Arts·Queeries

Meet the 'unapologetically faboriginal' drag queens competing for Australia's Miss First Nations

Black Divaz, Adrian Russell Wills's new documentary celebrating an empowering subculture, is screening at Toronto's imagineNATIVE.

Black Divaz, a new documentary celebrating an empowering subculture, is screening at Toronto's imagineNATIVE

Isla in Black Divaz. (imagineNATIVE)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

Over the past year, the team here at CBC Arts has made it one of our missions to explore the art of Canadian drag through as many lenses as possible, namely through the first season of our short docu-series Canada's a Drag (a second season of which is on the way). But obviously drag happens pretty much everywhere in so many different intersections of communities, even if the world domination of RuPaul Drag's Race has given the United States the lioness's share of the international sashay spotlight.

That's why it's such a pleasure to draw your attention to a film that sheds such thoughtful light on an Indigenous drag community in Australia: Adrian Russell Wills's Black Divaz.

The idea for the film came when Wills came across a call on Facebook from drag performer Miss Ellaneous (a.k.a. Ben Graetz) requesting applicants for Australia's inaugural Miss First Nations Drag Competition.

"As a gay Aboriginal man myself, the idea of a competition where Indigenous drag is celebrated and put front and centre was thrilling," Wills tells CBC Arts. "The reason being is that drag is like my religion to me, and a drag show is like going to church — it's a spiritual experience."

"Drag queens are a big part of how we as gay men in particular make it through pain and isolation, so to see this in an Indigenous context just made complete sense for a film. In putting a spotlight on our Indigenous drag queens, a film could change lives — maybe even save them. And I've seen Black Divaz change people's lives already."

Jojo in Black Divaz. (imagineNATIVE)

After premiering to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Sydney, Australia's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras earlier this year, Black Divaz us having its international premiere this weekend at Toronto's imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival. It will introduce Canada to the likes of Miss First Nations contestants Nova Gina, Isla Fuk Yah, Crystal Love, Josie Baker, Jojo and Shaniqua, as well as the competition's hosts Miss Ellaneous and Marzi Panne, as they make their often turbulent journey through the competition.

"For me, I hope it gives the audience insight to the struggles we face from and the hardships we often have to go through that shape who we are — not just as gay men, not just as a drag queens and not just as proud Aboriginals, but as human beings with a society pushing against us, while at the same time giving positive representation for the Indigenous LGBTIQA+ community," Jojo, one of the film's subjects, tells CBC Arts. "I always say my main goal with drag is just to reach one person and show them that they should be proud of who they are and be unapologetically faboriginal."

Host Miss Ellaneous — whose Facebook call was what brought Wills's attention to Miss Drag Nations — adds that they hope the film shows how their community often faces a lack of visibility within the wider queer community. 

"It's being a minority within a minority," they say. "[And there's both] homophobia from your own community and an extremely high rate of suicide as a result."

Shaniqua in Black Divaz. (imagineNATIVE)

Wills says that while a lot of difficult dialogues surfaced among the queens during the shoot, it was ultimately a positive experience for everyone involved.

"We all felt like family within minutes," he says. "Every face you see in our film and the faces behind the camera became a family. We were filming the second that competition started, from the moment the queens arrived at the hotel to check in. We had cameras in their faces and they just gave us gold. Without question or hesitation, there was no hint of annoyance or pushing us out of the room. Some of the queens we hadn't even said hi to yet in person, and we were filming them. But let me also say this. Every single person on this project was making this film for the same reason: to give Indigenous LGBTIQA+ people a voice and an image to identify with reflected back at them, again, through that screen." 

Wills adds that the film has given the queens a larger stage to "preach their message of love, acceptance and tolerance." 

"Hopefully that person who is thinking they are a freak or that there is something wrong with them will see these queens in their community and find hope, maybe even enough to not take their lives anymore," he says. "I don't want to give the girls too much pressure, but I think at their true core they could save lives by being themselves."

Josie in Black Divaz. (imagineNATIVE)

But being themselves has never been easy. Jojo says that "being a gay Indigenous drag queen in Australia isn't for the faint of heart."

"I often refer to us as triple minorities," they say. "Being Indigenous already presents its challenges — you have to deal with casual racism every day. Being a drag queen is basically like coming out again as a subsection of homosexuality. Not to mention being gay in the Indigenous community — that is probably an even bigger struggle. Indigenous males are often encouraged to be hyper-masculine, with a focus on sports and being good at it to the point that being anything else is going against the 'norm.' However, being a proud Indigenous drag queen gives you a platform to change the norm and to show others who may be struggling in secret that as long as they are who they are and stay true to themselves, their faboriginality [will] shine through."

That "faboriginality" is on display in full force in Black Divaz, and you'll be hard pressed not to take some home with you — enlightening yourself to a pocket of Australia's Indigenous drag culture in the process.

Black Divaz. Directed by Adrian Russell Wills. October 20, 4pm. TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto. www.imaginenative.org

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which received 2020 Canadian Screen Award nominations. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.