17 January 2017

SISTERHOOD is a new film chronicling the lives of San Francisco’s transgender community

The T in LGBT has never been bolder.

[W]ith the emergence of films like Tangerine, the success of actresses like Laverne Cox of Orange Is The New Black, Hari Nef’s L’Oreal campaign and Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, the transgender community was befitted a moment of hyper-visibility over the last few years. The ‘T’ in LGBT was made bolder than ever.

However, it’s vital to question if or how this level of conspicuousness actually alleviates the literally lethal danger that so many of the transgender community confront and live with on a daily basis. In the wake of this we spoke to Joan, a young film-maker from San Francisco whose Kickstarter-generated short film SISTERHOOD is a chronicle of her and her friends real life experiences as trans women. Watch the sizzle reel above.

Joan’s film professor once called her “the Elle Woods of film school”, a backhanded compliment that she takes a lot of pride in. Much of her work, like SISTERHOOD, is based on her own lived experiences as a trans woman and hopes to engender a wider dialogue about the experiences of her trans brothers and sisters. We spoke to her about the autonomy of trans experiences in film, her impetus to shoot with an all-female crew and how the horizon of transgender representation can reshape for the better this year.

Hey Joan, tell us about the origin of SISTERHOOD...

I got an opportunity to direct a a thesis feature from my school and I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do. There were a lot of events in the last year of my life where my friends would joke “oh you should make a movie about us, about this, it’s so obvious that this needs to be a movie” and I brushed it off because I think people who make movies about themselves tend to skew towards towards narcissism. One day I was lying in bed at 2:00 in the morning and I needed my draft of the script due in the next week so I just started writing down everything that had happening to me (and my friends) and I turned it in. My advisor said it was the greatest thing he’d ever read.

ph. Chantal Beam

Based on your experiences how would you describe being trans in San Francisco?

Being trans in San Francisco is a really “colorful” existence. It sometimes feels like San Francisco is an island, almost quite literally. So sometimes living here can feel like living in an entirely different world – especially because it’s so much more progressive and the people are so different compared to the rest of California.

On top of that being trans can also feel like living on an island because it feels like everyone else around you is living one type of life and then you are in entirely different world. It can feel like being a ghost. Your experiences do not correlate to anybody else. How many people can say that at their grocery store job (like where I work) someone has approached them in one of the aisles and asked “how much is it for anal with you?” There’s an assumption that because I’m trans I’m going to be a sex worker. At my job!

So yes, being trans can feel like this very colourful and hard-to-explain existence and I wanted to capture that with my movie.

Ph. Laura Kenmotsu

"How many people can say that at their grocery store job someone has approached them in one of the aisles and asked “how much is it for anal with you?”, there’s an assumption that because I’m trans I’m going to be a sex worker. At my job!"

Ph. Laura Kenmotsu

How did you go about including other trans voices in the film?

Rashida Reneé, our lead actress and stylist, actually developed the script with me and helped shape much of the final dialogue. As Rashida is a black trans woman, I wanted to allow her the opportunity to speak her own truth in her own words, something most black trans women have had taken from them by the greater cultural machine. It could have easily been a situation where an actress is handed a script and said “This is what you’re going to say”. But as this film is built around our actual lived experiences- having Rashida write her own dialogue alongside me was really important to the both of us. And I think the “authenticity” (a word that gets thrown around quite often, especially with trans women) will definitely show through in the film. Lotus, our other actress and makeup-artist, always played a key role in helping shape our dialogue (and a few of my favorite jokes were written by her!) 

Ph. Laura Kenmotsu

How did you go about acquiring a cast and crew?

I happened to be one of those people who, when you are involved in the entertainment industry, or the arts, you’re mostly friends with people who are in it as well. The two actresses that appear in the film alongside myself are my best friends and we talked a lot about it – because [the film] was based on our lives, I didn’t know how comfortable they were with re-creating the past year in a movie but we were up for the challenge.

We tried casting professional actresses but I kept coming back to them because the performances I was getting from my friends just felt way more authentic because it’s their lives – this actually happened to them and it happened to me to. It was almost a kind of magic. It felt like a form of catharsis for us. It was a little raw and little challenging at times but I was so in love with that feeling when we were all together on screen.

As for the crew, I was really committed to having an all-woman crew because I have never experienced that as a director before. Even working on other people’s films and I’ve worked on a lot of different sets in the Bay Area and I’ve worked for a lot of queer film-makers, they’re highly respected in the industry but I will get on set and there’s no women, or maybe one woman. I promised myself that when I got my first professional gig I wanted it to be a set ran by women, filled by women, casted entirely by women – my camera operator, my cinematographer, even the people who were driving in cars for us to pick up things. It was such a special experience once I got on set and could see the fruits of my labor. And it was hard, as bad as it sounds you kind of have to search the ends of the earth to fill up a crew with women. I pressured everyone a lot to fill up the set with women and the end result was incredible.

Ph. Laura Kenmotsu

TV shows like Transparent and films like Tangerine are bringing transgender stories into the mainstream - how do you feel about this kind of visibility? how would you like to see it change in 2017?

I’m really happy you brought this up as I have a funny story I want to preface with. My script became available to my entire crew months before we begun shooting. I wanted everyone to have a chance to read it, digest it and understand what they were going to be working on. I did that because my film is a little bit challenging – it shows trans women, not as these perfect goddesses of moral virture but as really complicated individuals (everybody in the world is a complicated individual). I feel like a lot of times, with a lot of the shows coming out I’m seeing more of that representation allowing us to be complicated. And so there are some things which people might look sideways at or feel some type of way about and I wanted everyone to be on the same page. I received a scathing email from someone I hired – it boiled down to “you are misrepresenting the transgender community. You are going to regret putting this movie out because it doesn’t show Transgender people in a nice light”. I almost felt like I’d been punched in the stomach as I’d never had somebody tell me that before. I had to sit with it for a day “why am I making this movie? Why did I write my characters as challenging or not always likeable?” I eventually came to the realisation that if I am not allowed to be complicated, or have flaws then there’s really no point to being a film-maker. It always boils down to let us be who we are, that’s as complex as it’s ever going to get.

So with films like Tangerine and TV shows like Transparent, I think it’s really nice – in Tangerine for instance they allowed those characters to be sex workers because that is the reality for a lot of women in Los Angeles and I’m glad they didn’t choose to gloss over the harder parts whilst still allowing these women to be fully realized human beings – they had hopes, dreams and ambitions and they were allowed to explore that whilst living through their reality as sex workers.

With hyper-visibiltiy I feel it comes down to a question of whether this exposure really benefits us or not. Caitlyn Jenner, for example, she came out in the last couple of years and she is ostensibly the most well-known trans woman in the whole world right now. She was afforded a platform that no-one else was able to reach yet. But, I want to investigate how she benefitted us, is this hyper-visibility doing anything positive for us?

When Caitlyn Jenner came out I had people approach me, again at work, and ask if I saw her interview. It was as if now they had a famous face to put trans-ness on it was a hallpass to clock this transwoman at her day job and ask her all about it, with zero respect for social boundaries.

Caitlyn Jenner came out and tore the curtain wide open without really thinking about how it may affect the rest of us. And she doesn’t have to. She has her own life and I would never stop her from living how she want to, but I think people need to realize that there are still some of us at the bottom who have to deal with the visibility and people suddenly peering into our community.

So hyper-visibility isn’t inherently a positive thing.

Ph. Chantal Beam

What about other representation from less privileged backgrounds than Caitlyn Jenner, such as Hari Nef?

Hari is someone I have known online for quite some time now, she actually gave us a chunk of money for the film and is really good friends with one of our actresses, Rashida. Actresses like Hari were put in a very hard position, to be the spokesperson as that coming-from-the-internet, newer, more revolutionary perspective kind of girl. She had to fill a bubble that hadn’t really been filled yet.

I remember her talking about being at the front of this community and everyone was wanting her to be something, be a specific way, say certain things and to represent everyone, which is impossible. Especially someone who was never expecting to be in that position. I think that any one trans actress is not going to be perfect, but if we get more people like Hari I can only see good things coming of that. She’s really talented and I’m excited to see where her career takes her and maybe I’ll get to work with her someday.

ph. Chantal Beam

"I eventually came to the realisation that if I am not allowed to be complicated, or have flaws then there’s really no point to being a film-maker. It always boils down to let us be who we are, that’s as complex as it’s ever going to get."

When and where can we see SISTERHOOD?

The initial short film that we have been working on will be available in a couple of months online. I’m going to put it up on YouTube because I want everyone who donated to be allowed to see it. A lot of people, 250 donated to our kickstarter campaign to get our initial funding off the ground, so I wanted them to see what it looks like. So we have a 10-minute version and now we’re working on the 35/40-minute version will hopefully be ready be the end of the summer. But the initial short film will be available in April, I would say.

Ph. Lauren Kenmotsu

…Thanks Joan!

Keep up to date with SISTERHOOD by following them on Facebook.