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Damon Cardasis' 'Saturday Church' explores religion, identity politics and 'ball culture'

A scene from Damon Cardasis'
A scene from Damon Cardasis' "Saturday Church."

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Damon Cardasis grew up as the son of a progressive Episcopal priest. The first God he knew was a tolerant one, eager to sanctify same-sex marriages and support the marginalized. Because of his upbringing, Cardasis was able to see how institutionalized religion has twisted the Bible against LGBTQ communities.  It was this lens that inspired his newly released directorial debut, "Saturday Church."  

The film tells the story of Ulysses, a New York City teen coming to terms with his gender identity in a family and church that struggle to accept him. Ulysses eventually finds an oasis in the form of Saturday Church, a program for LGBTQ youth who have been abused, neglected and ostracized by their families. Supported by new friendships, he cultivates his love for music and dance.

"Saturday Church" also happens to be a musical. While exploring NYC's "Ball culture," an LGBTQ subculture that stages vogueing competitions, we are treated to a multitude of song and dance numbers that distinguish the film from other coming-of-age, coming out pieces. Cardasis spoke with The Frame's host, John Horn.

Interview Highlights

On homophobia in institutionalized religion:

My mother always [said] that the Bible, first-and-foremost, preaches about loving one another. And, you know, Jesus was with marginalized communities. And, so that was always sort of how I viewed Christianity. There are some churches — even within the Episcopal diocese —[where] a schism happened when they started doing gay marriages. Some of the conservative churches said, We're not going to partake in this, we're going to break off.  And, obviously, within Christianity there's Roman Catholicism. And that obviously does not condone gay marriage or homosexuality. So I sort of found it fascinating that there was one church that was the cause of the problems. And then, at the same time, these very progressive and wonderful churches that don't get enough attention — that are trying to take care of youth or people that have been spurned or abused by the church — they're sort of righting the wrongs. 

On the inspiration behind the film's main character, Ulysses:

He is a combination of a few things. Part of it is fictional, part of it is based — a little bit personality-wise — on me as a child. I was sort of quiet and I would daydream all the time. Part of it is based on one of the kids I met at the program whose name was Clive. He was very sweet and quiet, just sort of coming into his own and figuring out how he wanted to express himself. So it was a combination of characters. 

On the decision to employ musical theatre and magical realism:

It was sort of an evolving process. The genesis of the idea was that [Ulysses] would use fantasy to escape and that there would be magical realism. I wasn't totally sure how those fantasies would manifest themselves. I liked the idea of pulling small glimpses of beauty from his surroundings. His home life is pretty bleak and stark, but there are flowers or vines on chainlink fences in the Bronx. Or a stained glass window in the church. Or music, just strands of music that he starts escaping into. It was upon going to the Saturday Church program at St. Luke's that it was all sort of congealing. There was a cafeteria where the kids would be fed and have social services. And adjacent to the cafeteria was a gymnasium. And in that gymnasium, after the kids had spoken with social workers and been fed, they would go in the gymnasium and vogue. There was a freedom and an empowerment and a little bit of an escapism that you would see through the dance. And that's why vogueing and the ball world started weaving its way into the narrative. 

On the importance of having trans actors and trans narratives on screen:

I made sure that in doing this, the most important thing for me was to listen. And [that] this was not me putting my agenda on them or my version of what their lives are. This was me sitting and listening, and sort of being a student saying, How can I best tell this story and narrative? When I first wrote this script I had a social worker read it and said, "If anything is wrong or reads false, please let me know." And then I sent it to GLAAD before we even got into pre-production, saying "Let me know what you think" ... .When the roles were finally cast, they all read it. And I said that if there was anything that rang false to please let me know. I will not be insulted. This is about getting it right. 

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