For decades, Cis history has dominated the way history becomes fact. However, the ideological apparatus that defaults to this thinking has found more challenges than ever. Features, like HBO‘s recent documentary The Stroll prove that with diversity comes new approaches to filmmaking. The personal story from director Kristen Lovell about her time as a sex worker in New York’s Meat Packing District makes for a fascinating look at a moment in Trans history, whether those who worked in this area realized it or not.
Lovell first began sex work in this area during the 1990s. She maintained her contacts and interviews a dozen other members of the community. As each person tells their story and shares their experience, a picture of found family comes into view. This community may not have been traditional, but with the AIDS crisis on the minds of many, it was forced to develop into a support system. While these workers faced oppression from police and vigilantes, The Stroll became a safe space for New York’s trans community.
Creating a cultural document to showcase growth in public opinion can be valuable. Yet The Stroll is at its best when it highlights the similarities of the language and figures that haunted the workers. Figures like Rudy Giuliani became renowned for his “tough on crime” stances. However, many never looked at how the police violated sex crime or physical abuse laws. Instead, a culture of corruption emerged, with some going out of their way to destroy property so Guiliani’s police would investigate the area.
As New York shifts its positions on the police, the sex workers of The Stroll have to find new ways to make money. In post-9/11 New York, options for working on the Internet became more relevant than ever before. At the same time, shifting away from the in-person community caused it to slowly fade away. Today, the Meat Packing District represents a very different aesthetic and culture than the one that existed in the 1990s. Showing the shifts in culture makes for an interesting examination of the meaning of place.
Lovell’s first-hand experience serves as an essential guide for The Stroll. Unlike many other documentaries, this one pulses with pathos Lovell imbues to the material. However, Lovell did not make this picture in a vacuum. Co-Director Zackary Drucker brought years of experience and vision to the screen. Drucker’s own background as a trans person helps combine passion with artistic styling. Drucker drew raves for her performance in Framing Agnes last year and should do the same for this feature debut. The two artists at the center of The Stroll prove a perfect match.
There are a few moments where The Stroll feels a little repetitive, but on the whole, it represents a brilliant document of a time and place. While having more archival footage would have helped bring the world to life, Lovell and Drucker prove adept interviewers. Their subjects open their hearts, sharing the innermost fears and horrors of their time on The Stroll. The pictures and videos we watch invite us into the lives of those who paved a path forward for sex work. At the same time, a community and a culture that provided a lifeline to hundreds of trans teens receives its moment in the spotlight.