As part of our #CultureIsNotCancelled campaign, Thomas Adam Curry talks to Sam Feder, the director of a new documentary about trans depictions in film and television – now available to watch online following the cancellation of BFI Flare
This article is published as part of our #CultureIsNotCancelled campaign:
“At one point during this meeting Ava DuVernay comes over,” says Sam Feder, director of Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen. “She said, ‘Hi Laverne, I’m having lunch with Oprah, come say hi when you’re done ...’ I was like ‘What is this? What is happening? What is this world!?’”
The history of Feder’s latest documentary is an exhilarating one. Beginning in November 2016 as a series of lectures, in part inspired by TIME’s Transgender Tipping Point cover story, Feder spent months digging into film and television archives to research the ways in which trans identity has been depicted on screen in the last century. In the summer of 2017, Feder was asked to present their research at Outfest’s Trans Summit – it was an opportunity to raise the profile of their fledgling documentary, and offered a chance to recruit a trans crew to work on the feature.
“I’m at the podium, giving my little talk,” remembers the director, “and I look up and there’s Laverne Cox in the audience. She was wearing a hoodie and big sunglasses, and she was sitting right in front of my producer so every time I looked at my producer I’d see her.” It was a disorienting moment; Feder and producer Amy Scholder had always envisioned involving Cox in their feature, but they hadn’t expected to cross paths quite so soon. “I started noticing that she was really engaged, she would nod her head a lot when I was talking,” says Feder, “and of course there were moments where I was referencing her, so that was kind of embarrassing, but I was trying to play it cool.” Almost as soon as Feder’s talk had finished, Cox came rushing over. “She said: ‘Oh my god! I wanted to talk to you guys, I’ve always wanted to do a film like this!’” Needless to say, it was a shocking, thrilling moment. “I was stunned. She gave me her number and said ‘let’s have a meeting’.”
The next day, Cox suggested Soho House for lunch. “I was like, OK, what do you wear to Soho House?” remembers Feder. “I was super, super nervous.” Over taro chips, the pair dug deep into a discussion about trans representation on screen. “It was all I’d been thinking about for the past two and half years so my social skills were really horrible,” says Feder. “I really couldn’t talk to people about much, but Laverne was so cool about it, she’s so disarming and sweet and grounded, she puts everyone at ease.” As things began to wrap up, Feder and Scholder made a bold proposition: “My producer was like, ‘Do you want to be an executive producer?’” In June 2018, nearly three years after Feder first began working on the film, Variety announced that Cox would be joining Disclosure as executive producer.
Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen is a remarkable achievement – what could easily have been a dry and dreary media studies survey through thousands of archive film and TV clips, instead emerges as a touching, thoughtful and deeply personal retrospective of trans representation on screen. Testimonies from Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, Mj Rodriguez, Jamie Clayton, and Chaz Bono reframe familiar scenes from A Florida Enchantment, Dog Day Afternoon, and Boys Don’t Cry through a new lens. By the end, audiences are left with a profound and lasting understanding of the power of media to perpetrate transphobic stereotypes. “This is not a linear success story; there are moments of celebration, but it’s really a story about how powerful and important storytelling is for our culture,” says Feder. Exploring the paradox of visibility is central to the film’s mission. “As humans we need to be seen, we need role models,” says the director, “but often, for marginalised communities, it makes you more vulnerable. You’re put in harm’s way, you’re recognised more often.”
Sifting through the more than 1,000 video clips that make up Disclosure was an exhaustively long process. “Oh my god, so many spreadsheets, so, so many spreadsheets,” says Feder. “I dove into Google Drive and organised things manually. It was a lot of work, but I love that stuff. Chronologically, thematically, alphabetically, so many columns, so many ways of organising it.” As someone whose existence is reflected and dissected in these films and TV shows, it was, at times, draining work. Scenes from well-known talk shows see trans folk mocked, ogled over and laughed at. “Some of it was excruciating,” says Feder. “When things would get violent, when people would hit each other, that’s when I would get shocked. To think people felt such entitlement, that they saw these people on stage as lesser than.” Other scenes were more personally affecting. “Honestly Boys Don’t Cry,” says Feder, wincing, “I can’t watch that. The rape scene, the killing, I could barely watch it in the 90s and then ... to cut that scene in ... I had to look away. Even just talking about it is hard.”
How did you decompress, I ask, after wading through so much challenging material? “You know I think I’m still figuring that out,” says Feder. Ultimately, bearing witness to the media’s representation of trans lives on screen is a legitimising experience for the documentary-maker. “I find it really empowering to have this history and have this knowledge and be able to say, ‘see, there are reasons you people think this!’ Obviously it’s not just the media, there’s other reasons why people are so transphobic, but there are reasons people have these misconceptions, there are reasons for these pervasive stereotypes and for me to be able to point to something.”
The hope is that trans people who watch Disclosure will better understand where any possible feelings of shame or self-doubt might come from. “You internalise a lot of these experiences, and you think it about yourself,” says Feder. “To be able to see it outside yourself, to recognise, ‘I’ve been taught to think this,’ and to move past it – that’s really cathartic and empowering.” The message for cis allies is simple. “I want people to think about how trans people are represented,” says Feder, “and think about how those representations have informed your beliefs. Think about how we support the ways trans people use public space. Think about who you’re voting for. Think about how your actions affect the trans people you’re sharing this planet with.”
Disclosure was due to screen as the ‘Centrepiece Screening’ at the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. It's one of a selection of films that were made available for a limited time on the BFI Player as part of BFI Flare at home.