top of page

Avant-Drag! director Fil Ieropoulos talks drag, politics and queer performance art in Athens

Avant-Drag! documentary poster

"Our stories were not written in some bible; they were written in glitter on sidewalks, trash and sewers. Glitter is eternal – it never fades. It always returns. You can’t get rid of it; it sticks to you whether you love it or hate it…We are the most precious and the cheapest. We are more than real. We are the truth."

So intones the narrator of Avant-Drag!, which made its U.S. debut on April 6 at the Wicked Queer Festival in Boston after being officially selected at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and winning a Special Jury Prize award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival. The film is overtly political, and it posits that drag performance is as well.

“We really like the atmosphere at Wicked Queer," said director Fil Ieropoulos. "Wicked Queer seems to screen more radical films than other queer film festivals, and our film is quite rowdy. It is a loud, radical film compared to more gentle, coming-of-age films, and has more in common with the 60s and 70s radical underground US drag scene than it does with modern “Netflix-y” drag films…Shawn [Cotter] from Wicked Queer is quite in touch with radical films.”

Ieropoulos sat down for an interview with Options Magazine on April 4, two days before his film's North American debut, and also allowed Options editor-in-chief Zane Wolfang an advance screening of the 93-minute documentary, which follows ten drag performers in Athens as they navigate the complexities of intersectional queer identity and use their performance art to openly rebel against the conservative and often violently oppressive reality they face in a Greek society still dominated by the influences of nationalism and religious orthodoxy.

“I hope with this film we are proposing something about drag that has been forgotten with the advent of queer assimilation – drag used to be dangerous, and edgy," said Ieropoulos. "There are still underground scenes around the world, but our film pays tribute to a time when drag was dangerous, and in Athens, drag still is dangerous. Doing drag here is not totally transgressive, but it is still a political act somehow – it is not just entertainment."

While all of the performers featured in the film are based in and around Athens, their characters are informed by many different influences and they come from a variety of backgrounds. Like Ieropoulos, all of the performers in the film are quite politically conscious and see drag and queer performance art as imperative to their revolutionary politics.

In their own unique ways, each of them embodies Ieropoulos's notion that, “Everything we do is about how queer aesthetics and queer politics intertwine. This is lacking in modern queer culture – there is a separation of politics and aesthetics. I want to see works that are both aesthetically groundbreaking and politically on point.”

One performer named Er Libido focused on issues related to femininity, reproductive rights, and the patriarchy of the Greek Orthodox Church. They described being born into an atheist family in post-Soviet Uzbekistan and being shocked by compulsory school prayer after moving to Greece at age nine. They reminisced about their first attempt at school prayer, mimicking the sounds of Greek without knowing how to speak the language, and described it in retrospect as, “My first drag performance.”

A performer named Aurora Paola Morado described herself as "more Albanian in drag than out," and said her first and foremost goal as a drag performer was claiming space as an Albanian in a fundamentally racist Greek society. She described a memory of her father being humiliated and looked down upon by his Greek boss, who referred to him by a generic Greek name rather than his given Albanian name, and noted an interesting parallel to the concept of drag performers adopting a stage name and an assumed character identity, saying, “I believe Greece is a racist country, and almost every Albanian who exists in Greece has had to change their name.”

A performer named McMorait said they created their drag character in high school “to find defenses against homo and trans-related violence and bullying." McMorait explained they were strongly influenced by anti-national and anti-authoritarian theories, as well as queer theory and its constant contact with the anarchist movement.

McMorait also spoke about the Haus of Proletarea – the first drag house in Greece to be created as a political statement and with an overt political agenda – and referenced both the drag community at Stonewall and the drag performers at the forefront of the anti-Thatcher protests in London as historical sources of inspiration.

This high level of political consciousness and identification with a global community of avant-garde queer artists and drag performers ran through the film – Kangela, a self-described "riot housewife" with a prominent moustache who is the oldest performer featured in the film, cited a book about the late Australian-born queer performance artist Leigh Bowery as a key formative influence in her decision to start doing drag. Kangela stated bluntly, "Drag in Greece is a political act."

All of the drag performers were bonded in trauma, communally and individually carrying the very real fear of deadly violence at the hands of the police or homophobic people on the street. The film was made in part to pay tribute to a prominent Greek-American queer activist and drag performer named Zackie Oh who was murdered by brazen right wing homophobes in Athens in 2018.

Zackie Oh, who was well-known for defending the rights of LGBTQ people, HIV-positive people, sex workers, and refugees, was brutally beaten to death in broad daylight, first by two businessmen and then by two police officers, while many people looked on without attempting to intervene. One of his attackers was a prominent member of a far right political party called The National Front.

In a quote to the Guardian, an eyewitness named Philippos Karagiorgis who did unsuccessfully attempt to intervene and ward off the attackers, said, “It was a lynching. There’s no other way to describe it. [Zackie] was … on all fours like a baby, desperately trying to crawl through the shattered glass of the shop’s window. Every time he tried to get up, these two men would kick him in the head, again and again.”

The two police officers who arrived to this scene cuffed the maimed Zackie instead of his vicious attackers and proceeded to join in on the beating, and he subsequently died on the way to the hospital. The two citizens involved were eventually found guilty after a strenuous battle by Zackie Oh's family and a years-long campaign by activists, and were both sentenced to ten years in prison, with one man reduced to a sentence of house arrest due to his advanced age of 77. The two police officers were found innocent and were not convicted of any crime.

Ieropoulos told Options Magazine that Zackie Oh was a personal friend of his, and all of the performers spoke in the film about the impact and repercussions of his murder in a scene at the end of the film where they gathered for a dinner and a frank, open roundtable discussion about a range of topics including nationalism, racism, police brutality, transphobia, and the sometimes ugly social politics contextualizing the concepts of ostracism and solidarity within queer circles.

Several of them spoke about living in a frequent or even constant state of trauma and fear outside of very selective queer spaces, and acknowledged the grim reality that what happened to Zackie Oh could happen to any one of them. One stated plainly, "Just going out in a public place with a different gender expression is in itself a political act. “

Ieropolous cited this discussion as a crescendo point in the film, and pointed out, "This is something we don’t see often, when drag queens are given a platform to discuss personal and serious political issues. These are not just entertainers, but people with serious thoughts and insights about queer identity."

Ieropoulos, who identifies as a member of the queer community, has long been active in Athens' performance art scene, and has himself performed in drag, has longstanding relationships with the performers featured in Avant-Drag! some of them were also involved in his first feature film ORFEAS2021, a queer sci-fi/fantasy opera imagining a scenario with the first gay Prime Minister of Greece which was made in collaboration with the Greek National Opera.

"I'm not really a documentary fan," he explained. "I’ve been working with the queer performance art community for over ten years, and trying to find connections between the drag scene and the performance art scene. This is my first and probably only film about the drag community."

"I am a member of the queer community, a performer, and I have done drag myself. I wouldn’t feel as comfortable doing a film about a subculture I don’t know so well – it matters that I live in Athens and I have actually worked with these performers," he continued. "I would never feel ready to go to Belgium, for example, and do a documentary about a queer community there…I am very conscious of positionality and the risk of accidental exoticization."

When asked what audiences should expect from his first and possibly only documentary film, he said, "[Audiences] will see people who believe drag is a tool for transforming society and a medium that carries political currency. Drag has been commercialized…Here, they’ll see drag taken to a level that is transforming real life. I hope people can see a part of themselves [in the drag queens in this film], because the film is partly about how gender identity and other components of identity are formed....

 Audiences will feel as if the film transports them there [to Athens], as if there is no distance, and it feels emotionally intimate. If we managed this, then this is our biggest success – for the audience to feel like the performers are friends and not just weirdos in a far-away city."

Here is the film's trailer:


bottom of page