Through its series of over-the-shoulder glances and extended reflection shots, Camila José Donoso’s inquisitive camera observes the interior happenings of the real Casa Roshell nightclub in Mexico City. Owned by Roshell Terranova, the club provides an expressive safehouse for the transgender women of Mexico City. It holds regular classes in body language; how to walk, talk – how to accentuate the hips; de-emphasise the shoulders. Despite the washes of glitter and showy, sequinned gowns, there’s a profound sense of release driving the Casa’s perpetual disco. It is this release that forms Donoso’s prime focus.
Casa Roshell marks Donoso’s second glimpse into transgender experience. The Chilean filmmaker established her interest in underrepresented spheres in Latin America with Naomi Campbel in 2013, in which she tracked a trans woman’s struggle to fund her sex-reassignment surgery. With Casa Roshell, Donoso lends her sympathetic, occasionally experimental eye toward the community as a refuge amidst such struggle. An early scene spies two male forms from behind reflected in a mirror, curiously watching them disappear into ritual application of foundation, corsets and sequins. Gradually, they transform into women, but the emotional result of the change overrides any sense of illusion that may arise from assumptions of ‘drag’. We see them relax into themselves; still tentative (for the struggles of their daily lives away from the club always are always kept poignantly within grasp), but unquestionably more authentic. As Rochell fixes her eyebrows with Da Vinci-like precision in a nearby mirror, she inhales, closes her eyes, exhales in a moment of almost-euphoric relief. Beneath the masterful contouring and luxuriant blonde wig, she suddenly looks ten pounds lighter. She looks at home.
There’s a noticeable fascination with inner reflections throughout Casa Roshell. The secret sisterhood shared by the central cast unfolds through a selection of well-placed mirrors; a glaring realisation of the dependence these women have upon looks, and of the irony in being required to create illusions to have one’s true identity accepted. But through this comes a more general affirmation of the universality of illusion; the props through which we identify ourselves, and the empowerment that comes from owning them. As time seems to halt amid the haze of besequinned gowns and clinking-cocktail glasses, it becomes apparent that Casa Roshell offers just as much respite for the cisgendered visitors to the club as to the trans women who find release in its community. Some men come wielding the excuse that they’re ‘bisexual’, while others attend with a curiosity for “trying new things”. In all cases, the women of Casa Roshell are welcoming, good-humoured and perfectly open to questions about their identity, and despite the staginess perceived in most of the couple scenes, the sensual joy both parties find in blurring conventions of gender is upliftingly sincere.
The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year, and having just been secured by the UK curators at MUBI, we might hope the film gains at least a marginal boost in recognition this Pride Month. Despite its noticeable staginess, Donoso delights in observing the unique power the stage holds for the marginalized, allowing notions of inauthenticity to fade into empathic satisfaction.
With its observatory style and communal tone, Donoso’s film should be considered one of the empowering participators in the recent movement toward transgender representation on screen. Alongside Sebastian Lelio’s dignified portrait of daily trans experience in A Fantastic Woman (the sensual palette for which offers a similarly inviting blurring of binaries to Donoso’s film), Casa Roshell adds to the expanding list of trans films featuring a trans cast (Sean Baker’s earlier Tangerine, equally, cannot be overlooked). Though, like the women of Casa Roshell, the viewer must eventually return to a world perforated by ignorance and threat, Danoso leaves the club’s interior as an uplifting visualisation of the profound relief of ambiguity.