The transgender image has never existed with resolute clarity in mainstream depictions because there has historically never been a level of control granted to us when these films are considered. The film industry has always had its interpretation of transness, which in the past was rendered with a gawking carnivalesque fascination of the transgender body, but only how they saw it on their terms. It was not rooted in facts, but something manufactured, and because of this shame and disgust were synonymous with these images. More recently the mainstream has attempted to course-correct, but with a smoothed-down liberal acceptance of the same function transgender images had always been saddled with throughout the history of the medium. In order for transgender and gender non-conforming storytelling to thrive, it must exist in the hands of creators who are willing to grapple with some of the most complex questions and realities of our existence.
The Ann Arbor Film Festival’s slate of experimental transgender and gender non-conforming short films in its special program, Object (im)Permanence, present an opportunity to consider the language and specificity of transness in the abstract physical spaces that so occupy our lives. These films act as the opening of a door to a clearer avenue of cinematic discovery for a long often ignored group of the population.
Sight, Thirza Cuthand
For this program, titled Object (im)Permanence, curators Andrew Robbins and Kai Tillman, have assembled a group of films whose apocalyptic sense connects the tissue of gender non-conformity with an ethos of the fragility of the body and the control therein. It is as if the identities themselves were in a constant state of crisis and eventually liberation in the face of such aggression because of the precision and hyper-specificity of the image. The notion of material biological agency is at the forefront of these short films, such as in Thirza Cuthand’s Sight, whose frankness and honesty in the face of losing control over the body and the
senses is directly parallel to the frustrations when the body cannot overcome the burden of what the mind wants.
HOLE, Gil Goletski
This is also of concern in Gil Goletski’s HOLE, an animated short-film that addresses through evolving form the difficulties of balancing the mind when a black space suddenly appears to follow lead character Mo around no matter their desires. These short films tackle with stark clarity the questions surrounding the abstract qualities of the body in a state of dysphoria, dysmorphia and the place that allows for such bodies to exist in a larger society whose inability to understand these problems renders transness as an experience that is alien, except when around others like us. These films also lacerate the modern interpretation of what a trans film should be. By taking the traditional notion of the medical journey and imbuing it with a viscerally felt strangeness that feels both euphoric and limiting in the ways that medical transition actually feels. Usually, a story such as that is relegated to documentary-fare which positions a trans subject as something to be prodded at, while the reaction of other cisgender people, including doctors and family members, is recorded and prioritized.
Soless, Carmen Spoto
In three of these films, the medical questions of transness are given the treatment they deserve through cinematic form that they so rarely ever have before. In Carmen Spoto’s Soless, she follows a transgender woman and charts her transition through mundane quotidian observation. So much of transition is the act of waiting, and thus the cinematic form of a medical transition should feel akin to the negative space of a Chantal Akerman film, and Spoto finds that through individual moments with her lead character in the nude with her evolving body. But the act of becoming transgender also separates you from a normative role in society and Spoto prioritizes that too with a few key images here and there, with the most impressive being a plastic toy flower casually laying next to a tall natural potted plant. With that image, Spoto finds that key element of longing that is so demanding in transgender people while also presenting the beauty in something found and molded into relevance for the subject at hand.
All These Moments Will Be Lost in Time, E Daley
E Daley’s All These Moments Will Be Lost in Time opts for abstraction that reaches out into the depths of queer history to connect the DNA of one generation to the next with collage work and a voice-over from AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz. Daley states in the festival notes that Wojnarowicz’s voice narrated the first year of their medical transition and proved to be an important historical figure for the director. Wojnarowicz’s words are powerful, speaking of the want to exist in the body of others, behind the skin, behind their breath. These tactile assertions along with Daley’s images of collage suggest the creation of identity through found objects. The body becomes what the person demands it to be through the definition of things like language and presentation.
A Trans with a Movie Camera, Frances Damian Arpaia
A Trans with a Movie Camera carries these ideas as well along with the notion of a medical transition “finished” it is the finest of these films. It has the largest scope and the most blunt title of the lot, echoing Dziga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Camera (1929), but with the “fuck you” attitude that carries through a lot of trans-feminine art of the last few years. Beginning with a G.L.O.S.S. track as a thesis statement, Frances Damian Arpaia’s film seeks to light ablaze the tragic martyr myth that has so long dogged transgender representation and creates something entirely free and without the baggage of past representation. Trans women can be seen topless as a matter of objective fact or in the arms of another woman with the blistering euphoria of a freed body. Arpaia also chronicles things like gender dysphoria through spoken word and the closeted spaces of trans women with language and symbols that we’ve made for ourselves such as the literal cracking of an egg. If it all seems obvious or too straight-forward then it also necessary to demand that these images exist as a foundation and a future to a more definitive transgender cinema. In A Trans with a Movie Camera, one woman drinks gasoline and spits fire and it might just be one of the freest images of transness ever put on screen. These are girls living outside of society’s shit, and isn’t it beautiful?
Willow Catelyn Maclay is a freelance film critic. She is co-author of the upcoming book Corpses, Fools and Monsters: An Examination of Transgender Cinema and has written for outlets such as Little White Lies, Roger Ebert, MUBI Notebook and Vulture.