Richie Shazam is building a trans utopia

The model, photographer, and director talked to Mic about her new short film, found family, and the meaning of Pride month.

Richie Shazam
Courtesy Richie Shazam and Converse
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The Ship of Theseus is a classic philosophical thought experiment about identity. There are many variations, but they usually pose the same question: If you replace an object’s parts one by one until nothing original is left, is it still the same object? The concept came to mind recently as I watched Savitree, an experimental new documentary from non-binary model and photographer Richie Shazam that premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.

“I’m all of my past selves and all of my future ideations,” Shazam says in the film. “I am who I always have been, and I can be whoever I want to be.”

Savitree, Shazam’s directorial debut, is named after her late mother and depicts Shazam’s journey to her found family. Born to first-generation immigrant Guyanese parents in Queens, New York, according to the film her mother developed a hole in her heart from pregnancy complications, which led to a host of health issues. With her older sister focused on school, and her father working seven days a week, Shazam grew up as her mother’s caregiver — managing her insulin, taking her to doctors appointments, as well as bathing and dressing her.

“I like to push things down, not deal because I'm so busy activating and living,” Shazam tells me when we meet in a rustic, dimly lit Tribeca restaurant. “Talking about my mother, talking about my family … that's something that I've always run away from.”

Savitree is a powerful exercise in reconciling the past; a time when Shazam’s only respite from the gender binary was watching “countless hours” of Bollywood movies in the confines of her childhood bedroom, yearning for the day she could be a Bollywood Bride. The short feels like a wholly-dramatic spiritual successor to the A24 hit Everything Everywhere All at Once; a fantastical exploration of identity and fractured selves through various mind-bending styles of filmmaking.

"I want to challenge the way people think,” Shazam says. “My work is a confrontation of the status quo. Let's defy beauty standards. Let's defy how people see us. Let's defy what we're able to do, like how [larger institutions] want to actively oppress us and keep us down.”

Shazam narrates Savitree, highlighting her resolve to command her own destiny. Camcorder videos of her childhood are interspersed between present-day footage and animation. The film opens on Shazam as a CGI fetus in her mother’s womb.

“By the time I was wrapped in a blanket, and placed into the hands of my mother, the world had already taken control of my body.”

“By the time I was wrapped in a blanket, and placed into the hands of my mother, the world had already taken control of my body,” Shazam narrates as the perspective pushes through layers of flesh.

The film features multiple haunting shots of Shazam embracing her mother’s grave, who died when Shazam was in high school. After her death, Shazam’s father grew distant. He didn’t approve of her experiments with self-expression, her “femme-facing presentation.” She says he kicked her out of the house by the time she turned 18.

“When you're not necessarily getting that acceptance and that love from home … you need to find those people that will help you to accentuate and elaborate the colorful person that you are,” Shazam tells me.

So she sought refuge in the New York City subway system, which, as any New Yorker or tourist would know, isn’t the most homey of places. But for Shazam, the subway was a portal to a world where she controlled her body.

“I would leave my conservative home in one outfit, and land straight into the heart of New York City looking like a Glamazon,” she says in the film.

Courtesy Richie Shazam and Converse

The subway also served as an “entryway to finding [her] community,” Shazam expounds during our interview. “It ultimately was a release and so important for me to have this sort of contemplative, meditative exercise of being on the subway because it allowed me to venture to find the individuals of my found family.”

Now it's like, you fucking go on Instagram, you go on TikTok and you could find your community real quick,” Shazam tells me. “I didn't have that, so it [was] obviously very scary and very intense.”

Shazam’s found family — which counts Uncut Gems star Julia Fox among its ranks — lies at the heart of Savitree. The concept of “found family” holds deep meaning for the queer community. When our biological families reject us for who we are, we go in search of a support system that will accept us.

“It's hard when you don't have that familial support when you're starting out,” Shazam says. “Family is what you make it and there are people that will love you unconditionally and will protect you from the pressures of the world.”

“I fought to create a world in which I could flourish.”

Shazam says her found family gave her the courage and strength to be her authentic self, allowing her to become the multi-hyphenate creative she is now. Shazam made Savitree because she wanted to honor them — which, she says, is what Pride month is all about.

“I always get a lot of anxiety around Pride month because it's like, June first starts, and then it's like, oh, we're in an automatic celebratory space,” Shazam confesses. “Well, no, that's not really reality. There's so much commotion and chaos around this country and about what's happening with our identities being on the chopping block.”

With that sort of intense pressure and scrutiny, it’s a bit hard to celebrate. But we have to celebrate because we have to remember what this month was built upon. It was a riot. In moments of crisis, who do you lean on? I have to celebrate my found family. I have to celebrate those individuals that are the reason why I'm here today.”

Leo Rocha

Like the Ship of Theseus, Shazam has undergone multiple transformations throughout her life. Despite that, she remains the same person, and her short film is an attempt to reconcile the different iterations of herself. Taking the reins of her own story is central to Shazam’s vision of a haven for trans people, which she references in Savitree: “I fought to create a world in which I could flourish,” she proclaims. “I’m living my trans utopia.”

As I ask Shazam what that paradise looks like for her, she takes a hit from her vape. This moment, along with her answer, capture her magnetic personality far better than any descriptor could.

“Trans utopia lies in being in positions of power and being able to walk confidently through this world with respect for myself, respect for other people and spreading these messages of love and hope and acceptance and fantasy,” she says. “The world's in such crisis. We need to party and enjoy each other's presence.”

Savitree was made in collaboration with Converse and will screen at select events throughout the summer before releasing to the public later this year.