When Michael Donati , Class of 1996, heard that a famed glamour photographer and old friend was looking for a videographer for his new project, he jumped at the chance.
The friend was Scott Church , and the project was the beginning of the documentary “ScottChurch’s Drag ,” which will be screened at 7 tonight in the HUB Auditorium.
Church had been planning a web series in which he would take drag queens out of their traditional performance spaces and photograph them in everyday situations.
“The idea of someone with such a strong reputation for shooting gorgeous women to go and shoot female impersonators couldn’t be resisted,” Donati said.
For the first shoot, Church photographed a man in full drag, positioned in front of a motorcycle, in a bustling intersection in Lebanon County.
“People were honking their horns and yelling stuff out their windows,” Donati said. “I knew right then that this was going to be a lot of fun.”
Getting to the “fun” part of his career was not an easy road for Donati, however.
After spending the “best four years of his life” at Penn State and earning a degree in film, Donati moved to Los Angeles , where reality hit him hard.
“The closest thing to a film job that I could get was working as a clerk in a Blockbuster ,” Donati said. “Even though I was chasing this dream that I had since I was a kid, there was a point where I thought that maybe I had made the wrong choice.”
Donati never let his doubts lead him away from his childhood dream. While struggling in Los Angeles, he was called back to Pennsylvania to work on a project called “Milton Hershey, The Play, ” which finally gave him his first “taste of success,” he said. Donati enjoyed a comfortable few years in theater before returning to film, this time as a documentarian.
The first project that Donati completed was a self-financed film called “Dare to Dream: The Rebirth of Radio City Music Hall, ” which explored the history of the storied performing arts venue in New York City.
It was shortly after this documentary aired on public television in New York that Donati heard of the opportunity to work with Church. It seemed that Donati’s persistence was finally paying off, he said.
The video of Donati and Church’s first shoot with the motorcycle went viral, which encouraged the pair to turn the project into a feature-length documentary.
As the filming of “Drag” progressed, the focus of the documentary shifted from the novelty of putting drag queens in everyday situation to the stories of the men behind the makeup.
“These people, when you take off the makeup, could just as easily be your next door neighbor or somebody up the street,” Donati said. “These are everyday people who have everyday hopes, triumphs, tragedies, love and sadness.”
Church said that they did not get a single negative response from people while they were filming in Lebanon County.
“Even when we took half a dozen drag queens to the bowling alley, people were bringing their kids up to meet them, and big trucker guys in flannel shirts were running up to get their pictures taken,” he said.
The film, which took more than a year and half to complete, is as much an “educational tool” as a source of entertainment, Donati said.
“I couldn’t be more proud than to bring this film to campus,” Donati said. “Out of everything that I’ve done, this is certainly the most successful.”
The documentary has given Donati a chance to pay to tribute to a former Penn State professor, Jeanne Hall, who died unexpectedly in 2011. Donati dedicated the film to Hall, who was one of his first film professors and taught him to appreciate the art and power of documentary film, he said.
Craig Leets Jr ., assistant director at the LGBTA Student Resource Center , said that Pride Week seemed like an appropriate time to screen the documentary on campus.
“It celebrates drag culture, which is often associated with the LGBT community,” Leets said. “It provides a face or a story with drag culture, which is important because it is very flashy and big, but there are people behind it.”
Audiences have responded well to the film, which premiered in the fall and will be screened at several colleges this spring, Church said.
“I think it is the perfect fit for the college community, especially for the people who are discovering themselves and their places in the world,” Church said. “That’s what this movie is really about — discovering yourself and your inner awesome-ness and showing that to the world.”