“You Don’t Know Dick: Courageous Hearts of Transsexual Men” chronicles the lives of six men who were born into female bodies, raised as girls and ultimately chose to transition into life as men. Through a series of interviews, each man demonstrates that gender is an identity, not a choice, and being comfortable in their bodies allows them to lead fuller and happier lives as men.
Q1: Why did you make this documentary?
A1: I believe that we made this film in 1998. There was an article in The New Yorker that spotlighted two men, one of them being James Green [who later appeared in the film] and his journey from having been born female and gone through a transgendered operation and lifestyle change to become who he is today. We had been searching to find a new subject that had something to do with the issue of gender identity and we decided to pursue the project.
Q2: You shot most of the interviews with your subjects as a close-up or an extreme close up with a Dutch angle. What was your intended affect on the audience?
A2: We chose that type of photography for three reasons:
a) [You Don’t Know Dick] was totally unfunded so we were doing it as we were doing other projects. The interviews were going to be the way we were going to structure the film.
b) We decided that close-up photography was essential because we were talking actually about identity and transformation of identity from the interior of an individual to the exterior of an individual.
c) The Dutch angle was a desire to freshen the approach towards what we would make an interview look like—to explore the way in which traditional documentaries can be.
Q3: Other than James Green, how did you find your subjects?
A3: We went to an organization located in Waltham [MA], which is actually a national organization about transgender issues. At that particular time, if you came out as a transgendered individual, you were most likely to be in touch with other transgendered folks. It was a fairly quick grapevine that let people know what we were doing. People, once they began to trust our approach to working with them, they introduced us to others and it was a matter of finding people who we felt would add a good cross section of stories that would give people feeling for the issues and connections to various elements within the story as well as people who were willing to be filmed. We didn’t want it all to be just an East Coast situation and found people with different situations.
Q4: Did you expect that each subject would have such a similar path and similar experiences switching genders? Was it what you anticipated?
A4: No, I don’t think we expected them to have similar situations at all. We were most interested in learning the decision process of when one deals with one’s awareness of their own gender identity. How do you go to the point of making that decision of changing how you encounter the world as a female to be read and understood and presented to the world as a male? This interested us because there were many films with stories about male to female but not very many of female to male. We were surprised, however, at how uniquely complex the process was—it wasn’t just “this is who I am”—there are medical rules and all sorts of different obstacles that each individual has to overcome both in terms of their relationships with other people, their relationships with employers. One of our stories had to do with policeman who was working as a policewoman. Then there’s the whole issue about choices for operations for the degree that one has the financial means to actualize their gender identity in terms of actual genitalia.
Q5: I noticed that Michael’s daughter, who did not want to appear, was the only negative voice in the film towards the decision to switch genders. If there were any other negative sides, was there a deliberately decision not to voice them?
A5: It was more complex to find the negative issues. There are some negative issues that go along with it—the disruption in terms of family life. It can be quite difficult, particularly for partners. One of the characters indicates that he went through the transition with a partner that he selected at a gay and lesbian party because he felt he needed a partner to go through the transition. They did not stay as partners. It took a toll on that relationship. We found that all the difficulties were outside the realm of what we were trying to cover in this particular film. You end up having the most intimate stories being told by transgendered men themselves. We elected to bring in Michael’s family because out of the six, he had raised three children. None of the others had children. It probably would have been a much longer film if we decided to go through all of the other partners.
Q6: What was the response to the film from the transsexual men who you interviewed and the transsexual community at large?
A6: This was one of the first films about Female to Male. The response by all of the transgendered community was extremely positive. This film has had the longest distribution life of any of the films at Northern Light Productions. We continue to distribute it and we continue to get encouragement to make You Don’t Know Dick II knowing that there have been changes medically and to the political identity for the transgendered community that would suggest that an update of the film would be useful to the transgendered community. The six people who are in the film each expressed to us that we had represented their lives in a fair and accurate manner. Some of the folks chose to be more up front and outspoken than others. For some, they wanted to make sure that they remained anonymous.
Q7: What was the most difficult part of making the documentary?
A7: In documentary films, you want to do a character study to see how a character evolves over time. We made sure to visit each individual more than once but there was often a span of eighteen months between the first visit and the second visit. The fact that we weren’t funded meant that we didn’t have the capacity to hang out with each one of them over a period of time and see some of the individual struggles they were encountering. The film is dependent on the interview as opposed to having sequences where you watch part of their lives unfold. The difficult thing was to continue to make the film interesting without having dramatic sequences be a part of the story.
That said, it was also extremely important for us to ensure that the film didn’t seem odd to the audience even though it was “a very different subject.” The one thing I’m most proud of is that people, when they watch it, don’t think that it’s about them. It’s about people who have a difficult and different way that they come to be themselves in front of the rest of the world. I think people are, to a degree, thankful that they don’t have such a deep and profound struggle as the members of this cast have. They do see something about what it is to become honest about who you are and how you express yourself in an intimate way and how you are read by the rest of the world to be successful about who you are.
One of the things that was intentional about the film because we don’t have sequences was to divide the film up into titles that give way to chapter structure. That’s both helpful in terms of guiding an audience through the structure but it’s also disruptive in helping one feel there is an unfolding narrative. Start and stop. How do we help audiences overcome the expectation of convention? We know big budget films have ways in which film storytelling is done but not all film fit into that particular niche. Changing our sense of a good traditional film as part of changing the audience’s expectations. “You Don’t Know Dick” as a title probably has more meaning than just the content as well.
For more information on director Bestor Cram and his work, visit: www.nlprod.com.
© 2013 Behind the Doc Lens. (Lauren Brody, Blogger & Isabel Garcia, Producer). To contact the blogger/producer email firstname.lastname@example.org.