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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 4 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 40
Simply Divine - Jeffrey Schwarz brings the legend back to life in a new documentary
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Simply Divine - Jeffrey Schwarz brings the legend back to life in a new documentary

by Gail Benzler - Special to the SGN

I AM DIVINE
SEATTLE LESBIAN & GAY FILM FESTIVAL
CINERAMA
October 10 (Opening Night Gala)


The 18th Annual Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, presented by Xfinity, returns October 10-20. This year's festival is more ambitious than ever before, combining the very best in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) film along with unique live performances.

The award-winning new documentary I Am Divine (Thursday, October 10, 7:30 p.m., Cinerama), directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, opens the festival, with a Divine-ly inspired party following the film.

Schwarz is well-known to Seattle audiences as the director of Vito, which received the SLGFF 2011 Audience Award for Favorite Documentary.

Gail Benzler: What made Divine such an icon? Why does he still resonate today?

Jeffrey Schwarz: Since I was a teenager I've worshiped at the altar of Divine and of John Waters. Anyone who feels like an outsider growing up can certainly relate to the world that they created and the way they lived their lives. I had read about Pink Flamingos years before actually seeing it, in John Waters' book Shock Value. At the time, I had no tangible connections to Gay culture, so John and Divine's sensibility certainly helped lead me down a creative path. And then finally seeing Divine in those movies was just mind-blowing. I'd never seen anything like it and watching him on screen was thrilling. He was so fully committed to the characters he played, and the way he lived his life not caring what anyone thought about him was certainly inspiring.

Benzler: It took years to bring this story to the screen, and I know Divine's story is very personal to you. What did you learn about Divine during production?

Schwarz: It's been over 25 years since his death and I started getting concerned that Divine's legendary status might be in jeopardy, particularly with a younger generation. There hasn't been a proper documentary about his life so I wanted to fill that cultural void with this film. I wanted to go beyond the layers of eyeliner and wigs and hairspray to find the very real man inside. Divine never considered himself a drag queen. He was a character actor who played female parts. He was a fantastic and brave performer, a fine actor, and a warm, generous person who couldn't have been more different from the roles he played.

Benzler: What will audiences take away about Divine?

Schwarz: Divine is an inspiration to misfits, outsiders, rebels, and freaks, and I hope this movie reignites interest in this incredible individual. He's a poster child for misfit youth and proves that anything is possible.

Benzler: How did you go about collecting all of the archival footage and interviews for the film?

Schwarz: The archival material came from many sources. Various archives around the country, footage taken on the set of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble by Steve Yeager, home movies given to us by Divine's mother, and many, many photographs by various friends and professional photographers. Divine loved being photographed so we had plenty to choose from. John Waters conducted a lengthy interview with Divine for Shock Value and the audio has survived, so we used that liberally. Whenever it was possible for Divine to tell his own story or comment on it, we used it.

Benzler: What were you surprised to learn?

Schwarz: I was most surprised to find out more about his relationship with his high-school sweetheart, who we interviewed. They dated all through junior high and high school. Divine, who was Glenn [Milstead] then, took her to the prom and treated her so well. He even did her hair and makeup and told her how to dress. She was really smitten with him, in a very sweet high-school puppy-love kind of way. When he started dressing in drag she was completely unfazed and supportive. They even went to a high-school party together with Glenn dressed as Elizabeth Taylor. When he started hanging out with John, David Lochary, and all the cool Baltimore beatniks, she really felt left behind.

Benzler: Divine's story resonates today. He was bullied as a youth.

Schwarz: Yes. As a teenager Divine was bullied mercilessly. When he met John Waters he was able to take all that trauma and channel it into the Divine character, and throw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces. With all the talk of bullying today I wanted to show young people an example of someone who was able to overcome all that and live an authentic and happy life by accepting and loving himself. His story can give people hope that anything's possible. It's kind of the ultimate 'It Gets Better' story.

Visit www.threedollarbillcinema.org for additional information on the 18th Annual Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and additional Three Dollar Bill Cinema programs. The full SLGFF schedule is available at www.threedollarbillcinema.org/2013.

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