It is beyond any reasonable doubt that we’re in the midst of a trans moment in our political, cultural and social spheres. Big-and small-screen trans representations are increasing in frequency, while some groups (notably America’s Republican Party) use trans issues to score nasty political points (Trump has announced—again—that he intends to ban many trans people from military service, clearly prompted by the Religious Right).
TV has been ahead of the game—most notably reality shows based on the lives of Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner, along with dramas like Transparent. But the responsibility (yet again) falls on documentary filmmakers to represent the struggles and complexities of the lives of trans people in greater detail and with more nuance than the ratings-driven sound bites that such shows often provide.
There are a number of recent documentaries that warrant further analysis in terms of their taking the trans-themed non-fiction film into new directions and conceptual territories. What follows are five transcendent, transgressive trans documentary moments, in no particular order.
1. The Bodybuilder Who Transitions
Transformer, which won the Audience Awards at this year’s Hot Docs as the top Canadian doc and overall festival favourite, captures the transformation of Janae Marie Kroc, and is directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Michael Del Monte. Kroc’s story is astonishing: prior to transitioning, she was a world-renowned, record-holding bodybuilder, pressing huge amounts of weight to the thrill of a massive global fan base. As Kroc tells it, it was being in the public eye that made much of her transition so difficult; after all, she rightly perceived that the whole world would be watching, given her extensive touring on the bodybuilding circuit and considerable online following.
Kroc’s transition feels particularly epic. As a male bodybuilder, Kroc’s physique was what is typically thought of as a masculine extreme, in the most traditional sense of gender stereotypes. She tells us early on that she got into bodybuilding because as a young boy she had been bullied by others, and thus the workouts and ensuing muscles were a defense mechanism. As Kroc dons a wig, make-up and tight-fitting clothing, her at-times awkward presentation as female is as touching as it is brave. She is fighting to present herself for what she feels she really is.
Transformer leaps between Kroc’s male world—“my guy side,” as she refers to it—and her female world. Her bodybuilding colleagues are, in fact, extremely supportive, something that brings Kroc to tears in one particularly memorable scene. She finds solace when she meets up with a cis-gendered female bodybuilder, the two bonding while pumping iron. (“Don’t be a bitch!” the woman yells at Kroc as she struggles to complete a set of weights, in an inadvertent and odd bit of misogyny, given that this is a film about someone becoming the woman they’d always wanted to be.)
Perhaps not shockingly, Kroc’s parents are the biggest stumbling block, with both indicating their son will somehow be dead or gone forever in the wake of the transition. One almost feels sorry for them, but they seem averse to educating themselves—the least one could expect of loving parents. But the other generational end of the family provides a euphoric counterbalance: Kroc’s three teenage sons are as supportive and caring as anyone could ever hope for, repeatedly telling their transitioning parent that she should do whatever she needs to do to find happiness in her identity. These are remarkably powerful scenes. “I didn’t want to make it seem like these kids were perfect,” Del Monte tells me, “but I looked for flaws and could find absolutely none. These kids loved Janae and would do anything for her.”
One of the things Transformer does so well is to engage with the theories of trailblazing queer theorist Judith Butler, who argues that gender is performative. (I’m vulgarizing her arguments by summarizing them, but that’s one of her main points.) What becomes clear as this documentary unfolds is that the world of bodybuilding—with the elaborate shows in front of adoring audiences, and its supplements, hormones and steroids—is no more performative than gender itself. Kroc discusses this overlap, realizing that she will have to sacrifice some of the muscle in order to appear more feminine.
“When I first realized I was trans,” Kroc tells me, “I felt so alone. I didn’t know that there was anyone else like me in the world. If this documentary makes even one person aware that they are not alone, then that will make me very happy. I can’t be silent, knowing what so many have gone through and continue to go through.”
2. Transcending the Trans Coming-Out Narrative
In another vein entirely is Strong Island, Yance Ford’s devastating documentary, which played the festival circuit last year, ultimately earning an Oscar nomination, and is available on Netflix. What’s remarkable about this film is the way in which Ford’s own trans identity is a part of the film, but not its central narrative. With so many trans docs being coming-out films, this one instead focuses on the tragic tale of Ford’s brother, who was murdered, and the white murderer who was never brought to justice.
Ford discussed his trans identity in relation to his filmmaking in an interview on Democracy Now. “Actually, my transition was in progress while I was making the film. And the tricky thing about making a film when you’re a character—right?—is that, you can’t actually have your voice change in the middle of post-production, because I might need to record additional lines or re-record things. So, I didn’t begin hormones until after the picture was locked. But I had the ‘there’s no turning back from here,’ you know, as the medical establishment tries to make trans people go through these steps, just in case you change your mind. That, for me, was the easy part.
“And, being the first trans director nominated for an Academy Award, having gone through a process with people who embraced me regardless of how I identified, with people who were able to turn on a dime and use the proper pronouns and respect my gender identity, even though it’s been something that’s not new to me—it’s not new to the people that I hold dear, but it’s sort of new in the public space—having that embraced and being respected by my creative team as that process played itself out was tremendously important. That respect for both me as an artist and me as someone who is coming to a new understanding of how I wanted to be in the world, which is my true self, my authentic self, and being that authentic self and being out as my authentic self, is so important.”
And the fact that neither his transition nor his gender identity is the focal point of Strong Island — but still a crucial part of the overall story — is one of the film’s main strengths, Ford believes, as he concluded on Democracy Now: “It’s one of the reasons why I’m so proud of Strong Island, because the film stands on its own and also allows it to go into communities where it might not otherwise go, because of who I am. I know that trans people of color are murdered at such rates in this country every year. And it should be treated as a law enforcement priority, but it’s not. And if my nomination can help in any way to advance the issues of trans equality and protection for LGBTQ people under the law, then I am as humbled by that as I am by the nomination.”
3. Family Ties
Perhaps the most powerful running theme throughout the recent spate of trans-themed docs is the ways in which family members accept the transitioning subject of the film. In Transformer, Kroc’s three sons provide their stalwart support, and many of the film’s most emotionally powerful moments. In Barbara Kopple’s 2017 documentary This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, Gigi goes through various surgeries during her transition and her father literally holds her hand through much of the pain and turmoil. Gigi goes from gay twink YouTube superstar to shapely model, and, true to YouTube star stereotype, she comes across as a tad self-absorbed at times. Her father’s support is so unconditional that, at one point, Gigi admonishes herself for being too late in realizing how powerful and crucial his stance has been. (Kopple received the Outstanding Achievement Award at this year’s Hot Docs.)
But perhaps one of the best familial bonds arrives in Maya Gallus’s Girl Inside (2007), in which we meet Madison, a young woman transitioning in her mid-twenties.
Her grandmother is fully on board with the transition and is such an over-the-top character, she threatens to steal the entire film. She insists that Madison’s transition is all good, but is careful to point out that she probably needs some work done on her nose and that her feet will always be a bit large and thus masculine. But if that’s all the flaws she can find, she concludes, then Madison is ahead of the game. Grandma also points out that Madison doesn’t really walk like a lady, and she might want to learn if she really wants to act truly feminine. She also casts doubt that the surgeon can possibly create a vagina with a scalpel, as she points out that she’s got a vagina and describes how complicated they are. She’s one of those relatives who says things that shouldn’t be said, but somehow remains insanely endearing despite the litany of faux pas.
4. Surgery Porn
These moments happen in virtually every trans coming-out film, and, as a critic, it’s hard to know precisely whether to praise or fault them. In Transformer, This is Everything and Girl Inside, the filmmakers get access to the operating room. This leads to some pretty horrifying moments that include flesh, blood and the considerable pain of those being operated on. I get that it’s part of the larger picture, and that a huge part of documentary filmmaking is not flinching from presenting anything, but at times these moments of what I call surgery porn can feel exploitative. If the gore isn’t quite enough, the excruciating expressions of pain on the faces of those being operated on will induce severe cringes. If they do serve an important purpose, then it’s that the scenes do indicate how strongly the trans people in these films feel about needing to make an actual physical transition. Gallus made an intriguing creative choice in Girl Inside: just as Madison is about to begin the surgery she considers most pivotal (genital constructive), the scene cuts from the operating table to images of Madison sky-diving. Gallus intuited that we don’t need to see any actual knife work, and instead shows us images that remind us of Madison’s strength and courage.
5. Perspective and Authorship Count
These films are all amazing and add important knowledge and context to trans activism and awareness of trans issues. But they are not autobiographical—even Strong Island is about Ford’s brother, not Yance and his transformation. One of the most powerful first-person documentaries I’ve ever seen is She’s a Boy I Knew, Vancouver-based filmmaker Gwen Haworth’s landmark 2007 feature. With equal parts sardonic humour and courage, Haworth tells the story of her own male-to-female transition, detailing the stresses it placed on her own relationships with family and friends. That the film has stayed with me and remains so vivid is testimony both to Haworth’s considerable storytelling skills and to the importance of handing the camera over to the subjects of the films themselves. This isn’t to disparage cis-gendered filmmakers for creating films with trans subjects; rather, it’s a call for more perspectives and more filmmaking from those who have been marginalized.