I’ve always lived by the notion, if we were all the same it would be a boring world. Self-expression is something that could be demonstrated through art, through poetry or fashion. What happens if that self – expression is not accepted in today’s society? If it doesn’t fit in with the norm? Do you keep it suppressed and contained to your home, your bedroom or does it remain imprisoned in your head? If we can’t be ourselves then how can we truly say we are free?
Luckily, we live in a day and age where freedom of expression is increasingly welcomed and embraced. I think Bob Dylan said it best. The times, they are a changing!
I recently had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with filmmaker Christina Willings. Her documentary, Beauty was produced by the National Film Board and covers a topic that is still not often discussed in many circles. The subject is sensitive, it’s sometimes only whispered about and can also be considered taboo by some religions. Her film, Beauty embraces children living with transgender expression. As a woman living in the LGBTQ community, she knows that sexual indifference is not always accepted within certain circles. If you’re a young child and don’t fit into the mold of conventional sexism you are forced to remain silent and freedom of expression doesn’t apply…. or does it? Like Bob Dylan sang about, the times have changed and there are parents that do love their children unconditionally and do encourage them to be themselves even if it is outside societies norm.
Christina opens the discussion.
“What is this weird performative structure of femininity and this equal and opposite weird performance of masculinity? How did we get here? I remember having aha moments when I learned that exercise increases the levels of testosterone. The converse is true. Lack of exercise decreases levels. I began to look at how women older than millennial to middle aged have been discouraged from exercise. With all of that, it helped me begin to understand how we ended up where we have, in terms of weird polarities. What we fetishize in terms of women’s shapes and men’s shapes. It made me think, what is inherent maleness and femaleness? What is gender outside what is socially constructed and reinforced and works its way into our DNA. From that perspective, how do you know what is actual? It’s been a subject that has been with me for a long time.”
“Do you feel enough is being done to recognize all minorities?”
“I think specifically around gender we have a window of opportunity right now to enlarge our ideas of what it means to be human and enlarge our sense of space in which it’s okay to behave and be acceptable. Part of that becomes fashion that will end when it’s over and part of that works its way into consciousness.
In some respects, we seem to be in a sea change, in terms of inclusivity and acceptance of what it means to be human so there isn’t just one type of human that’s normative, either in colour, ability or gender. So absolutely celebrate that. I do feel that there is a different quality in this and that’s partly why I chose to make this film. As someone that has been talking about a lot of these things for a long time and feeling impacted by them. Back then, we were so cerebral. Nowadays people talk about political correctness because back then that was a fresh term and it was really alive and it was real and it had meaning to us and it had function. We would think, ‘is this politically correct or not? It would be parsing things according to what we felt made the most space for people. Encouraged our human evolution the most strongly, helped us think outside of accepted paradigms that we were becoming aware we were oppressive most clearly. It wasn’t a live term for us. It was something that left really deeded and used.”
She adds, “Then it passed into the general parlance and now it’s become this idea of something oppressive and some kind of way to limit ourselves and hem ourselves in. It was a very cerebral process and what is so refreshing now and I think it’s really the new iteration of the movement toward true inclusivity is that it’s not cerebral. These kids in my film are able to articulate lived experience that is in contrast to what they see around them. From the age of two, from the age of three and the age of four, there’s a purity that is so wonderful.”
“There is a teen subject in your film that identifies as a female. Would they have a different perspective than the younger children?”
“They do have a different perspective. When they first realized that they had feelings that were in contrast to what they had seen around them, it was as organic as the rest of the kids. They just showed up female and everyone accepted them. They didn’t really have a way of identifying, hey I’m not a boy I’m a girl. They just wanted to wear dresses, they liked to wear dresses, they showed up at school and everyone assumed they were girls, they played with girls and their parents were fine with that.
Then they said, ‘hey I think I really am a girl, I want to really be a girl but it was a very organic process that happened early on in the same way it happened for the other kids. Later they began to feel as they became aware of a larger discourse, how do I really identify? Do I really want to put all this energy into passing all the time or is there some place in this that’s even more authentic to me where I continue to be however it is that I show up and I can have that be different from one day to the next.’
There is the perspective of having an inventive approach to gender where they may not like all the options available to them and they don’t want to have to deny everything about themselves. It feels like it might be a little bit masculine because I’ve got to push myself into this super feminine thing so I can pass. They don’t want to do that either because it feels super oppressive. They’d rather play with the whole palette and have it available to them.”
“There is one young subject in the film that is very happy being a girl. I believe she is the only one in the film that seems to feel comfortable in their own skin.”
“Yes, she identifies as a girl but she doesn’t identify with all the ways females are suppose to behave or look or dress. She just wants to widen that space for girls to show up in whatever way they want to show up.“
“So she doesn’t identify as trans gender?”
“Why is it that you included her in the documentary?”
“Because I think the documentary is an invitation to look at gender in a wider way, in a freer way. It’s an invitation to be inspired by the authenticity of these kids.”
“The film is just over 23 minutes. Would you have preferred it to be longer?”
“I was playing for the first time with a kind of artistic approach to documentary and intergrading animation which is expensive. Because it ended up being quite mannered it just seemed like it would be something that would be easier to sustain over a period of time. My original idea was to make it quite dream like. There are underwater sequences, there are kind of dramatic style setups, there’s the funny little plates with the families. I wanted to have a go at making it painterly than films I’ve made in the past and it seemed like a shorter format would support that better.
“Considering the number of screenings, what has the audience reaction been like?”
“One of the screenings was at a high school and afterwards I had 3 students approach me, two of which were clearly in tears. They told me that they had never seen themselves on screen before and now they had language to describe their experience where they didn’t before. In general, other people have responded quite thoughtfully and it’s made them think about gender. I do feel that people have gotten the larger invitation to look at how we are with ourselves.”
“How does it make you feel knowing that your film has impacted a young individual struggling with their gender?”
“I think it’s the ideal outcome. What I really hope for the people I make films for is that the process is healing for them and that the outcome is also. I’m a bit mission driven in the films I choose to make. If somebody is positively affected and leaves feeling hopeful and more whole after a viewing, that is he best positive outcome.”
“So we’ve discussed the positive feedback on Beauty but can you tell me if there’s been any negative reactions?”
“Yes I have had a bit. Some people feel that the whole trans issue feeds into a homophobic narrative and that kids will now be called trans when they just want to come out as queer. Parents who might be more comfortable with them changing genders might push them in that direction rather than allowing them to express their attraction for someone of the same gender. Fortunately there hasn’t been a lot of negative though.”
“Every parent in the film that I’ve met would be so relieved if their kids were just queer. It’s so much easier to deal with than kids who are wanting to transition. It’s much less challenging these days because we’ve been talking about it much longer. People can wrap their heads around it a bit more easily and you’re not talking about potential physical modifications and that sort of stuff or having to go on puberty blocking medications. It’s just easier. That was definitely true with the subjects in our film. It takes a real warrior mentality to go through this and insist on being yourself no matter what. There are bubbles within the larger communities where people are pushing on this kind of awareness and within that bubble it’s really safe to be who you are and then once you get to the edges of the bubble it’s not really safe anymore.”
“Was it difficult to find the subjects in the film?
“It really wasn’t but I definitely had to engage in a process of building trust before I could even make contact with anybody. I had known some children in my life who identify as trans or at least gender non – conforming and gender creative which is really why I wanted to make this film, because I was so impressed with their clarity. Because of that I was aware of some of the places I could go to look to find people. I also did some research in terms of who are the health professionals who are working with kids who are moving through physical transitions. It was a process of engaging people and earning their trust over time, having conversations, helping them understand where I come from, what my motives were for making the documentary and telling them what my filmmaking strategies are. I contacted Wallis Wong, a psychologist in Vancouver that works with a lot of trans kids. I also contacted another psychologist in Montreal. They were my first two points of contact. We had back and forth pitching, conversations and meetings which resulted in them consenting to send out my information to people they knew, to see if they’d be open to chatting with me. I’ve met with people in Vancouver as well as travelling to Montreal to gradually gain peoples trust over time.”
“Were there other subjects you’d met that didn’t make it into the film?
“Definitely, there was this young woman I had met at a conference that had approached me to say that she’d hoped I was able to include some kids that aren’t safe at home. She clearly wasn’t safe at home and was spending some of her time living on the streets. She was very traumatized and I was very moved by her. I really wished I could’ve represented people like her in the film but it’s very difficult when you’re dealing with kids because they’re minors. There was also somebody in Newfoundland I connected with who had a child that was born a boy but had identified they wanted to be a girl at two years old. She really wanted to work with me but she was separated from her husband who had a fundamentalist Christian family and it became a very explosive situation in terms of protecting her child so we had to back out of it.”
“What would be one of the biggest takeaways from making this film?”
“I was surprised by how much kids knew about themselves and how things work innately. Also, how they respond to being listened to. Kids are routinely sidelined and parents respond quite understandably out of fear. When you really listen to them, they are so grateful that somebody hears them and doesn’t discount them or trivialize them. It was such a gift to spend that time with them. I think the biggest gift for me is that I actually learned to attend to people better by spending all that time with those kids. It’s so beautiful to be attended to and to be received, to have someone really listen. It takes so much courage for them to say the things that they’re saying. They know it’s a risk. As a parent or adult to just be willing to be with them in the moment and put your own responses and reactions on the backburner to just hear them.”
“Where is the film going to be screened?”
“Currently it’s in 11 festivals. TIFF Kids, a festival in Quebec, it’s going to be at the Vancouver Queer Festival in August, the LA Outfest, the Inconvenient Film Festival in Lithuania, a film festival in Mexico and North Carolina. It’s definitely making its rounds. The NFB is taking care of the submissions.”
Christina Willings began her soiree into filmmaking in 1996 and started her own film company in 2001. She began making her own films in 2004 after some TV and co-producing the film, Chicks with Sticks in 2004. She’s also worked in reality TV before making her own films in 2008. She realized she wanted to be closer to the creative process rather than just producing. She’s an artist who wants to express that through writing and directing. She was drawn into doing her own documentaries before continuing to work in series TV, factual TV, writing, directing, producing and story editing.
“Do you have a favourite department?”
“I think producing is in my blood but I love working in set dec. I love dressing sets. It’s creative and really physical. I rather enjoy the labour aspect of it but I also like directing too.”
Having watched the screener for Beauty and then having the amazing opportunity to speak with Christina afterwards, it’s given me so much more appreciation for gender equality and the struggle people deal with for acceptance and the right to be themselves. If we could all focus on being the best version of ourselves rather than dictating our beliefs of right and wrong to others that are fighting for their right of expression, wouldn’t the world be a better place? I believe it is time.