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TRAMPS! Captures Subculture of the New Romantics

Toronto-based director Kevin Hegge on documenting queer history and British camp.

by Noémie Attia

After 10 years making TRAMPS!, Kevin Hegge practically has a doctorate on the New Romantics. Nonetheless, he transforms a decade of archival research into the nearly two-hour documentary. His passion for the British underground art scene of the 80s never tires. Hegge tells RANGE he added the last archival images “like a few days ago,” after the film had already been showing in some theatres.

“I love the intersections between art-making and I love when film or fashion or different mediums intersect,” he says. “And London and this particular group of people. Because there was so much going on with the free art school and being able to live without any sort of economic worry or whatever. It just allowed people to live creatively and experimentally.”

Hegge managed to track down artists that belonged to the alternative group forty years later. Eccentric people for an eccentric film. Vibrant graphic and sound design convey the artistic effervescence of the time. “I didn’t want to be too literal with the archival,” the filmmaker adds. “I wanted the movie to serve as a sort of compilation of the artworks that were produced at that time. I wanted it to be a little moving art gallery.” This approach allows queer experimental short films, notably by John Maybury and Charles Atlas, to feel the fresh air of theatres and live outside the archives for a while. 

To Hegge, experimental art, punkness and queerness go hand in hand… in hand. “I think by default, especially early punk scenes definitely explore different ideas around gender and sexuality…  You know, just through aggression or experimentation. I think that queerness is just intrinsic in the experimental subculture. So for me [making a queer film] wasn’t even intentional, it was just a sort of default, it was just intrinsic.”

TRAMPS! lives up to its title. Far from romanticizing a time and space of creative freedom and lavish fashion, the film also displays the everyday hardships of the New Romantics lifestyle. Christine Binnie, initiator of the Neo Naturists, recalls having to wear rain boots to use the permanently flooded toilet. “It’s so much about perception and performance,” Hegge says. “And the realities, those discrepancies, I think are really hilarious.” After all, they were a bunch of young kids who now look back, still uniquely dressed, laughing at their formerly low standards. 

These details, however amusing, remind viewers of the deleterious living conditions these young Londoners suffered under Thatcher’s government. Squatting was not just the only option for the young artists, but also a way of regaining freedom as the government grew more severe. For Hegge, that socio-political context is crucial to understanding the movement: “adversity is totally central to the necessity to make art. I don’t think that there’s ever been any interesting subculture that came out of just frolicking.”

“I think it’s undeniable that [the New Romantics scene] would be in response to the political strife,” Hegge says. “I just don’t know how intentional it was, but I do think that the two are interconnected, inescapably interconnected.” 

With TRAMPS!, Hegge offers a glimpse at an era. The film has no clear beginning or end. The presence of clapperboards serves as an introduction, reminding audiences  they’re only watching a slice of reality. The narration floats through topics, leaving some unfinished, keeping room for other pieces of London’s punk history to emerge. Hegge mentions Rebel Dykes, a 2021 documentary by Harri Shanahan and Siân A. Williams that extends the subject to an explicitly feminist and lesbian side of the movement. 

Escapist and over the top, lavish and filthy, political without intending to be, TRAMPS! proves to be, just like its protagonists, a piece of camp history.

TRAMPS! is screening in Toronto on June 22 (7:30pm) at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema followed by a discussion panel with the film team. It hits theatres in July.