The large majority of us grow up with the understanding that our bodies are somewhat of a vessel… that needs maintenance from time to time but overall, we’re quite content with decorating it and sometimes altering it to better express how we feel inside. I tend to levitate toward weights and a few tattoos, while others might dye their hair, wear beautiful jewelry, loud clothes/tame clothes, runners that convey serious style and of course… perfume. Perfume/cologne is a stretch but it can still help to express who you are. These are all tools that we use to better identify ourselves to others and yet – there are still many living in silence, in fear, in limbo. There is a population out there that require more tools to better express themselves, that fall under the category of gender reassignment.
The world is evolving to be more inclusive, diverse and welcoming, but for the transgendered community, there are miles to go before we sleep. The average person will never be able to appreciate the hard decisions, the emotional struggle, drug addiction, violence and homelessness that many transgendered individuals deal with on a daily basis. Canada used to be such a welcoming country but hate and indifference has seeped into our society much like rotten food. We can all play a part in adding some expiry dates to hate speech and hate crimes. It has no place in our society if we are to call ourselves democratic and free. I was born in the ‘60’s and I’ve seen minority groups such as the LGBTQ community evolve into the norm in most places. We have same sex marriage and gay couples can adopt children. Although huge strides have been made, the transgendered community still needs more support for the same acceptance into our ever evolving and colourful society. We’re the ones driving the bus, so let’s ensure everyone is allowed on.
The world premiere of Levi: Becoming Himself, debuted on CBC Gem on July 16th and CBC on July 17th. The documentary follows Vancouver’s Levi Nahirney, a 19 year old LGBTQ2S+ advocate. It centres on his life growing up in Vancouver as he navigates his gender identity. As a twin from a small fishing village in Vietnam, he and his sister Kailyn were adopted by a white family and grew up in North Vancouver. Levi and his sister often felt like they didn’t belong. Levi: Becoming Himself gives viewers a personal look at his life and some of his experiences throughout his childhood and his transition.
“It was important for me to share my story. I want those who don’t know about my community and our struggles, to get to know us and hopefully make some change in the world,” says Levi. At 19, Levi Nahirney is already an LGBTQ2S+ advocate, leader, and spokesperson. His life has been complex and sometimes painful, but also full of love. To help make others’ transitions easier, Levi invites the country to watch his story of acceptance, discovery and belonging.
“What really struck me about Levi’s story was the complexity of his nested identities. Being adopted, sense of nationhood, sense of culture, being an ‘identical’ twin, and of course gender and sexuality. There are so many layers of identity to figure out ‘who am I and where do I fit in the world?’ I have been exploring identity for most of my career and I’m so honoured Levi and his family trusted me to help tell their story,” says writer and director Shannon Kaplun.
Levi: Becoming Himself was directed by Shannon Kaplun (Dreamcatcher Bios), written by Shannon Kaplun and Charlene Rule (Intervention). It was produced by Josh Huculiak (Ash, Violent). The film was made possible through the support of the CBC, Rogers Documentary Fund, Creative BC and the Canada Media Fund.
I had the very distinct pleasure of speaking to both Levi Nahirney and writer, director Shannon Kaplun. It was a real education for me and I want to share that with you very much. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “How did you become involved in this story/documentary Shannon?”
SHANNON “I was actually pitching a series about adoption and looking for local stories to show diversities and came across Levi’s story, when he was about 13. I’d seen a story about his sister, Levi and his mom in a local newspaper. I had reached out to the journalist to say that I’m really interested in finding this family; she said ‘just give Loise a call. Loise is Levi’s mom. I called her and she answered – we chatted for 4 years. I continued to follow Levi’s progress… he was still underage. When I did get funding for the film, he was over 18 and it felt like the right time. However, instead of being part of a series, we decided to make a feature film.”
HNMAG “In watching the film, it appears that much of the footage has come from home videos, self-videos, friends?”
LEVI “A lot of the photos and videos that I sent, were videos that my friends had taken from my phone or footage that my parents had sent to Shannon and the producer – Josh. There were also the voice updates… people that have followed me, they don’t know about those.”
Shannon proceeded to inform Levi… “your parents watched the film last night, I was with them… and you begin to watch this family archival footage – until a point, where somebody grows up and starts making their own personal archival. You can really see that shift. Your parents were ‘Ohhh…’ because they’d hadn’t seen some of the footage, due to social media. It was so interesting to see their reaction.”
HNMAG “You’ve been on quite a journey Levi, has it seemed longer than 19 years?”
LEVI “I don’t believe that it was a long time… but at the same time, it feels very serious that I’ve been going through this. It hasn’t really processed in my mind that not everybody goes through this, but my mind has since made me more aware of that fact. This is my life and if someone isn’t going to be involved/part of my transition, that’s perfectly fine and they can take me as I am.”
HNMAG “When it comes to people in your circle and coming out to them, what would be one of the most common questions you’re asked?”
LEVI “I often get asked if I’ve had the surgeries. I’ve had top surgery but not bottom surgery. Another big question was, ‘what does your sister do?’ Is your sister gay or trans as well… because you’re identical? I often find myself explaining that she has her own life and I have my life.”
HNMAG “Now Shannon, what do you hope people will walk away with after watching this film?”
SHANNON “I feel that Levi is a compelling character and human being, as well as an amazing role model. He’s able to be strong and vulnerable at the same time. That vulnerability of his and his parents, his entire family and being honest about their journey, can hopefully empower other people to support LGBTQ kids or adults and see everyone as a human being – and to act with kindness.”
HNMAG “You started out to make a film on adoption but it turned into a much bigger subject. Would you make another film about this topic?”
SHANNON “Absolutely, absolutely. I’ve always been interested in identity and a large body of my work has been about exploring identity because many people don’t know where they fit in the world. I was adopted by my father and later had a baby, which I put up for adoption and was later reunited with her… so I’ve had some different experiences. When you’re adopted, you have identity issues and that’s the other part of Levi’s amazing story; Levi is a very multi-dimensional human being that’s navigated all types of layers of identity – from nationhood to adoption, to gender and sexuality.”
HNMAG “Have you considered having children in the future, Levi?”
LEVI “A lot of my friends know that I want a child when I get older. The issue for me is, I will have to find someone to carry the child. Because of my testosterone treatments I’m not able to carry a child and it wouldn’t end well, so I’m going to have to freeze my eggs for a while. I’ve even told my parents that I’d like a child of my own once I’m older. It’s going to be very complicated for what I want to do but if I found the right person, I’d be able to have a baby and it’s always in the back of my mind. For now though, I just moved out of my parents house, I’m only 19 and I’m not quite there yet.”
HNMAG “Are you currently dating anyone?”
LEVI “I just came out of a relationship, due to some mental health issues and I’m not presently dating anyone.”
Admittingly, Levi has been staying quite busy with school and work.
HNMAG “In the documentary, you were styling wigs and working with hair. Are you still pursuing that?”\
LEVI “Yes, I graduate in September. I’ve met so many amazing friends in my program and the school is so much fun, I’ve had a great time there.”
HNMAG “Would you say that making this film has made you more of an advocate for LGBTQ issues or were you already an advocate before the project?”
SHANNON “I feel like I’m an ally. As a filmmaker, you have a voice and have access to an audience and I’ve always wanted to use that voice to facilitate putting other peoples’ stories out there. I stand behind Levi – I’ve learned so much about his/the transgendered experience and I feel that putting more of those stories out there will help to normalize it, Levi is normal and we need to bring it out of the closet, be proud, talk about it. Kids get it, it’s much more normal for them because they’ve been exposed to it and are much more honest about their feelings. I think it’s some of the older generation that we need to teach – to be more accepting and tolerant.”
HNMAG “You’re fighting to live a normal life. Where would you like to see more changes?”
LEVI “There’s a lot of things that I’d like to see changed but a lot of it can’t be done in a month, if they were to say ‘this is what we need to do and this is how we’re going to help, yada, yada. Not everybody will adjust to something put in front of them, there’s always going to be someone pushing back to say that they don’t like it. What I would really like to see changed, is the end to violence against transgendered women and men and the LGBTQ community in general. I hate turning on the news to see another trans woman killed by a transphobic person that targeted them for violence. It terrifies me and it terrifies my friends. It scares other younger generations to not want to come out because of the violence. Another thing I’d like to see more discussions on, is the predominant drug addiction amongst the LGBTQ community because of the lack of acceptance and feeling like outcasts. They feel comfort in drugs to help them figure out what they want. People want to avoid stories of homelessness and drug addiction but it’s a very real issue in the day of fentanyl and other nasty drugs that can kill you.”
SHANNON “Levi and I have been talking about doing another film to address some of those harder issues. This version is for CBC and is more of a family focused version. I hope to collaborate again throughout his life and mine.”
HNMAG “Are there plans for more festivals around the world and are there some countries that might not be open to screening this film?”
SHANNON “CBC Gem owns this version for 2 years and has exclusive rights to it. We could submit it internationally but I think we’ll saturate the Canadian audience, before looking at our next step. I had thought about bringing the film to Vietnam to see their reaction.”
LEVI “I don’t think they’d understand it… and not in a transphobic way, it’s just unheard of over there, it’s very taboo. There’s no word for being transgendered in Vietnamese. When I met my biological mom over there, she asked me why I had short hair. We had to tell her that I just liked to dress like a boy and it’s all they knew… until I was able to have my translator tell them that I was a boy. They were very accepting and didn’t really understand it, but thought it was just a westerner thing.”
HNMAG “Would you say that your relationship with your sister has become closer because of your decision to change your gender?”
LEVI “My sister and I have always been close but when we were younger, we would fight quite a bit. She was going through things, I was going through things, we were 13 and I think that’s when every sibling is going to be fighting with other siblings the most. We’ve always been close but never really showed it until after and a little while during the filming of the documentary.”
SHANNON “There’s a really great scene where they’re 13 and their friend Nina did a mini-interview. When Kailyn and Levi sat down to do the interview, they both did this kind of focusing exercise, where at the same time they both (Shannon demonstrates tilting their heads), rolled their shoulders and took a deep breath. They mirrored each-other, it was incredible.”
HNMAG “In knowing others that have gone through gender reassignment, how does their support from their parents differ from your parents support?”
LEVI “I’ve had the most unbelievable support from my parents and it’s been incredible from the very beginning. I’m definitely one of the lucky ones, where I came out to my parents and they said, ‘ok, what do we need to do?’ Some of my other friend’s parents were quite different and said ‘no, it’s just a phase/a current trend that’s going on and you should remain who you are.’ They don’t accept them and it’s very hard on them and the rest of us. We see our friends deteriorating from not being accepted inside their own home. It really hurts when you don’t have that sense of acceptance… especially from the people that raised you.”
HNMAG “Is there an organization/circle… that supports minorities like this? In the documentary, I saw you talking on stage at an event, We/She?”
LEVI “That was an event in Vancouver called We For She. My mom and Bigboy Productions helped to organize We For She to help young women find job opportunities and to show them that they can be the president of an organization or become engineers to get the same pay as men. We have men speaking at it, women, Indigenous Peoples speaking at it and I spoke at it with my activist partner… it was amazing!”
HNMAG “What size of crew would you have used in the making of this film, Shannon?”
LEVI “We shot during Covid, so often – it was the two of us. The maximum we had was when we were going to Gambria Island, where there were 6 of us. Generally, it would be Josh Huculiak – the producer from Amazing Factory, myself and Levi.”
HNMAG “You also had some great music choices to accompany the film, Shannon.”
SHANNON “That’s Charlene Rule, our editor. She grabbed music that might match some of the tik tok and some of the social media that Kailyn and Levi used, she was masterful.”
HNMAG “Do you still do the tik tok Levi?”
LEVI “Yes I do (group laugh). It’s been a lot of fun, I really enjoy it.”
HNMAG “How about a couple fun questions, before we wrap it up? (Agreed) Ok Levi, would you rather go horse-back riding in the country or ride a motorcycle down the highway?”
LEVI “Ride a motorcycle down the highway.”
HNMAG “Wonderful, Levi and what about you, Shannon. Horseback or motorcycle?”
HNMAG “Demolition derby or pie eating contest?”
LEVI “Demolition derby.”
SHANNON “Pie eating contest.”
HNMAG “What kind of pie?”
I absolutely loved talking to both of these enchanting guests. I really do hope that Shannon and Levi will team up for another project that helps change the narrative.
Levi’s message is strong and clear, he spoke at both the 2018 and 2019 We4She events in Vancouver calling for policy change, education, and safe spaces, especially for trans kids. His hope is that by sharing his story, administrators and those in power will do a better job at supporting LGBTQ2S+ youth in schools and communities. Progress is slow but it is happening and we can all help to keep the momentum going.