Venice: Sebastien Lifshitz’ lovingly crafted documentary reveals an upstate oasis for trans women and crossdressers in the ’50s and ’60s.
In the relentless pursuit of progress, it is easy to forget the past. When it comes to queer history, discrimination and fear of persecution have discouraged, if not actively erased, documentation of queer life. Queer historians have had to fight tooth and nail to win back countless writers, artists, and musicians, even if they lived quite openly in their lifetimes. After all, if Emily Dickinson could write her “hot and feverish” letters to Susan without academic acknowledgment of her queerness until recently, what chance was there for the everyday queer people of yore?
Brilliantly, a nearly lost chapter of queer history has been carefully unearthed in Casa Susanna, a gorgeous documentary about an oasis where trans women and crossdressed men found community in the 1950s and 60s. Prolific French filmmaker Sebastien Lifshitz (“Bambi”, “Little Girl”) brings the past alive through sizzling archive footage, incredible photographs and the golden memories of those who were there first. Portraits of early queer life are so rare to see, Casa Susanna feels like unearthing a precious treasure, a vital story of resilience and joy snatched from the ravages of time before being washed away forever .
“People used to like being here. They had total freedom. A total chance to be herself,” says Katherine Cummings, a studious ninety-year-old who guides much of the film through her charming narration. (“Ships! Remember ships?” she giggles at one point.) The film opens with Katherine’s first visit to the old Catskills estate, now mostly abandoned and derelict, and then to its ringleader and hostess with most of it Casa Susanna was called. Though it’s just a few empty buildings in a lush green valley, Katherine conjures up the glory days of Casa Susanna and paints a picture with the vivid glow of her memories.
She points to the theater once known as the Bungalow Colony, which once hosted popular female impersonator shows attended by the small town mayor. As the borscht belt comedians made the rounds of the area, audiences also flocked to the Bungalow Colony for more decorated discoveries. Based on research by photo historian Isabelle Bonnet, Lifshitz piece together the origin story of this fabulous Catskills haven, which hosted weekend get-togethers for transgender women and crossdresser men throughout the summer.
One of the film’s unexpected delights is Gregory Bagarozy, whose grandmother Maria owned the property and was married to Susanna, aka Tito. With a New York accent and a thick mustache, this burly, middle-aged Italian recounts the unusual circumstances of his childhood with surprising warmth and nuance, revealing a sensitive soul who fully appreciates the safe haven his grandparents built. He convincingly explains the terror of the McCarthy era, when anyone caught crossdressing or in a gay bar could be arrested and blacklisted from any legitimate occupation. He skilfully illustrates his grandmother’s relationship with Susanna/Tito, often speaking of two different people and effortlessly switching pronouns. One feels like reaching through the screen and kissing him as he cheerfully closes, “So I guess they were lesbians!”
Although her memories of Casa Susanna are hazy, the power of the place is best exemplified by Diana Merry-Shapiro, who worked up the courage to move after her time there. A brilliant redhead and former research scientist for Xerox, she describes “this incredible sense of grandeur that was grand” as she recalls her first steps as a woman at Casa Susanna. “It was something I never hoped could happen.”
The film gently navigates the changing mores and languages surrounding gender identities, allowing older trans women to self-identify and use their language as a guide. You don’t hear the words crossdresser, transvestite, and transsexual very often these days, but it only adds to the film’s appeal as a rare time capsule. Fascinatingly, Casa Susanna was strictly for “straight men” and their wives would often accompany them on their weekends upstate. Fear of being outed as gay followed, leading to sharp divisions.
Of course, there are still places like Casa Susanna for self-confessed crossdressers, as well as a strong trans-lesbian community. Trans and queer people still face many challenges today, but a quick Google search can at least tell someone how they feel, if not lead to resources and community. In the Casa Susanna era, everyone was thrown together to find out for themselves. That they even found each other feels like a fairy tale, and that we now have a cinematic record of it is a rare and precious gift.
Casa Susanna premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It is currently looking for distribution.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/casa-susanna-review-trans-documentary-catskills-1234757816/ Casa Susanna Review: A Wonderfully Preserved Trans-History Archive