakimi) in queer archive. Courtesy of Jules Rosskam.

Still from Desire Lines. Ahmad (Aden Hakimi) in the queer archive. Courtesy of Jules Rosskam.

Rosskam understands, however, that the notion of visibility is ethically complicated. We discuss what it really means to work within a queer archive, as the film’s fictional character Kieran does, as well as the relationships that are established between queer people now who, like Rosskam and his protagonist Ahmad, seek archives to communicate with their past counterparts. Rosskam’s blurring of the binaries of the ‘real’ and the ‘fictional’ perhaps points towards these ethical dilemmas in archival work. I ask him whether he sees imagination as part of this past-present communication and community-building in the space of the archive. ‘I was thinking a lot about the historian and cultural scholar Saidiya Hartman’, he tells me. ‘She coined this phrase “critical fabulation”, which uses storytelling and speculative narration as a means of redressing history’s omissions, particularly those in the lives of enslaved people. Rosskam sees this as a productive model for other communities on the margins, particularly trans and QPOC communities whose lives have not always been deemed “important” enough to be safely stowed for generations to come. Thinking through archives imaginatively also allows, Rosskam mentions, a focus on celebrating such communities. ‘We can also use our creativity and imagination to imagine a moment that may have been better than it really was, and in the service of producing a more equitable and liveable future for trans people’.

Still from Desire Lines. Protagonist Kieran (Theo Germaine) in the fictional queer archive. Courtesy of Jules Rosskam.

Still from Desire Lines (2024). Protagonist Kieran (Theo Germaine) in the fictional queer archive. Courtesy of Jules Rosskam.

What about the future of queer archives, then? I ask Rosskam if he sees a tension between these archival technologies, if the materials through which we engage with history as we consume it have effects on the sense of selfhood we seek to insert within a community on the margins. ‘As technologies change, they change the way we think about ourselves and the way we understand what is possible and what is not. One of the things I was trying to address in the film is this idea of tagging. There’s language that we attach to certain objects in an archive so that people could find them. There are positive parts about that: if the word isn’t there, that is a word that we would associate with our own identity and experience, then we cannot find that object when we’re searching. But the search terms themselves are limited and what we choose to tag something as, for example “trans”, announces itself to a certain community but not another’.

Our conversation about the intricacies of queer archival work illustrates the crucial role imagination can have when one communicates with a shared history. Rosskam acknowledges that ‘there are so many things about our lives and experiences and cultures that can’t be archived precisely because they don’t align with the current technologies and possibilities. How do you archive gesture, or non-language or non-image-based practices and experiences?’ Rosskam similarly questions whether – even if we could archive everything – this would be a productive pursuit. Archiving the LGBT+ community’s lives entails laying bare the lived experiences of those on the margins, placing them within a certain system of understanding. Building onto the notion of tagging, Rosskam argues that, whilst visibility may ‘lead to equal rights’ in some contexts, it brings ‘violence’ to the communities it concerns in others. ‘To not be captured by the state or by an institution means that you can survive. I think, especially in the US, we’ve seen over the last 20 years that the more visibility the trans community has had, the more violence is being enacted, especially on trans women and trans women of colour. It’s a double-edged sword, and I think that we have to be careful sometimes about our archival practices and our move to document everything. What are those documents being used for?’

Aden Hakimi (role of Ahmad), a bearded transgender man and Jules Rosskam (Director), another bearded transgender man with a headset around his neck talk side-by-side on the set of Desire Lines. The set is dim and a crew member is working behind them.

Ahmad (played by Aden Hakimi) and Jules Rosskam (Director) talking on the set of Desire Lines.

Rosskam nonetheless maintains that a certain degree of visibility is necessary for the creation of inclusive, intersectional queer spaces. To Desire Lines’ protagonist Ahmad, questions of nationhood, race, and personal history cannot be separated from those of gender and sexuality. Rosskam worked with actor Aden Hakimi – an old friend and artistic collaborator – to explore this mutual communication of identities and experience that make up selfhood. ‘We wanted to bring that conversation in about the specificity of being an Iranian transman, particularly from someone like Ahmad who came here post-revolution in their 20s, and [explore] what [his] process of assimilation was like’. As Ahmad arrives in America, he enters the ‘Americanised’ world of gender and sexuality codes and norms. ‘He is being read as a man through American notions of gender, through Islamophobia and a masculinisation of an outside culture. He’s in this straight white cis world so he assimilates into this kind of masculinity through this lens. [He] then finally hits a breaking point where he reckons with his desire for men whilst also reckoning with the ways in which he has modelled his masculinity, desire, and self around whiteness’. Rosskam recalls experiencing this American lens eager to compartmentalise him as he was growing up. ‘People are upset, and this goes back to binaries. People want to know: what are you? What category do I put you in? I think that our ideas about gender, sexuality, nationhood, gender, race, are swirling around us all the time and come together to produce us as subjects that are read by the culture that we’re in, sometimes read “correctly” and sometimes “incorrectly”, and when these things can’t be pinned down, there’s the sense of a threat’.

Still from Desire Lines. Courtesy of Jules Rosskam.

Still from Desire Lines. Courtesy of Jules Rosskam.

In the film’s closing sequence, this sense of community-building within shared histories trickles softly back in. Decidedly cyclical, the closing sequence shows Ahmad and Kieran, on the brink of a new friendship, as they walk back out of the archive through the same hallway they had crossed together at the start. Sylvester’s song comes back in almost lullaby form – a slow piano cover – as we see Ahmad in a Persian gay bathhouse moving himself through his community rather than merely witnessing it from afar. He locks gazes, touches arms, from within this turquoise-toned dreamscape. Rosskam sees the process of conceiving Desire Lines as a similar community-building exercise for the cast and crew alike. ‘It’s very important for me to try to make the process of making the film meaningful for the people who are in it, who are giving of themselves often something very vulnerable’. He tells me that he hopes to bring his audiences within this community as he travels the world with his film. Documentary-making, much like the queer archive, becomes such a space for communication and touch across time and space.

 

Desire Lines received its world premiere at Sundance 2024 Film Festival before premiering at the BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival 2024. For more information about the film and , check out Jules Rosskam’s website and the Desire Lines page.

 

Jules Rosskam is an internationally award-winning filmmaker, educator and 2021 Creative Capital Awardee. His most recent feature-length hybrid film, Desire Lines, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it was also received the Jury award in the NEXT category. Previously, his feature-length documentary, Paternal Rites (2018), premiered at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight and went on to win several festival awards. He is also the director of the award-winning films Dance, Dance, Evolution (2019), Something to Cry About (2018), Thick Relations (2012), against a trans narrative (2009), and transparent (2005). Rosskam is currently Associate Professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

 

Miruna Tiberiu is the Editor-in-Chief of GAY45. She is a student at Cambridge University. Tiberiu has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Tiberiu was longlisted for the International News Media Association (INMA)’s “30 Under 30” Awards 2023.

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