“Indie film crosses borders into new gender frontier”


Produced and directed by a team of five filmmaking sisters, “Kings, Queens and In-Betweens” addresses the complex subject of gender identity by documenting the lives — on stage and off — of eight drag performers. Through the lens of entertainment, fun and reams of duct tape, the film is the first to include the entire gender performance spectrum. “In this fab documentary… Gender is the New Frontier, and here are the pioneers who are defining, redrawing and crossing those borders,” says a pre-festival reviewer. “Call them what you will… they are two things for certain: They are Strong and they are Fabulous. ‘Kings, Queens & In-Betweens’ will introduce you to your new heroes.” The Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at East Tennessee State University will present the film with director Gabrielle Burton and co-producer Ursula Burton as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers.

The ethnographic film, which premiered at the end of March at the Cleveland International Film Festival, tells the personal stories of the West Family drag queens and the Royal Renegades drag king troupe and includes interviews with scores of others. The filmmakers confront common misconceptions about gender, gender expression and gender performance by male, female and transgender persons, as well as sexuality, personal identity and human rights. Five-and-a-half-years ago, when Gabrielle Burton was introduced by a friend to the world of drag entertainment in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, she saw an opportunity to “push minds to think a little more expansively.”

“We are raised wanting to categorize in the blink of an eye, and it is difficult to not continue with familiar binary-based assumptions,” she says. “This isn’t easy stuff, and it’s laden with assumptions, judgment and sometimes fear, anger or emotional pain, but it’s critical that we think and talk about this important issue.”

Since Five Sisters Productions started the project, the ideas of family, LGBTQ discrimination and identity have become topics for daily news and national political issues. “I see KQIB as part of a movement to encourage positive understanding of the real and complex issues we face in our society when thinking about gender and sexuality” Gabrielle Burton says. “People should feel comfortable to be able to have discussions coming out of this film and that is one of the reasons that we made it. We want people to be involved in the discussion and to think about things in a new way or to exchange ideas.”

Gender identity is a significant topic at present and one that is being discussed on many college campuses, including ETSU’s, says Anita DeAngelis, director of film series sponsor Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. “While ‘Kings, Queens & In-Betweens’ is a fun and humorous film, it is also very poignant in places. I’m glad we have the opportunity to screen it, because I think it’s a film that will generate a lot of conversation and better understanding.”

Gabrielle Burton has received the Ohio Arts Council’s Individual Excellence Award as a filmmaker and given a TEDx Talk on gender expression and identity.

In addition to Five Sisters Productions’ numerous features, commercials and short films (including the MGM comedy “Manna From Heaven”), KQIB is her documentary feature debut. Her sister, Ursula, is a producer and actor whose award-winning comedy, The Happiest Day of His Life, won a Viewer’s Choice Award on MTV’s LOGO Channel and qualified for the Academy Awards. A Yale alum working in London and Los Angeles, Ursula Burton has had recurring roles on “The Office,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and the BBC hit “My Family.” In addition to Gabrielle and Ursula, Five Sisters Productions includes Maria, Jennifer and Charity Burton.

Social projects and grassroots activism are at the heart of their work, including donating the proceeds from film releases to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.