Seen as part of the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival (Online Screening)
The history of gay culture is hard not well recorded, this is almost intentional. Thanks to the way that the community at large was treated by a legal system that revelled in arresting gay people for the crime of existing, keeping records wasn’t a high priority. If one were to have letters or photos that caught moments of queer culture, they were either burned by an angry parent determined to pretend that their departed child was straight, or it was destroyed upon request by the person who wrote the letter who would often add “P.S. Burn This letter please” at the end.
Thankfully, someone in the 1950s ignored this request and kept a hold of a series of letters and photos that described the underground 1950s drag and gay scene and now we have a record of this period of the era when the LGBT community was its most secretive.
P.S. Burn This Letter Please alternates between talking-head interviews with elderly gay men and trans women who were the ones living this secret life and letters between a group of friends, all talking about how they would accomplish their drag performances (Lots of theft) or how they would attempt to survive in a society that was actively against them (Lots of arrests). Throughout the film we slowly get to learn about this underground culture that grew out of a necessity for people to be who they were when just existing as themselves was considered a crime. It’s a key portion of queer history that seldom gets talked about because we never really had the evidence to explain it, until now.
P.S. Burn This Letter Please plays it very slowly, not really going for a narrative so much as creating a mood. It’s not chronicling an entire decade, this isn’t a linear narrative, instead, it’s just pulling out pieces of the era and slowly expanding on each. The notes from the letters will often work as a starting point before the living elders who are being interviewed expand on each element, creating this rich image of a group of people just trying to get by.
It’s a history that’s not often talked about, partly because it predates the AIDS crisis and that’s usually as far back as most documentarians want to go because that’s the period with all the juicy footage but it’s also a hard history to even research because, as Robert Carver in P.S. Burn This Letter Please points out “We don’t have archives of letters or archives of diaries, what we have is archives of arrests”. This film does a fantastic job of being one of those archives of this period that isn’t that far away, a little under 70 years ago.
While P.S. Burn This Letter Please never explicitly points this out, there’s something stunning about watching a film about people who had to be secretive about doing drag in an era where shows like Drag Race, Dragula, We Are Here and Legendary are in the mainstream. It’s a juxtaposition that’s made by time, not by the film (might’ve been interesting if the film could’ve pointed out this change but that wasn’t something they felt the need to do and I get that).
Where P.S. Burn This Letter Please truly excels is just by getting some of these older queer men and women to be on camera and talk, we have a permanent record of them and their lives now that we didn’t have before. It’s not a film about tragedy or pain, most of the interviewers are thrilled to talk about how they knew someone so determined to do their art that they would just steal the things they needed, an art known as mopping. There’s almost a sense of rebellion to it like they’re saying that you can’t judge them for that single act because they were risking their freedom just by existing so why shouldn’t they be able to get the nice outfit that would make their act so much better.
Gay history is hard to research and important to learn, and P.S. Burn This Letter Please has already handled the hard part for you. It’s a glimpse to an era that was so underground that there was a chance we would never have any record of it beyond a handwritten arrest for public lewdness. Now we have a record of joy, a record of happiness and fun as written by the people who were there and experienced it.
We need more documentaries like this and we need them quickly, just full of stories about what it was like to be gay in the pre-AIDS era because soon we will lose those stories to the sands of time and that would be the real tragedy. This is a film worth hunting down, just don’t actually try to burn the film after you watch it because that might not end well