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Two Fly-on-the-Wall Documentaries Chronicle Trans Life in the Shadows

Two Fly-on-the-Wall Documentaries Chronicle Trans Life in the Shadows

People of color have often been erased from the history of queer life, but against the odds they have managed to leave behind important documents of their communities’ survival, including underappreciated films that remain to be discovered by a wider audience. Much of the conversation around queer POC subjects on-screen has been dominated by Paris Is Burning, deservedly recognized for its snapshot of New York City’s ballroom culture at a time when its language and dance moves were entering the mainstream. Some of the subjects in that film did ride the wave of its acclaim and went on to enjoy personal successes. But tragedy looms over a number of the people whose lives Livingston documented: the trans sex worker Venus Xtravaganza was murdered two years before the film’s release, and the AIDS crisis would lead to the deaths of a significant portion of the cast in subsequent years. Paris Is Burning was not the only movie from this period to tackle these tough subjects. The Salt Mines, made by Susana Aikin and Carlos Aparicio in 1990, operates in a similar terrain and deserves broader recognition. Along with its follow-up, The Transformation (1995), this unflinching but incredibly empathetic portrait of homeless Latinx trans sex workers depicts the ways in which society discards, looks away from, and ultimately fails the most vulnerable. At the same time it shows how the forms of intervention or help offered these subjects often come at a disturbing price.

Aikin met the subjects of the film by chance in the late 1980s. She first ran into a man named Bobby on his daily routine of getting water from a fire hydrant. He told her there were “girls living in trucks” in an area called the Salt Mines, a Lower West Side enclosure near the piers where the New York City Sanitation Department stored winter rock salt. Bobby considered these girls his friends and was bringing the water back to them. Aikin followed him and immediately felt the urgency to film what she saw. After her day job teaching a video workshop ended, she and her partner, Carlos Aparacio, made a daily routine of shooting in the Salt Mines. Aikin came from a background of working in television news, while Aparicio was a freelance cameraman who primarily made documentary featurettes for news organizations. Since her last film in 2004, Aikin has become an author of historical fiction.

Top of page: The Salt Mines; above: The Transformation

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