Review by Alan French
History is often unkind to minority communities, and the LGBTQ+ community is no stranger to being erased. For centuries, little information about queer couples that were allowed to embrace their sexuality has existed. In most areas of the United States, local communities punished those willing to be open about their sexuality through literal and social methods. While the fight for same-sex rights continues today, those transitioning are at the center of a culture war. While many seek to support this choice, others create toxic environments where violence reigns. That makes the discovery of a haven, like the one depicted in Casa Susanna, a miracle worthy of celebration.
Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz, Casa Susanna brings a safe space into the light. During the 1950s and 1960s, a community of cross-dressers and trans women found refuge in the Catskills. Susanna provided safety in two ways. First, she opened a club for performers, which drew in crowds from around the state. Second, Susanna offered to lodge those performers in the Catskills. She would bring family and friends to a house and barn, where they were free to be women. For years, the house brought women from around the globe to the community as each person sought discovery.
Told with a talking head format, much of Casa Susanna involves historical tales and reminiscing. This style sets up the narrative while allowing the film to take on an ethnographic lens. This process, including recovering lost images and stories, becomes an important project for Lifshitz and their team. In that regard, it becomes a reclamation project that opens the door for more stories to share.
Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Casa Susanna is the celebratory attitude. These are individuals who continue to fight for fundamental human rights. The growth we observe paints a picture of hard-fought progress. These women went from hiding in Catskills barns vehemently denying their deepest desires to the women who transitioned and lived the life they deserved. Not every story has a happy ending, but for these women, life became too important to throw away. Each woman deserves credit for their actions and is a pioneer of the movement.
There is a limit to the quality of a talking head documentary, especially one that relishes data collection over style. In this way, the filmmakers emphasized the historical unearthing of new stories. While Casa Susanna contains a different kind of heartbreak than one may associate with hard-hitting documentaries, the stories told burst with pathos and love. Do not ignore this film. It teaches us too many important lessons about the dangers of ignorance.
Casa Susanna screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.