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Casa Susanna review – this portrait of queer life in an era of illegality is incredibly moving

This beautiful documentary tells the tale of a 1960s resort that offered total freedom to ‘cross-dressing men’ to be themselves. It’s a poignant, celebratory, sad story

'Total freedom’ … one of a stash of 1960s photos of crossdressing men and their wives at Casa Susanna. Photograph: Collection of Cindy Sherman/BBC/Agat Films in Association with BBC Storyville

In 2004 a collection of photographs was discovered at a flea market in Manhattan. They depicted what we now know to be life at Casa Susanna (BBC Four), a bungalow camp in upstate New York that served as a resort for cross-dressing men, often accompanied by their wives. In the years since those pictures turned up, there has been a Casa Susanna book, an exhibition, a play – and now this feature-length documentary, which goes deeper into the stories of a handful of those who were there.

This is a charming film with a big, open heart. Casa Susanna was established by Tito Valenti, a court translator who went by Susanna when dressed as a woman, and his wife, Maria, who owned a wig shop in Manhattan. When Maria is described by her grandson Gregory, she sounds utterly wonderful. The resort offered its patrons “total freedom” to dress as they wished. For many, it was the first time they had met anyone like them.

Two now-elderly women, Katherine and Diana, spent time there in the 1960s; they return to the site and recall what it meant to them, as well as describing their lives before and after they visited. At the time they identified as transvestites or cross-dressers, though both have since transitioned. The language used around sexuality, sex and gender here may sound old-fashioned to a modern ear, but the film is guided by its interviewees’ descriptions of themselves and their friends, and has a robust complexity that gives it an honest and occasionally painful sheen. For example, we learn that this was a place for “cross-dressing men who were exclusively heterosexual”, hence the wives being there. They wanted to distinguish themselves from gay people, as they couldn’t accept what they saw as being two marks against their names.

This is a very personal history for Katherine and Diana, who are generous with their life stories; a broad cultural history of gender-nonconformity; and a portrait of a specific time and place. It is a world of classified ads in specialist magazines, placed and answered in the hope of meeting like-minded souls. Diana describes being a small boy and going to sleep wishing she would wake up a girl. There was nobody to talk to about this, or no point of reference to make her feel as if she were less alone. “What could be going on with me?” she recalls thinking, bewildered and ashamed. At Casa Susanna the guests played card games and talked about themselves as they had never been able to do before.

As with many portraits of queer life in an era of illegality, there is some discussion of shame. Families are tested and strained, and shame sometimes leads to cruelty and broken relationships. The documentary doesn’t flinch away from that, nor does it dwell. It does a matter-of-fact job of exploring the complicated corners, and balances the sadness with joy and celebration. This seems fitting. Pictures of the “transvestite scene” in the 1960s are understandably rare because people were afraid they might be exposed, arrested or blackmailed if they were discovered. Casa Susanna is brought to life, vibrantly, in those unearthed photographs, and it makes them all the more valuable.

Diana looks through old snapshots wondering if they are really her (a couple of them, it turns out, are not). In one of the most moving and sincere moments of this very moving and sincere film, she talks about going to Mexico for what she calls “the surgery”. On the way home, a friend takes her to visit her parents for the first time as a woman. What follows is a beautiful story about love and, in the end, its limits. This heartwarming anecdote speaks to the goodness and decency of people though, as elsewhere, it does not avoid the rough edges.

The film is filled with big characters. A woman named Betsy reads from a book written by her father about his time at Casa Susanna, called A Year Among the Girls; she delves into their relationship and his life with admirable frankness. Gregory serves as a de facto narrator, giving historical context to cross-dressing and transgender women, and fantastic accounts of a childhood that sounds unusual by the standards of society at the time. The end of the film brings them all together in a beautiful, poignant moment of remembering and commemoration.

The Storyville strand is on a roll at the moment. From The Fire Within to Three Minutes: A Lengthening, its documentaries are as fascinating as they are broad. Casa Susanna fits right in. It is a lovely, sad, celebratory story of outsiders finding community, and of people finding themselves. These are human tales of strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and flaws, and they are handled by director Sébastien Lifshitz with great care and sensitivity.


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