Here to take our city back!
Here to take our city back! Courtesy of Melissa Wax

In the first episode of the Seattle-based web series BAZZOOKA, there's a moment that will feel familiar to anyone who lived through last summer in the city. It happens when the character Gab—played by Eva Walker, most known for leading the local band The Black Tones—visits Seattle and finds the city completely upended.

The series, created by local musician and filmmaker Danny Denial, is set in a dystopic version of Seattle in 2022, but it looks a lot like Seattle in 2020. That’s not only because Denial filmed it last year, but also because of its content: As Gab drives into town in the series’ first episode, the sounds of police sirens run wild. Protesters toss Molotov cocktails into boarded-up businesses. Ominous billboards promoting an evil mega-corporation named Tundra loom over passersby. Meanwhile, the city seems intent on attacking the wellbeing of Black and brown people. Once known as a lily-white liberal haven, BAZZOOKA’s Seattle is now in flames, descending into chaos.

Sound familiar?

Written by Denial last summer and released earlier this year, Denial told me they rallied dozens of local artists of color to star in the seven-episode series, which is mostly about queer and Black anarchists trying to save the soul of the city. It stars drag performers LÜCHI and Kylie Mooncakes, Cozell Wilson of Beverly Crusher, as well as Eva Walker and Noah Sanemitsu, both of whom reprise roles from Denial’s earlier film taking place in the same universe, Kill Me to Death.

The final episode dropped in May, and now Denial is partnering with Northwest Film Forum and the Vera Project to host BAZZOOKAFEST, a day-long, all-ages, virtual and in-person festival highlighting Black and brown performers, artists, and businesses in the region. Taking place this Saturday, August 28, at Jefferson Park, the fest combines film, music, and drag, and local legend Kimya Dawson will headline. The fest’s ethos reflects the one put forward in the web series by bringing the creativity of Black and brown artists to the forefront.

In a recent interview, Denial told me they were initially inspired to curate the event as a way of “expanding the idea” of BAZZOOKA. The series had already established a connection to live performances, ending every episode with a mini-performance from local musicians and bands like Keif Urban, Ex-Florist, Black Ends, and Shaina Shepherd (a notable exception is episode six, which played out to “Ground Zero” by disbanded grunge progenitors Bam Bam).

Denial curated the event specifically to be cross-discipline to upend what they see as “a lot of compartmentalization happening in the arts scene here.” They believed a festival would be the right format to celebrate the diverse drag, music, and film communities in Seattle.

“[BAZZOOKA] was just so much more than a web series—it was like a vibe,” said Northwest Film Forum executive director Vivian Hua in a recent interview. The arthouse cinema livestreamed episodes of the series as they premiered and partnered with Denial and Vera Project to bring the festival to fruition. “It feels like it's an entity in and of itself. It’s less about the form it's in but more about the community that it creates around it and its ecosystem.”

Denial told me they conceived BAZZOOKA last year as a “direct response” to the Black Lives Matter protests that shook our city and country in the summer. They also thought it could be a way to pay and platform local Black and brown artists during a time when the COVID shutdowns lanced many artists’ ability to make money.

“I was just sort of thinking, what if we can use this moment to say, ‘Hey, do you want to support as many Black artists as possible,'” they said, referencing white folks who posted anti-racist reading lists on Instagram in response to protests calling for racial justice. “Let's make a series, let's raise the money, let's get all these white people to fund it, and let's pay ourselves.”

Raising just over $4,000 in a GoFundme campaign and paying nearly everyone involved in the shoot, BAZZOOKA’s first five episodes were shot over a few weeks in November. Then COVID-related restrictions shut down production until February, when they filmed the final two episodes. Denial said everyone wore masks to comply with pandemic restrictions.

"It was definitely a bigger undertaking than I thought it would be, but it came out of wanting to make something that could both employ people... and then also being able to create a piece of work that shows an experience of people—community members—coming together and showing solidarity with each other," they said.

“I’m always ripping off Gregg Araki,” Denial laughed. "I love that shit!”

When I first watched BAZZOOKA, I found it to be Gregg Arakian. Like films directed by the (in)famous New Queer Cinema director, Denial shot the series on a shoestring budget, stuffing it with grainy footage, hot queer people, oppressive authority figures, cool lighting, and a sick soundtrack—all of it wrapped in a dystopic, punk aesthetic. Much like Araki’s work, alien conspiracy theories abound in Denial’s series, with Walker’s character Gab along with her bandmates, uh, [*SPOILER ALERT*] unraveling a coordinated galactic effort between the city and the villainous Tundra to convert Seattleites into their flesh minions.

"How do we best describe this huge force that lives over us every day that we know is there, but we can never quite get up high enough to reach them?” Denial asked, then answered: “Oh, aliens, obviously!”

One of the things I dig most about Araki's work is how music is integral to his stories. It’s hard to imagine an introduction to James Duval's character in Nowhere, Dark Smith, that isn’t him beating off in the shower to Slowdive’s “Avalyn II,” which hints at both the cosmic and menacing forces in the rest of the film.

Similarly, Denial—who's in a band literally named Dark Smith—felt like Araki opened up the possibilities of music in film. It’s an influence you can see clearly in BAZZOOKA. Denial said they were so inspired by Ex-Florist's brooding, industrial ".925," that they wrote a fictionalized version of the rapper into the series's mythology and had them perform the track at the end of the first episode.

“If a director can take film and use music as a character in that way— that was just a game-changer for me as a kid,” they said. “I was like, ‘I want to make movies like that!’”

Watching the series again as the pandemic’s second summer comes to a close, it serves as a stark document of what life looked like during the pandemic’s first year. The glum, exhausted mood of BAZZOOKA’s Seattle accurately reflects a time just before COVID deaths relentlessly skyrocketed—a time that certainly felt (and still feels) apocalyptic.

Denial agreed that while, yes, Tundra does seem like Amazon and, yes, the series’ sinister white mayor the characters refer to as "Dragon Lady Jan" does seem like Mayor Jenny Durkan and, yeah, the masked protesters do sorta look like antifa on their daily marches around the Hill, viewers shouldn’t take the series as a one-to-one stand-in for the truth.

“I thought the only responsible way to [film the series] would be to fictionalize it all and make it a familiar but different world,” said Denial. "I thought making it slightly fictional would help create sympathy for the people at the center of it. You’re not looking at it as all those protesters in Capitol Hill. These [characters] are a fictional version that maybe can make people think a little differently because it's a little removed."

For this weekend’s BAZZOOKAFEST, Denial said the event is about “expanding the idea of series” by pulling BIPOC artists from different mediums together for a day of celebration. Many faces who appeared in the series will perform at the festival this Saturday, like Ex-Florist, King Youngblood, and ViV Vicious’s band Razor Clam, playing alongside nationally famous acts like Kimya Dawson. Denial also invited queer collective BeautyBoiz to produce drag.

Visitors will also have the opportunity to buy from Black and brown businesses and watch films at the event. Denial hopes to make the festival a recurring event in the city, one that specifically platforms artists and performers of color across disciplines who don't get consistently booked at other fests and venues.

"The whole BAZZOOKA imprint has been about inclusivity and everyone being involved," said Denial. "[It's] really just an open door."

BAZZOOKAFEST goes down on Saturday, August 28 from 2-10 PM at Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill. The all-ages event is free, will be livestreamed, and masks are required (with some available if you forgot to bring yours).