Filmmakers Eric Stanley and Chris Vargas met at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2005 in a class on film, video, and gender where Stanley was the teaching assistant and Vargas a student. Both were radical activists on issues of prison abolition, queer antiassimilation, and trans justice, and both were heavily influenced by revolutionary feminist and political films like Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames and Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 The Battle of Algiers. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the two began collaborating—their first film, Homotopia, was released in 2006.
The film reflected Stanley and Vargas’s disillusionment with the recent concerns of gays and lesbians in the political sphere. Gone are the days when queers actively and openly resisted heteronormativity; gone are the many prisoner-solidarity projects that Regina Kunzel describes in her 2008 book Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality; gone is the grassroots fervor of past queer organizations like Gay Liberation Front and ACT UP that militated against state invasions of queer lives and politics. In their place are groups like Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who actively set about courting D.C. politicians on same-sex marriage. Instead of arguing that everyone needs health care, mainstream gays and lesbians are now insisting that an unfair system should be extended to include them.
The new film Criminal Queers is the pair’s second attempt to confront the rapid mainstreaming of gay politics. Along with a bevy of radical and enthusiastic friends and lovers, they’ve made a sequel to Homotopia that finds the wedding crashers on the run. One of them, Lucy Parsons, languishes in jail after being denied bail, her gender identity—while she claims female pronouns, her state identity card marks her as male—throwing the state into confusion. Drawing upon the same visual repertoire as Homotopia, Criminal Queers is a mixture of satire and political critique, wrapped up in a classic prison-break narrative. The presence of perhaps the most famous prison abolitionist of our time, Angela Davis, lends weight to the film’s rumination on the prison-industrial complex. Yasmin Nair caught up with Stanley and Vargas to talk about the PIC, the HRC, and feminist film in a genderqueer world.