IFFR 2024 review: Avant-Drag! (Fil Ieropoulos)

“A profound and moving celebration of queerness and the art of drag.”

“Drag infects gender, it brings it to its limits. It dismantles it and reassembles it, plays with it, messes it up. Thousands of mutant genders flood the city.”

These evocative words occur in the first few minutes of Avant-Drag!, a revolutionary documentary in which director Fil Ieropoulos ventures into the streets of Athens, capturing the daily routines of various drag queens that frequent certain parts of the city. It serves as part of a testimonial delivered by one of the film’s subjects and reflects common perceptions of drag as being somewhat deviant, which has been repurposed by the community itself into something far more positive, a tool of rebellion against heteronormative and conservative standards. Divided into around a dozen chapters, each one focusing on a different drag queen living and working in Athens, and ending with something resembling a roundtable discussion in which some of the subjects gather to discuss their art, the film is a fascinating document about drag in the modern world, as well as how it is perceived by those outside this particular community. Ieropoulos has previously made films, both narrative and non-fiction, that tackle important subjects, usually through a queer lens. His efforts to shed light on marginalized communities continue here with a simple but incredibly effective depiction of an art form that is growing in visibility but still entails countless challenges and stirs controversy, both of which factor into the stories told throughout this film.

The concept of drag being a deviant art form has become somewhat less common, particularly for those who take a more liberal viewpoint. Unfortunately, this is a skewed perspective, because while drag has become considerably more mainstream with the advent of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and its nearly dozen international spin-offs that have showcased the art as interpreted on five different continents, it remains polarizing. Ieropoulos was intent on taking drag out of the studio and nightclubs, and instead recontextualizing it into the real world, focusing on how it is perceived outside of the confines of these safe spaces that prove to be a sanctuary for queer art. There is a world outside these places, and in choosing to situate the artists in the streets, surrounding them with the historical buildings and iconic sites of one of Europe’s most striking cities, the director can look at a range of different subjects that extend far beyond the technical or artistic aspects of drag. Instead, Avant-Drag! becomes as much about political unease and social standards as it is about art, particularly in the sequences where it both acknowledges and honours the roots of drag in the underground, which is sadly where a lot of these artists have to remain in order to express themselves. Telling this story from a Greek perspective adds layers of nuance, since as one of the characters remarks, it is quite a conservative culture, but one in which there is still some safety for queer artists; this forms the foundation for much of the discussion occurring in the film.

For roughly the first hour, Avant-Drag! is a free-wheeling, loosely structured documentary consisting of vignettes, each of which focuses on the daily routine of a particular drag artist. Each one is unique and has its own traits, yet there are common threads between them. Each one of them presents as their drag persona – we never see them without their costumes, wigs or makeup, and we only know them by the alias under which they perform. This is not uncommon for performers that spend their lives honing specific characters – but when the discussion veers towards how queer artists often have to mask themselves, it becomes even more evident why this is a necessity for these people. Whether it is for the sake of self-expression or for their own security, they create their characters, which are often a blend of themselves and a specific kind of persona they wish to cultivate. The subjects in this film are performers by nature, not only in the sense of how they make their living but also in how they live their lives as one lengthy performance of their identity. The adoption of alter egos gives them space to be themselves, and the beautiful irony we glean from each one of them is that they feel more authentic and free when they are hidden behind the masks since it offers them the space to be themselves. The concept of changing your form persists throughout the film, particularly when one of the subjects states how they “multiply in a diagonal fashion, through constant mutations – we are the virus of perversity” – and the pride with which these people speak about the process of expressing themselves as queer artists, even when it challenges the status quo, adds many layers to this extraordinary and captivating documentary. Avant-Drag! is as much a celebration of drag as it is a forthright discussion on the collective queer trauma that these people have experienced throughout their lives.

Avant-Drag! is a film that serves many different purposes. It is primarily a snapshot of the drag scene in Athens, as told by the people who have dedicated their lives to the art. It is also a vaguely academic text about queer history and its interactions with Greek culture, which we soon learn has quite a storied (and not always pleasant) relationship. More than anything else, this film is a profound and moving celebration of queerness and the art of drag, and since it offers many different perspectives, countless fragments of wisdom are liberally scattered throughout the film. One of the many fascinating quotes comes towards the end, when one of our narrators remarks that drag “opens the door to the basement, takes items out of the darkness, turns them into clothes and wigs, and wears them“, a perfect summary of the preceding hour in which we have seen and heard passionate testimonies by around a dozen people who have spent a portion of their existence living on the margins of society. This film is not only an exhibition of drag, but a chance for these remarkable people to tell their stories, something that has sadly not been afforded to many queer people over the years. The incredible candour with which they speak about their art, and the sensitivity with which the director captures their testimonies, allow for Avant-Drag! to be a layered, complex exploration of queer identity. It is frequently quite funny and genuinely heartfelt, addressing the various facets of drag, and advocates for us to not forget where it comes from, particularly in remembering the people who set the foundation for these artists to express themselves freely. Certainly a cause worth celebrating.