Casa Susanna
June 10th, 2023

Casa Susanna

Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle for Love is Love: Sébastien Lifshitz’s LGBTQ+ Portraits, five films directed by Frenchman Sébastien Lifshitz. Last up is Casa Susanna [2022].

Event Sponsors:

Venue Information:

Downtown Central Library Auditorium
1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, NY 14203
(Enter from Clinton Street between Oak and Washington Streets)
716-858-8900 •
COVID protocol will be followed.

TrailerSynopsisDirector’s StatementDirector BioLinks

Synopsis courtesy of press kit:

In the 1950s and ‘60s, an underground network of transgender women and cross-dressing men found refuge at a modest house in the Catskills region of New York. Known as Casa Susanna, the house provided a safe place for them to express their true selves and live for a few days as they had always dreamed—dressed as women without fear of being incarcerated or institutionalized for their self-expression. Told through the memories of those whose visits to the house would change their lives, the film provides a moving look back at a secret world where the persecuted and frightened found freedom, acceptance and, often, the courage to live their lives out of the shadows. A co-production with ARTE, CASA SUSANNA is directed by the critically acclaimed French filmmaker Sebastien Lifshitz.

Using a rich trove of color photos of Casa Susanna’s guests, archival footage and personal remembrances, the film reconstructs the forgotten life of Susanna Valenti, the courageous woman who ran the house. From her enlistment in the army as a man to her marriage to Marie, an eccentric older Italian woman, Susanna led a life that, even today, many would find hard to imagine. Like Susanna, many who came to the Catskills house were married and fathers, working as airplane pilots, tugboat captains, film directors and authors. They found each other and Casa Susanna through word-of-mouth and Transvestia, a magazine for and by the trans and cross-dressing community. In the film, two people whose lives were forever changed at Casa Susanna, Diane and Kate, travel back to the now-abandoned site and share their memories of a time when people like them, from all over the country, came to a place where they were free to dress and live as women from morning to night.


  • Venice Film Festival – 2022 – Venice Days
  • Toronto International Film Festival – 2022
  • CPH:DOX – 2023
  • BFI London Film Festival – 2022
  • DOC NYC – 2022

Courtesy of press kit:

In the early 2000s, while writing WILD SIDE, a movie about a transgender person, I plunged into Paris’ underground scene. Over the months, I met a host of transgender women. The chaotic nature of their life stories came across as a terrible reflection of the way society had rejected and misunderstood them. Meeting these women convinced me that I had a duty to depict their lives, so trans identity might be better understood and accepted.

While researching WILD SIDE, I stumbled on a book mysteriously entitled Casa Susanna. To my surprise, I discovered this contained a collection of images depicting a US-based trans and cross-dressing community of the 1950s and ‘60s. The most striking thing was that they did not seem to be in costume. Quite the opposite: you could tell that they were carefully, sensitively, intent on embodying elegant, upper-middle-class American womanhood, a woman next door as Life Magazine or Harper’s Bazaar might have wanted us to see her. There was no accompanying text, just a short preface explaining that these pictures had been found by an antique-dealer couple at a flea market in New York City. There was nothing on the back of the pictures either and no correspondence to support provenance or history. The only words that did appear in one of the pictures was a wooden sign on a tree trunk that read Casa Susanna. Beside the tree stood a tall, long-haired brunette in a flower-print dress. It was summer. The weather was very sunny. This, people felt, must be Susanna, proudly standing outside what must be her own house.

Years passed. I made WILD SIDE, then a film portrait of Bambi, one of the first transgender women in France, and most recently PETITE FILLE ( Little Girl ), a documentary about Sasha, a seven-year-old trans girl. All three movies relate to trans identity in different eras. Together they make up a history of sorts from the 1940s to the present in France.

Then in 2016, I was offered the opportunity to organize a vast photographic exhibit, showing images from my own collection. This was Mauvais Genre ( Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross Dressers ). The show contained more than 500 amateur photographs depicting various forms of cross-dressing from the 19th century to the 1980s. As a result, I met Isabelle Bonnet, a photographic historian who had written a paper on the Casa Susanna pictures. Sheer grit had enabled Isabelle to identify and meet with some of the people shown in these mysterious photographs and to discover the true identity of Susanna herself.

When I read Isabelle’s paper, the mass of archival material found, and the discovery of surviving eyewitnesses convinced me I had to make a movie. So I went to New York in the late summer of 2021 and traveled up to the Catskills in search of Casa Susanna. I have been lucky enough to be able to bring this secret history, this invisible world, back to life with the help of Kate, Diana, Betsy and Gregory. Now their story, the story of a clandestine community, is there for all to see. With it, a fragment of queer history, stretching from the McCarthy era to the 1970s, is revealed. The unsettled nature of their existences and their bravery ring loud and clear. But now a new conservatism is rearing its head again and the rights of yesteryear, fiercely won, may yet again be challenged. The struggle isn’t over.

Sébastien Lifshitz, © AGAT FILMS & CIE – ARTE France. Courtesy of Music Box Films

“My work centers essentially on the idea of the portrait, that is to pick an individual and try to picture his or her inner landscape – one could almost call it the inner space. And the discontinued narrative helps me to approach it.”

Courtesy of The Lives of Thérèse press kit:

After studying art history, Sébastien Lifshitz began working in the world of contemporary art in 1990, assisting curator Bernard Blistène at the Pompidou Center, and photographer Suzanne Lafont. In 1994, he turned to filmmaking with his first short, Il faut que je l’aime.

In 1995, he made a documentary about film director Claire Denis, and in 1998 he completed his mid-length feature Open Bodies, which was selected for numerous international film festivals, including Cannes and Clermont-Ferrand, and won the Prix Jean Vigo and the Kodak Award for Best Short Film. In 1999, he directed Cold Lands for Arte as part of their series Gauche-Droite. The film was selected for the Venice Film Festival.

In 2000, he directed his first full-length feature, Come Undone, hailed by the critics and released internationally. In 2001, his second full-length feature, a documentary – road movie entitled The Crossing, was selected for the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes. In 2004 he began shooting Wild Side, which went on to be selected for numerous international festivals and won, among other awards, the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award. In 2009 he shot Going South, which was selected for the 2010 Berlin Film Festival. Then in 2012, he directed Les Invisibles, a documentary film selected in Cannes Film Festival in the Official Selection. The film won the César (French Academy Award) for Best Documentary of 2013. That same year, he completed the documentary Bambi which was presented at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Teddy Award. In 2014, Sébastien Lifshitz received the «Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres.»


  • Casa Susanna (2022)
  • Bambi, une nouvelle femme [Bambi, A French Woman] (2021)
  • Petite Fille [Little Girl] (2020)
  • Avenue de lamballe (2019)
  • Adolescents (2019)
  • Les vies de Thérèse [The Lives of Thérèse] (2016)
  • Bambi (2013)
  • Les invisibles [The Invisibles] (2012)
  • Plein sud [Going South] (2009)
  • Jour et nuit (2008)
  • Les temoins (2006)
  • Wild Side (2004)
  • La traversée [The Crossing] (2001)
  • Presque rien [Come Undone] (2000)
  • Les terres froides [Cold Lands] (1999)
  • Les corps ouverts [Open Bodies] (1998)
  • Claire Denis la vagabonde (1995)
  • Il faut que je l’aime (1994)

Here is a curated selection of links for additional insight/information:

Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply