“I really admire the persistence of people who choose to forge unconventional paths and find a way to build lives around their art,” says documentary filmmaker Emily Branham. “I have a real passion for telling unexpected stories about artists. I would be thrilled to do that for the rest of my days.”
For her latest film, Branham spent 15 years chronicling the unconventional story of drag performer Marshall Ngwa, aka BeBe Zahara Benet, an immigrant from Cameroon and the first winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009. Being BeBe, which Branham directed, wrote and produced, premiered in 2021.
Branham first met Ngwa through her younger sister, a dancer. Branham was working in commercial and music video production in New York City after graduating from Northwestern.
“My sister called me from Minnesota and said, ‘I’m doing this amazing thing. I started dancing backup for this drag performer who is originally from Cameroon, and she just won the local state pageant and is going to nationals,’” Branham says. “I started feeling pulled from that moment to figure out what was going on there. It sounded really intriguing. Before that I hadn’t done documentary work outside of classes at Northwestern. It sounded like a great short film.”
Branham traveled to Minnesota to see Ngwa perform as BeBe and was blown away. “BeBe has something special,” says Branham, who borrowed a camera and enlisted a couple of friends to travel to Texas for the national pageant.
BeBe didn’t win, but Branham knew that wasn’t the end of the story. In fact, it was just the beginning.
From 2006 to 2020, Branham filmed Ngwa’s successes, such as BeBe’s win on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and stumbles, including Ngwa’s decision to give up his New York City performance aspirations and relocate to Minneapolis. After Ngwa’s father died in 2018, Branham even traveled to Cameroon, where she met and filmed a group of queer youth who faced threats and violence because of their sexual orientations and gender identities.
“[Filming] in Cameroon was a major decision,” Branham says. “It was an expensive and risky choice. But it was an incredible period of time — to take that leap of faith [and] interface with the community. Their generosity of spirit and kindness to us, I will never forget. And this film could not be what it was without that.”
As a director, producer and editor, Branham ’02 makes documentary-style films about artists and other creatives. Her past clients include AT&T, Lincoln Center and the Atlantic Council, among others. Branham likes to surprise people through films and other creative work; it’s something she learned to do at Northwestern as a radio/TV/film major and in student productions on campus. Being BeBe, she says, provided an opportunity to surprise people again.
“Because BeBe is the first winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I expected a lot of people to have preconceived notions about what this film would be — that it might be a very sparkly romp through the fun and fabulous life of a winner at the top of their game,” Branham says. “I wanted the film to be a bit of a Trojan horse. [Viewers] think they’re signing up for one thing, and along the way, they’re exposed to much more information that they weren’t expecting, information about LGBTQIA rights in Cameroon, about family acceptance narratives, and the complexities of what it is to be an immigrant who chooses to make such a risky choice with their career while maintaining close ties with their family.”
Being BeBe, Branham’s first feature-length film, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021 and made its broadcast premiere in the U.S. and Canada in June 2022. The film won awards for best documentary at both the Provincetown International Film Festival and the Sound Unseen Film and Music Festival. Worldwide, Being BeBe has been presented at more than 35 festivals.
At a screening in San Francisco, Ngwa’s childhood classmates from Cameroon were in the audience, unbeknownst to Ngwa and Branham.
“[During the Q&A,] they raised their hands and said, ‘Marshall, we have known you since [school], and you are the same [person], and this film totally encapsulates [who you are.] We support you and uplift you and are so proud of you.’” Branham says. “There was not a dry eye in the house.”
Being BeBe is available on major streaming platforms, and Branham is now working to connect the film to people who need it most. She hopes to partner with human rights groups in Cameroon to bring the film to the country and prompt dialogues about gender nonconformity.
“Film is a way that people can understand issues at a much more human, emotional level,” Branham says. “And that is the way that minds change. There were individuals from the Cameroonian community in Minneapolis who came up to us after [a] screening and said, ‘This film has changed how I perceive not just Marshall but even my own children.’
“One of the things that’s most powerful about BeBe in general is how relatable she is to people who have all kinds of identities. The power of embracing your whole, authentic self and bringing that to everything you do is something that I think people from all backgrounds and identities can relate to and find empowerment in. Even if you’re not a drag performer from Cameroon, BeBe’s story could be your story.”