Still from Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker
Still from Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker

Two films undo conventional ideas of being “real.”

These films explore how to slash the nets binding our sexual and gender identities. Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker memorializes one writer’s fuck-you to narrative conventions, while Against A Trans Narrative stages fictional trans confessions and conversations to expose stereotypes about gender transitions.

Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker (Women Make Movies)

Barbara Caspar’s playful film bio of postmodern darling Kathy Acker borrows the foul-mouthed writer’s quotation style and—true to Acker’s punk aesthetic and narrative burglary—pirates documentary clips that she filmed throughout her career.

Added to the mix are porn clips and animated characters (Acker’s narrators) whose facial expressions shake and fluctuate from surly to submissive, overlaid with Acker’s bullying and erotic prose read in dead-pan style. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the famous play and film) closes at dawn after its characters have experienced a dizzying range of emotions, while this doc signs off with Acker’s untimely death of cancer in 1997. Having personally studied with Acker in the early ’90s, I know that although she fought her death through alternative practices and faith, she also saw crossing into a realm beyond language (and even the physical body) as essential when approaching “nirvana.”

Capturing her demise during a time when she still rocked leather pants, piercings and tats, this film presents new dawn, an opening. The film’s fragments are like Acker’s innate queerness—tough and sweet, joyous and perverse, funny and sad—expressions that cannot survive being strictly polarized or labelled.

In one hilarious scene, a woman reads her the anti-porn riot act while Acker sits quietly (and loudly) across from her in a punked-out black and white getup, orange hair and fierce eyeliner. Acker doesn’t scowl or retort; she just examines her interlocutor pityingly, as if she were some unknown species that hasn’t been screwed enough. (

Against A Trans Narrative

Filmmaker Jules Rosskam lulls viewers into what first appears (especially to those uninitiated in trans theory) to be “authentic” direct-address interviews with FTM trans folk, their partners and friends. These discussions look and play like the low budget documentary we’re probably expecting to see.

They are expertly coupled with wooden, after school special-style scenes of trans men trying to obtain health care from doctors who express compassion and understanding while obviously lacking in both. We quickly realize, however, that we’re experiencing something other than cinéma vérité when newer interview subjects spout some of the same exact lines as trans men we have heard from previously. Then, the cast of FTM interviewees is shown watching and commenting on the scene reenactments from the sidelines.

Reminiscent of Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied or Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, Against A Trans Narrative adapts the conventions of the documentary in order to better critique stabilized notions of identity. This super-smart film presents the quandary of gathering a group of individuals to represent trans identity (when trans is about destroying categories) and exposes how other members of the queer community often project onto the transgender experience.