As part of the BFI: Flare, Istoria Lit was lucky enough to get an interview with Jennifer Tiexiera and Michael Seligman, co-directors of P.S. Burn This Letter Please to learn more about the movie.
Can you tell us a little bit about what your movie is about?
The film documents a very specific period in LGBTQ+ history that has been all but forgotten. It reveals the bravery of drag artists and performers who lived at a time when being gender non-conforming was forbidden and so their greatest act of resistance was simply existing and refusing to be anything other than who they felt themselves to be.
Who is the film for? Who do you hope it reaches?
Of course, we made this film first and foremost for the queer community as a testament to our brave and colorful past. As Michael Henry Adams says so eloquently at the start of the film, “The best thing about history is to be able to go back into the past and discover yourself. And the great difficulty for we who are marginalized – be we women or gays or black – is you look at what is purported to be history and we are invisible.” We hope this film shines a light and inspires a modern audience.
What message do you want audiences to take from the story these letters tell?
There are a lot of myths about queer life the era before Stonewall. And that might be by design. There is a notion that queer people were ashamed, closeted, depressed about who they were. But you read these letters and you meet the people in our film and you realize that none of that was true! These people were well-adjusted, out to their friends and sometimes their families, had long-term relationships, had careers. And it’s so wonderful to see that despite the tremendous oppression that existed at the time, queer people found a way to thrive and be happy!
Why was it so important to make PS Burn This Letter Please?
Knowing one’s own history has such an empowering effect. Too much of queer history has been minimized and marginalized. Queer people, queer youth, don’t always get to see themselves reflected in history and that’s a huge problem. So to make a film that shines a light on a group that has been minimized and marginalized even within the queer community, we hope will have a lasting, empowering effect. Queer people indeed have a shared history we can all be proud of!
Did the current popularity of drag culture affect your approach to making the film in any way?
We wanted to make a film about a very specific place and period in time. It wasn’t meant to be a history of drag, so we remained very focused on the era of the 1950s and early 60s in New York City. But modern drag queens should be able to see themselves reflected in some of the language that has survived to today.
In the movie we see a snapshot of LGBTQ+ history in New York, how important is to make sure that history is seen on screen?
Film is such a powerful medium and we were so lucky to find the most incredible archives that featured drag queens in the 1950s to help tell the story in a visual way. We might have had to take a different approach if it weren’t for these archives and the generosity of the people who shared them with us!
What was it like talking to the letter writers that you interviewed for the film?
We considered the people we spoke with to be brave heroes and heroines and were so in awe of them when we met. But they didn’t think of themselves as such. They were just people living their lives. Most of them found it amusing that we took such an interest in what they were doing and writing about more than six decades ago. But they have become our family now and we stay in touch – though by email and phone more than letters!
Are there any plans to publish the collection of letters?
We hope to publish a book that contains all the letters. What you see in the film is less than 10% of what exists in the collection!
What’s the one thing we should all learn from these letters?
By all means, go and speak to your queer elders, ask them what they have stashed away in their attics and closets! There are bits of important history in those old boxes and suitcases. Find those stories, write them down, share them. So much has been tossed out because no one saw the importance—or because of a fear of shame or ridicule. Please, let’s all document more queer history before it’s too late!