Proving that the old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” still stands, Jes Benstock’s kitsch documentary about the history and staging of the Alternative Miss World contest may be the weirdest, most surreal hour and a half you’ll ever spend inside a cinema.
Set up by artist Andrew Logan in 1972, the AMW – as the documentary fondly refers to it – deliberately subverts the outdated, hetero-normative principles of its mainstream namkesake to produce a dazzling, anti-establishment spectacle of everything that is outre. This is a world where “eveningwear” is less likely to be a slinky ballgown than a giant replica After Eight box. Previous winners include transsexuals, robots, septuagenarians and Derek Jarman.
The British Guide to Showing Off is set around the 2009 contest – the 12th since 1972. We follow Logan and his team, which includes a typically effervescent Zandra Rhodes, as he finds a venue (the Camden Roundhouse), a co-host (Ruby Wax) and, eventually, a winner (ah, that’d be telling). Interspersed with the main narrative are titbits from Logan’s biography and the history of the competition, which are both presented in of charming mix of live action and animation.
One of the most appealing things about this documentary is the total lack of self-consciousness among both Logan and his contestants. While the contestants clearly revel in the freedom to express themselves as freakishly as they want, at the same time it doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that the whole thing is, well, a little bit surreal. In the documentary’s funniest scene, Logan’s polite, well-spoken adopted sister Janet (aka Miss Handled) is cheerfully telling a buttoned-up, stiff-lipped businessman about the contest. When she offers to show him photos, he tries (not very convincingly) to conceal his shock at the sight of a gleeful Janet stark naked, with red paint daubed over her breasts and genitals. While he blushes and stammers as tactful a compliment as he can manage, and the audience is laughing out loud, Janet is far too absorbed in talking about the competition to even notice.
The contest is closely associated with the gay rights movement, and the documentary makes this clear. It looks at the 2004 contest, which was a benefit for Elton John’s AIDS charity, and also the homophobic impact of Clause 28 on the contest (media-led mutters along the lines of ‘ban this sick filth’). Yet Benstock skilfully avoids overemphasising the role this plays in the contest: it’s a celebration of gay culture, sure – but it’s a celebration of pretty much everything else as well. It’s reassuring to the spirit of the contest that Benstock stresses the overwhelming diversity of the contestants.
At times, though, “overwhelming” might seem to describe the documentary pretty well. At a little over an hour and a half it’s just long enough – any more and it would soon start to drag. At times the relentless onslaught of colour and noise make for a hefty sensory overload. The animated sequences, in particular, are fairly stunning – but on occasion, there’s just too much on screen to look at. That said, it’s hard to deny that the documentary’s garish, lurid style is totally in keeping with the AMW.
The documentary’s subject matter, combined with the ferocious enthusiasm of all involved, make this is an especially likeable piece of film. Logan (who, as a child, was founding member of the “Happy Club”) seems pathologically unable to express negativity about any of his endeavours, but he’s still sharp-witted enough to avoid an irritating demeanour of pure twee. As such, we’re rooting for him the whole way – and it’s a genuine delight to see the 2009 contest come off without a hitch. As for the winner… Actually, forget it. You’ll have to watch it to find out.
The British Guide to Showing Off is in cinemas 11th November 2011.
Director: Jes Benstock
Stars: Andrew Logan, Zandra Rhodes, Grayson Perry, Brian Eno
Runtime: 98 mins approx