Thursday, July 1, 2010

Trans Francisco: postcards from the edge

Kayla not in love in a very
romantic city.

Here's a link to the trailer for Trans Francisco

Glenn Davis
' absorbing new documentary, Trans Francisco, had its premiere in front of a cheering full house audience at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco on June 19. It's a patchwork quilt of stories of trans women living in the San Francisco Bay Area—their traumas, their activism, world weariness and strengths, their loneliness, and loving partners and families. One of the most powerful aspects of the film is its incredible diversity. No other documentary on trans people I've ever seen has covered this wide a spectrum of races and ethnic groups and a varied socioeconomic spectrum all the way from police commissioner to film producer, to non-profit activists and, yes, to sex workers. And, while the trappings of their lives vary greatly, there is enough thematic overlap which creates the woven fabric of the entire experience. It's a truly inclusive film without judgments or projected stigmas placed onto any segments of the community.

A patchwork quilt vs. a solid piece of fabric
The film centers around a half-dozen women's stories, but also includes a lot of "quickie" interviews with other women. It's a lot to cover in a mere 54 minutes and I think this is one of the film's weaknesses. While the sheer number of interviews creates that diversity, it also diminishes the time allotted to each. We are introduced to someone, hear a sound bite or two and get out. Perhaps it's no surprise Davis has an extensive background in local affiliate broadcast news because some of the representations feel that way. A lot of sound bites but not enough time to always get a deeper sense of the subjects. Davis shifts to another story just when I was beginning to connect with the previous one.

Miss Major and sweet boytoy lover

The heart of the matter
Early on, we are introduced to a young, rather sad-eyed African-American trans woman named Kayla. Pretty and bright, she has an aura of fatalism about her. After two brief, fascinating appearances, she inexplicably vanishes from the film. Miss Major, an iconic activist in the trans community who is both a veteran of Stonewall and an important crusader for incarcerated trans people's rights is profiled, but mostly about her relationship with a much younger trans man. Is this May-December romance really more interesting than other vital work she's done (or her incredible life story)? I wasn't convinced.

Cecilia Chung (l) and Theresa Sparks (r)

Two of the core figures in the film are well known in San Francisco as politicians and members of different commissions. Theresa Sparks (the former CEO of Good Vibrations) was the city's Police Commissioner and is currently running for city supervisor (SF's legislative body). Cecilia Chung was a Human Rights Commissioner and also ran for supervisor. They take us behind their public images as success stories and share with us their degree of familial loss and the painful journeys they went through to become the women they are today.

Mom, do we have have to go out to dinner?
Chung dines with her still-uncomfortable mom in a series of excruciatingly awkward scenes at a restaurant and tells how, pre-transition, her father caught her in bed with a man, she was kicked out of the house and lived in the family car. She began a descent into drug abuse which included sex work, suicide watches, becoming HIV+ and a horrific rape incident. The police photos of the blood smeared car where the attack occurred are the most chilling image of the film.

Sparks comes off as a tough cookie and ex-Vietnam Vet from a Missouri family with a long history of military service. She tells us about her profound personal losses from transition, but never seems to fully open up or show much vulnerability and clearly has a thick skin. Interesting as her story was, I didn't think it fit in especially well with the rest of the film and should have either been a separate, more thoroughly explored film unto itself or omitted. As so often happens in distributing films, "high profile" subjects are encouraged at the expense of often more interesting stories of marginalized people.

Alexandra: born into the life

All about my father
More compelling were the interviews with Latina sex worker Alexandra. Her life story begins with her single mom kicking her out of the house because she, at 13, she was already too femme to be tolerated. She is shipped off to San Francisco where a woman takes care of her but also pimps her out. She then reconnected with her birth father only to find out [he] too is also a trans woman who does sex work and, after a few years of bonding with one another, dies from AIDs. Twelve years on she still achingly longs for the too brief connection they had. She shares her worst nightmare story doing sex work... and it's pretty horrific. I found myself wanting the film to focus more on her.

Center stage, take a bow, exit stage left
Much less explored is an interview with Amelia, an HIV+ sex worker who shares some of her hard-scrabble existence with us, only to disappear from the film. The film also has brief interviews with Nadia (AKA Kitty Kastro, a well-known local LGBT media personality who died in a traffic accident in 2006). Again, I wish Davis had either committed to their powerful stories or omitted them. Instead, we are treated to rather irrelevant scenes like the ones at Diva's... the region's premiere tranny-chaser nightclub in SF's Tenderloin neighborhood. Why?

Married twins(?) Bridgette (l) and Tiffany (r)

Preschool and shag haircuts
The film has a more suburban (yet still interesting) offshoot with trans woman Tiffany, the film's producer (who also directs a vitally important outreach program for trans people in the East Bay), her long time cis-woman partner, Bridgette, and their kids. Possibly a film in and of itself but didn't altogether link with the stories of sex workers (even though Tiffany does a lot of social service work with that population). Their 20-year relationship and marriage was an interesting juxtaposition against the sex worker interviewees who seemed largely isolated and lonely but, perhaps, not explored enough. Also included is former 1980s hair-band rocker Kari (including a hilarious pre-transition glam metal video of her with her band). Other than showing a quickie glimpse of the broad spectrum of trans women, these sequences had limited integration with other parts of the film and seemed too surface.

Hair band Kari before (l) and after (r)

Less is more?
Trans Francisco is well worth seeing for its many absorbing stories, vivid interviewees and complex threads. While the patchwork approach has its own impact it comes at a price. I kept wishing the film keyed in on a more succinct single focus, be it: sex work, relationships, trans women in the Tenderloin or the price 'success stories' have paid to get there. Pick one and stay with it. A film solely about Miss Major or sex worker Alexandra might have made for a more compelling film by itself (but granted, sadly perhaps not as marketable). As when you combine one or two colors together, you might get a vivid new color, but add 7-8 colors and you're left with a muddied result.

Trans Francisco shows San Francisco not as a trans mecca with funny costumes, roller disco musical numbers and rainbow balloons, but as a gritty urban landscape where only the tough survive. Long after the establishing shots of touristy postcard views of Cable Cars, Ghirardelli Square and the Golden Gate Bridge fade from memory, the tough spirits of the women interviewed remain.

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