This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls.
In 2007, Kristen Lovell was featured in a short documentary about homeless queer youth called Queer Streets. At the time, she was a sex worker and cocaine user, not sure about the direction of her life. Almost 15 years later, she decided to make her own documentary, co-directed with fellow trans filmmaker Zackary Drucker. The result is The Stroll, a feature-length entry into Sundance’s U.S. Documentary competition that won this year’s Special Jury Award for Clarity of Vision.
Channeling her own personal experience, Lovell’s film is about several blocks of 14th Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, colloquially called as “The Stroll,” where trans sex workers, mostly women of color, were known to gather.
Now, the neighborhood is gentrified, boasting hip, expensive apartments, boutiques and restaurants, and intercut by the upscale Highline Park. But Lovell and her film’s subjects remember it in the ’90s and early 2000s—and, in a few cases, even earlier, in the ’70s and ’80s—when the Meatpacking District was considered undesirable and unsafe, home only to the meat packers, fetish bars and sex workers.
Many of the women Lovell interviews (Drucker functions as a silent co-director and, unlike Lovell, does not appear on camera) worked on The Stroll for upwards of 10 to 15 years. Many more were homeless or otherwise struggling to make ends meet—a common occurrence for trans women who often had difficulty finding employment due to transphobia and other forms of discrimination. Turning to sex work, for some, felt safer than staying at home, particularly for those who were kicked out of their homes as teens for being gay or trans or were escaping abusive relationships.
The Stroll effectively employs intermittent stylized animation to visualize stories told by its subjects, since archival footage beyond cautionary-tale news stories and media interviews—such as a 1992 RuPaul segment, troublingly tongue-in-cheek—is rare. These sequences illustrate stories of peril but also empowerment, such as women working together to combat aggressive johns and protect their companions. The film also includes what little archival footage exists to great effect, including some of activist Sylvia Rivera, who cofounded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Marsha P. Johnson in 1970.
While the interviewees discuss dangers and vulnerabilities common for trans sex workers, these stories don’t dominate the film. Women were assaulted by clients and coerced by police into performing sex acts; they were frequently arrested, with one interviewee reporting having been arrested over 60 times. Women were hurt or disappeared or ended up spending years in jail.
The film also spends a bit of time on the June 2000 murder of Amanda Milan, killed on the street in front of her friends with no provocation, simply for being trans. The case becomes a compelling turning point in the documentary for an acknowledgement of the dissatisfaction many trans activists felt with the gay and lesbian community’s lack of response to trans issues, when trans people had been actively supporting LGBTQ rights more broadly for decades.
The Stroll spends far more time, however, detailing the many ways the women supported each other, taking its cue from its subjects, who recall in loving detail the sense of community, empowerment and acceptance they felt with other women who understood their experiences, who would try as hard as they could to keep each other safe. As such, it navigates a delicate balance between the sense that Lovell and her subjects would not wish to return to the precarious life they led then and nostalgia for a time when their sense of community was concrete.
There’s a story here, too, about the complicated effects of gentrification and the change in public opinion towards trans people, both of which radically shifted the prospects and outlook of the film’s subjects and continues to affect them. In the end, Lovell and Drucker’s compassionate and authentic portrayal is about solidarity and hope—asking viewers to understand the past while looking forward into the future.
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