It is difficult outside of GLBT film festivals to find documentaries and other movies that explore the experiences of transgender men and women. Outfest 2009 will showcase several such works, and the most interesting and provocative is Jules Rosskam’s Against a Trans Narrative.
Rosskam, who is a painter and university professor in addition to a filmmaker, has increasingly dedicated his life to creating work that is by, for, and about trans/queer communities. A queer-identified trans man himself, Rosskam previously made the award-winning feature Transparent, and is now in production on his third film, Transfeminism.
Against a Trans Narrative utilizes a variety of cinematic styles in an effort to encourage dialogue among and about “transfolk,” as well as among non-trans people. Some of these styles are more effective than others — notably the spoken word segments, roundtable interviews and personal diary footage — but they all help to illuminate one or more dimensions of the often difficult-to-understand trans experience.
I had the opportunity to speak with Rosskam after viewing his unique film. Proving one of the movie’s points, Rosskam was reluctant to speak about his personal background or journey. Doing so, he believes, “further entrenches stereotypical history.”
“Trans people ‘learn’ a history that the medical community has carved out for them in order to access surgery and/or hormones,” Rosskam explained, “and in that sense perhaps lose a part of their personal histories along the way.”
The filmmaker continued, “In this process, we adopt the ‘dominant trans narrative.’ My film questions this — hence the film’s name, emphasis on the against.”
Against a Trans Narrative is ultimately an encouraging movie. “I think it’s perfectly okay for someone to wake up one day and decide they want to be another gender or explore an alternate sexual choice,” Rosskam stated strongly. “My film is an exercise in uncertainty regarding gender and sexuality.”
Rosskam frequently applied the word “fluidity” to his understanding of human sexuality and gender politics. He is hopeful that we are moving culturally toward a more fluid understanding of sexuality and gender that can’t be limited to descriptions and terms such as “gay,” “lesbian,” “male,” “female” and “trans.”
Given his positive attitude and seemingly healthy integration of his transgender issues, it is a surprise when Rosskam tells his then-girlfriend on camera, “If I could wake up tomorrow and make it (being trans) go away, I would.”
“That was true at the time,” Rosskam confessed (the film was shot over the last two years). Today, however, he is more accepting and even proud of his trans identity. “I hope that if we have more frank and open conversations about ourselves we can have a deeper understanding of one another, and focus on the important issues that face our various communities.”
Rosskam was very pleased by the “extremely positive” reaction his film received at other film festivals where it has been shown. “One of the biggest things I’ve heard is that people are really interested in the cross-generational dialogue in the film,” he said. “Another thing people have responded well to is the complexity that is taking place in the film; it isn’t a strictly positive portrayal or a one-person documentary.”
The director mentioned several key influences to his style and approach. Among them are Marlon Riggs’ seminal 1990 documentary about gay black men, Tongues Untied, French philosopher Michel Foucault and playwright Bertolt Brecht, especially the latter’s theory of alienation. These influences are frequently apparent in Against a Trans Narrative.
As Rosskam wrote in the film’s press notes, “The goal of the film is not to present a cohesive image of trans-masculinity because such a task is impossible; the goal is to instigate conversations amongst feminists, queers, transfolks and anyone else invested in radically shifting the ways in which we construct personal and historical narratives.”
One of the more challenging segments in the movie explores the plight of trans women who are misunderstood or outright rejected by lesbians. It infers trans men are similarly at-risk of being ostracized by members of the gay community. The segment led me to reflect on times in the past when I’ve been guilty of such prejudice against trans people.
Against a Trans Narrative (which screens tomorrow at Outfest) certainly succeeds as a conversation-starter, as well as an artistic take on contemporary issues. Rosskam hopes his film will be shown to and discussed by not only the trans and queer communities but by fellow artists. It may also be distributed theatrically in the future.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.