"A Self-Made Man" is a groundbreaking new documentary that seeks to bring visibility to issues of transgender identity across a spectrum of ages and experiences.
Following the life and journey of Tony, a transgender man, the film chronicles and documents his transition process while intercutting his experiences with scenes from support groups he oversees for transgender teens, kids and their parents.
Shot and directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Lori Petchers, "A Self-Made Man" examines "the complexities of gender identity through an intimate portrait of a transgender man and his work with trans youth."
The Huffington Post chatted with Petchers last week to discuss the success of "A Self-Made Man," the potential it holds as not only an entertaining film but an educational resource, as well as her personal experiences and growth in understanding transgender issues throughout the filmmaking process.
The Huffington Post: Before we jump into “A Self-Made Man,” what type of work would you say that you strive to produce?
Lori Petchers: Most of the films I do are portraiture films -- I like to do films about individuals. I particularly like to do films about individuals that are either doing something a little differently than other people or seeing the world in a different way -– living a bit outside of the box.
Can you give us some background about “A Self-Made Man” -– why did you think this type of film is important or necessary?
I ended up finding out about Tony through the parent of a trans child. Until I met Tony I’d never, to my knowledge, known a transgender person. I met him while I was in-between films and he took me into a variety of support groups -- these two groups of parents and teens -- and I filmed a little bit. I was really touched by the effect he had on these people and the way he gave them an opportunity to sort of cope with something that was really difficult. People would talk to me about Tony’s story and what he had overcome and I was really sort of taken with his courage and the courage of these people.
Specifically what is the film about? What kind of work is Tony engaged in?
Tony is a male transgender person. He transitioned about five or six years ago and he’s almost 50, so he did it as an adult. He struggled his whole life with this –- he first came out as a lesbian and then realized that wasn’t right, that he was really transgender. It took him a long time to go through the process. The way I structure the film is it’s Tony’s story, so he sort of tells his own story from childhood when his mother said, “You’re a girl” and he knew in his heart that he really was a boy -– so it starts at the beginning. He tells his story throughout the film and as he goes through the different phases from the understanding that he is transgender to when he has his top surgery, I intercut [that footage] with the support groups. These are the parents and the kids who are dealing with the same thing in their lives –- it’s contemporary. So it’s this interweaving –- Tony’s story is the main portraiture arc and these kids are sort of echoing it like a Greek chorus.
Does Tony lead these support groups he took you to?
He leads the teen group and then he has a parent who leads the parent group –- a parent of a trans kid who is an adult now. The parent group ended up happening because, at first, Tony only had this teen group and the parents just wait in the parking lot. Then the parents sort of organically formed their own group. So Tony helped them get the space and they started to form their support group –- they meet in one room and the teens meet in the other. Then Tony started getting a lot of calls from the state and from parents of kids that are young –- elementary school age. So Tony decided he needed to start yet another group, which is the young kids group and they basically just do art and don’t really talk much about gender unless it comes up. But a lot of kids come dressed as the gender that they want to be perceived as. It’s a safe place for them, but it isn’t the support group in the way of “let’s talk about issues.” It’s more doing arts and crafts and if they talk about it then they talk about it. So there are three groups, and there’s also a sibling group that exists and is just now starting. They’re trying to grow that because the kids’ siblings are also very affected.
Did you personally learn anything about the experience of transgender teenagers or transgender people in general throughout this whole process?
What I learned is, yes, people know [about their gender identity] at a very young age. That was something that I didn’t know and it was surprising to me that as soon as kids are aware of gender, they know if there’s a disconnect from what the world is saying they are and what they perceive themselves to be. So that was something I really learned is that it’s from very young age and a lot of kids go through different phases in terms of coming to terms with their gender identity. I also learned about the fact that it is definitely separate from sexual preference, which I think is a misconception a lot of people have -– that it’s somehow related to that. Those are two separate things.
As a filmmaker do you feel any kind of responsibility to elevate or bring visibility to marginalized groups of people?
I think that film’s a great tool for that -– I wouldn’t say that I feel it as a responsibility but I feel like it’s a great opportunity and an honor if one can do it. I feel this film is doing it based on the response that it’s had. I did not set out to do that –- I set out to tell the story of a person who happened to be transgender because he’s an interesting person and he’s doing some amazing things. But I do think that the result -- being able to help the community in that way -- is really great.
What’s happened with the film since it came out?
It was featured at Frameline Film Festival and it played in Provincetown, Rhode Island –- a few festivals and it’s going to play in New York at a couple of festivals. Frameline is going to distribute it as one of their educational films, which I’m really excited about because I’ve had a lot of requests from people in universities –- professors, social workers, people that work with kids. So finally there will be a way to get it out there. My goal is really to have that film travel and be out in more settings for support groups and for people to just use it as a learning tool. I think it’s an entertaining film and people seem to enjoy it in that way, but I think it works really well as an educational tool. So that’s the plan -– people can go to Frameline and it should be up in the next month in the catalogue.
As an educational tool, what do you hope that the film will do to change minds and perceptions about transgender people?
I think it can be used in two ways educationally. One is obviously for the people that are in the community or families dealing with transgender issues -– that’s one thing that will give them a sense of support and community. But for the outside community or the rest of the world, it’s the idea that when they see these families and they see Tony in the film -– these are just regular, ordinary folks that are dealing with this thing that they don’t even know how to deal with. If you have a transgender child there’s nothing in the parent’s experience that can give any sense of how to deal with this. I think that the idea that it’s all of us –- they’re regular people and these kids are regular kids. When you go to their support group and you watch them, one minute they’ll be talking about hormones and the next minute they’re talking about their school plays –- they’re just like everybody else’s kid except they’re dealing with this thing that nobody seems to understand. They need that support where people realize that they’re regular, this is just something that they have to deal with. That’s what I would love – if other people could get that they’re really no different than the rest of us. This is just their thing that they have to deal with –- that’s the big thing.
"A Self-Made Man" will also be screening this Saturday, Oct. 19 at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in NYC at the American Museum of Natural History at 7:30. For information and tickets visit the museum's website.