Interview: Director Jeanie Finlay and Freddy McConnell of Seahorse

In Jeanie Finlay’s sublime, affecting documentary Seahorse, trans man Freddy McConnell embarks on a profound personal journey when he decides to become pregnant.  Freddy deals with all of the physical challenges of pregnancy plus the added stressors of gender dysphoria and other people’s reaction to an “unconventional” parent. I had the chance to sit down with both Finlay and McConnell on the eve of their world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.  As it turns out, McConnell provided the impetus for the film himself.


“I’m a journalist as well,” he explained, “[and] I knew I wanted to share this process, this journey.  It was sort of at my instigation.”  McConnell was particularly concerned with finding a trustworthy collaborator.  He wanted Seahorse “to be different from the way a lot of other trans stories are told, which is exploitative and sensationalized.  I never would have said yes to anyone who had just approached me.”  McConnell had witnessed friends’ bad experiences with producers and journalists who proved untrustworthy.  “The reason the film is the way it is, is because of the way it was made and the way it was envisaged right from the word go,” he stated.

Director Jeanie Finlay

Indeed, the film is artfully made and incredibly intimate.  Every step of the process is detailed, from the dysphoria that results after Freddy stops taking testosterone (so as not to interfere with the pregnancy) to the painful end of his relationship with partner CJ.  Finlay spoke with a lovely, soothing British accent as she explained her role in telling Freddy’s story: “I really want to think about the film and let the film emerge.  Like if you go in too tight with a plan, the film doesn’t grow.  The point is to grow like a baby.  One of the definitions of a documentary filmmaker is to be an emotional barometer; I’m really in tune with my feelings.”  Beautiful footage of Freddy’s hometown of Deal, England, as well as close-ups of real seahorses weave through and enhance the narrative.  “I’m very sensitive to how atmospheres and the situation make me feel and I really try to think deeply about, what could that look like in a film?” Finlay said.  “How can I create visuals that can help promote what I felt in the moment?”  This thought process led to some scenes that seem abstract but subtly support the themes of Seahorse.  “Because Deal is so beautiful I wanted that to be part of the film,” Finlay stated. “The idea that we’re sort of sitting on the edge of England, looking into an uncertain future.”

Was the more or less constant filming ever too much for Freddy?  “In the moment sometimes, but the reason it was happening was because I wanted it to happen,” McConnell pointed out.  “I wanted to go out and tell the story.” 


“It’s my job to make the film feel personal, intimate,” Finlay agreed.  “Sometimes my job is to gently push, because when I committed to the film, I said, ‘if I do this, I’m all in.  I give you all my heart.  I’m gonna do this, and it’s not gonna be easy.’  Sometimes my job is to ask the difficult questions.  ‘What is this like?  What is the answer that you haven’t said out loud before?’”


“It did get hard,” McConnell said, “but the way that it was put together and the way we worked meant that wasn’t a disaster and that didn’t mean it was the end of it.  It was just part of the process.” 

McConnell wanted to share his story, in part, to let other trans and queer people know that they have options: “The information isn’t made widely available and it’s seen as something unsafe or shameful.  Things that we’re told aren’t always in our best interests by people who are supposed to have our best interests at heart, like doctors.”  He also hoped the film would be enlightening for audiences unfamiliar with, or skeptical of, trans people.  “People whose minds are racing with those issues and questions they have, debates they want to have, can maybe just  park that when they see, ‘oh, it’s just about another person who has the same desires and struggles and emotions that I do.’”


“When I commit to making a film, I want people to come on a journey with me,” Finlay added.  “’Come on, let me hold your hand and I’m gonna take you on a little journey.’  I want people to see the ordinariness, the normalness, the smallness, the ecstasy of people’s lives.” 


“I just hope that anyone who watches it can relate to some tiny little thing, or maybe some huge thing, in a way that surprises them, that they didn’t expect coming in,” McConnell said. Added Finlay: “I just always want people to feel moved, in a small way or a big way.”  There’s little doubt that anyone who sees Seahorse won’t be.


Seahorse will continue to play film festivals throughout the summer and fall.  Visit seahorsefilm.com for more.

Review: Changing the Game

When the documentary Changing the Game played at the Tribeca Film Festival, journalists were invited to a roundtable discussion with the transgender athletes featured in the film.  At the cozy Battery Park offices of GLSEN, teens including wrestler Mack Beggs, skier Sarah Rose Huckman, and runner Terry Miller had a lively chat about transgender issues, their lives, and more.  I was moved and inspired by their intelligence and bravery, even more so after I saw the movie.


“The film shows that we’re not just transgender, that we live lives just like everybody else.  It shows us.”—Terry Miller

Mack Beggs (right) wrestling for the Texas girls State Championship.

Changing the Game is an engaging and intensely cinematic movie.  It centers primarily on three young trans athletes across three locations: Beggs in Texas, Huckman in New Hampshire, and Miller in Connecticut.  Beggs, who isn’t allowed to compete against males under state regulations, draws a ton of media attention, both positive and negative.  Critics rail that he’s “cheating” by using testosterone even as Beggs longs to wrestle other boys. Director Michael Barnett introduces us to Mack’s support system: his sweet, horseback riding girlfriend; his intensely driven, committed coach; and, most memorably, his gun toting, Republican, and unconditionally loving grandma.  These stalwarts come in handy as the quiet, reserved Mack struggles internally with the jeers he receives at wrestling events.


“I’m putting out a story that can be related to other trans people.  And it’s just amazing to be able to have a platform and use that to create good in this world.”—Sarah Rose Huckman

Sarah Rose Huckman

Huckman is perhaps the most articulate of the teens, and the most involved in activism.  From her popular YouTube channel to her impassioned speech before the House Judiciary Committee in support of the anti-gender identity discrimination law HB 1319, which was eventually passed, Huckman emerges as a champion for equality—as well as a good candidate to enter politics someday.  Like Beggs, Huckman has strong familial support in the form of her loving adoptive parents.


“They talk about fairness, but what about our fairness?  Is that not important, or does it not matter?  Everyone else wants fairness, so why can’t we have ours?”—Terry Miller


Terry Miller and her running colleague Andraya Yearwood , also a Black trans woman, encounter their share of outspoken critics at track events.  At one point a woman rants at the camera about how neither girl will know what it’s like to run while on their period, and eventually admits, “I forgot what the question is!”  Barnett allows her to hang herself, but he also makes a smart choice by giving screentime to the kids’ critics. These moments and the news clips interspersed throughout show exactly what the young athletes are up against—and underlines how brave they are to persevere in spite of such venom.


“I take pride in being able to say, ‘I’m a transgender woman of color.’  Because there’s so many people out there who are not able to come out and they’re afraid to.”—Sarah Rose Huckman


Changing the Game does a terrific job of depicting the sports the teens excel at.  Vivid slow motion sequences bring the training, matches, and meets to life.  There is exceptional cinematography of the locations, such as the icy terrain Huckman skis across.  Stark statistics about the realities of transgender life appear, simply and without comment, over overhead shots.

Beggs

“We just want to be known as who we are.  I’m Mack, I’m a guy.”—Mack Beggs


In a time when transgender rights are being threatened on a daily basis, the importance of Changing the Game cannot be overstated.  It’s a humanistic, beautiful character study that makes a powerful statement just by depicting the extraordinary/ordinary kids at its core.


Changing the Game will continue to play at film festivals throughout the summer and fall. 

TFF 2019 Review: Circus of Books

It was a banner year for LGBT documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival, but even amidst a crowded field, Circus of Books was a standout.  It takes a compellingly quirky story and presents it with grace, humor, and heart. 

Barry and Rachel in the basement with porn inventory

Multi-hyphenate artist/director Rachel Mason grew up in a fairly typical Jewish family, with a twist.  The business her parents ran for decades was an infamous gay porn shop in West Hollywood, a reality hidden from Rachel and her two brothers until they were in their teens.  When Barry, who did special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Trek series and invented a medical device, was forced out of work by steep insurance costs, his enterprising wife took notice of a newspaper ad from the notorious Larry Flynt.  They bought the failing Book Circus, rearranged the sign, and started selling both the controversial Hustler and, later, the gay titles the enterprising Flynt bought out.  They also became involved with gay porn production, though Karen ads “we never watched any of these movies.”  A certain amount of cognitive dissonance was exercised by Karen—who “wore the pants in the family” according to one former employee—to juggle her conservative Jewish faith and the realities of selling dirty magazines and sex toys.  Son Josh agonized over coming out to his parents, and though Karen struggled at first, she and her husband are now active and proud PFLAG members.

Karen at a sex toy convention, making wholesale orders

Mason delivers an intimate, touching, warts-and-all-portrait of her family, especially Karen.  The oft cranky matriarch is refreshingly honest and candid throughout, whether stressing over laying off employees or lugging boxes of material out to the dumpster.  All of the participants are revealing and frequently funny.  Josh recalls how the porn tape he hid away until he had a chance to play it alone turned out to be a Beta.  Former employee Alaska Thunderfuck bemoans the fact that he never knew about the store’s cruise-y attic.  Even gay film legend Jeff Stryker turns up to share his memories.  Mason skillfully weaves together a personal narrative and the larger picture of gay history to make a significant and extremely entertaining documentary.

Take Your Daughter to Work Day

Netflix will distribute Circus of Books later this year.

TFF2019 Review: Pilot Season

Julia Lindon in Lady Liberty

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival Pilot Season features five different television pilots, and with one exception, they’re all terrific.  The first is particularly exciting for LGBT audiences: Lady Liberty, starring Julia Lindon as Shea, a young aspiring comedienne in New York City.  Shea works for an established comedian (Jason Sudeikis), but is afraid to tell him about her own ambitions; she’s also struggling to define her own sexuality after an intense affair with a longtime friend (Rebecca Henderson).  A chance encounter with a beautiful young lesbian (Karen Eilbacher) in an Uber pool leads to her first night out with “gay gals,” and it’s clear that Miller’s taking her first thrilling steps towards self-actualization.  Lindon, who created the series, is tremendously appealing and relatable, and the first episode is wonderfully real and authentic.  I think this could become the next Broad City.

Anastasia Leddick in Halfway

Another, distinctly different strong female is at the center of Halfway, about a woman’s struggle to re-enter society, and reconnect with the daughter she abandoned, after prison.  Anastasia Leddick is mesmerizing as Krystal: she’s got an incredible punk look, and is utterly convincing as a woman who’s been through the ringer.  The first episode is equal turns funny and dramatic, and left me wanting to binge.

Elizabeth De Razzo in Unimundo 45

The rest of the program is comprised of DC Noir, a strong, gritty slice of urban life; the goofy but promising Unimundo 45, about a plus-sized Latinx news producer (Elizabeth De Razzo) looking to inspire her family and friends in the wake of Trump’s election; and the faintly obnoxious Awokened.  The latter was the only entry I had no desire to see more of—it focuses on entitled, irritating millennials and lots of forced wackiness, and it retreads ground better explored by the critically underrated Enlightened.


Pilot Season screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.

TFF 2019 Review: For They Know Not What They Do

Rob & Linda Robertson

Any LGBT individual who grew up religiously—and that’s many of us—knows what it’s like when your faith seemingly conflicts with your identity.  That conflict is at the heart of Daniel Karslake (For the Bible Tells Me So)’s new documentary. Among the most powerful stories: Linda and Rob Robertson, who encouraged their son Ryan to undergo conversion therapy, with tragic results; Vico Baez Febo, who was thrown out of the house by his grandmother for being gay, and later survived the Pulse shooting; and Sarah McBride, the first openly transgender woman ever to speak at the Democratic National Convention.


The film is well executed and affecting, with some deeply emotional testimony from all of the participants, particularly the Robertsons.  The movie does a good job of making us understand their perspective, and the profound sorrow they feel for the loss of their son is balanced by an enlightened and ultimately hopeful view.  Vico’s vivid testimony, Snapchat video of his slain friend, and security footage of his rescue bring the Pulse tragedy to searing life.  But though every participant in the film endured unimaginable loss, the movie is ultimately neither depressing nor didactic.  It does a great job of outlining the current state of the LGBT struggle, explaining how, in the wake of marriage equality, trans folks became the new scapegoat for the religious right.  But if McBride is any indication, not to mention the other resilient and courageous figures depicted in the film, we’re not going down without a fight.


For They Know Not What They Do screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.

TFF 2019 Review: Gay Chorus Deep South

After an emotional performance in Charlotte, chorus members console each other

Early on in David Charles Rodrigues’ exquisite Gay Chorus Deep South, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus artistic director Dr. Tim Seelig is working in his office. He explains that he keeps himself surrounded by “queens,” Queen Elizabeth and San Francisco legend—and gay hero—Harvey Milk among them.  So it’s fitting that the Chorus takes inspiration from Milk, who famously used a lavender pen to sign groundbreaking gay rights legislation into law, in naming their post Trump Lavender Pen Tour.  The men travel from Tennessee to Alabama to the Carolinas, looking to spread hope and ignite dialogue.  Interestingly enough, assumptions are challenged on both sides.  A queer historian complains that the concept reeks of condescension.  A Southern Baptist church, meanwhile, welcomes the group with open arms. 

Ashlé, the first trans individual accepted into a Gay Men’s Chorus, stands their ground in America’s most discriminatory states

Rodrigues shoots the film beautifully, with sweeping overhead shots, intimate access to the performances, and skillful editing.  The music is beautiful and accomplished, naturally, and it weaves in and out of sequences seamlessly.  A sequence in Selma, where the men hold a triumphant concert and walk across the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, is particularly striking.  We get to know a few of the men particularly well.  Seelig reveals his painful history with the Southern Baptist Church and the havoc wreaked on his family when he came out.  Jimmy White is fighting cancer and hoping for reconciliation with his staunchly conservative father.  Perhaps most compelling is
Ashlé , who struggles to come to terms with their gender identity and finds unwavering acceptance in the men of the Chorus.  Thus this film is one of several notable examples of trans stories being told at Tribeca this year; Jeanie Finlay’s beautiful Seahorse and Changing the Game being two others.


Gay Chorus Deep South takes a story that is compelling and of the moment and delivers it with precision and heart.


Gay Chorus Deep South screens this week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit tribecafilm.com for more.

TFF 2019: VR Arcade Review

Tribeca’s annual Virtual Arcade Featuring Storyscapes is back with another diverse assortment of VR experiences.  I got the chance to experience four, including the remarkable Another Dream, second in the transmedia series Queer In A Time of Forced Migration.  Readers should note that this year’s Arcade also includes Doctor Who: The Runaway, an animated tale featuring the new Doctor—and a full scale Tardis on site!

Another Dream

In Another Dream, directed by Tamara Shogaolu, viewers meet a lesbian couple forced to flee Egypt in search of safety in the Netherlands.  It’s an incredibly moving story, elegantly animated; watching it, I couldn’t help but be bowled over by the immense courage of its subjects.  While the interactivity left a bit to be desired—all you get to “do” is trace the Arabic characters for each chapter title—the immersive nature of the short makes you feel like you are living through the predicament with the women.  You also share in their newfound peace and hope. 


Kevin Cornish’s ambitious 2nd Civil War plays a bit like an augmented reality Purge installment.  Like that franchise, it’s ambitious and more than a little on-the-nose hammy.  The experience begins in the “real” world, where a tough-as-nails army officer begrudgingly approves your pass to report from the Conflict Zone of a war torn America.  (The actress was utterly real and made me distinctly uncomfortable.)  In the VR component, a prologue mixing real and recreated news footage leads into a series of encounters with dystopian Baltimore residents. You can speak dialogue from a range of options; unfortunately, I had to repeat some of the lines multiple times for the people to “hear” me.  Cheesy acting from some of the participants, like a one-armed journalist and a trashy tattooed mom, as well as the choppy integration of performers and background plates distracted from the intended effect.

Gymnasia

The Canadian Gymnasia, directed by Clyde Henry Productions, gets an A for physical environment: a decrepit classroom with hard plastic chairs, pages of music strewn across the floor, and two nightmare fuel baby dolls, one seated and the other roaming eerily on wheels.  The VR itself is cool and creepy: balls and butterflies skitter across the floor and the dolls start singing one of those “childlike” songs calculated to give goose bumps.  It’s all nifty to look at, but ultimately feels like just so much production design in search of a Conjuring spinoff.

For pure, adorable entertainment, you probably can’t beat Eric Darnell’s Bonfire made by Baobab Studios.  The director cut his teeth on the Madagascar movies and Antz, and it shows: the adventure plays like a particularly witty “kiddie” movie that you’d have no problem sitting through.  Ali Wong is pitch perfect hilarious as a neurotic robot who, following a crash landing on a potentially hostile alien planet, keeps nagging you to look out for danger.  It will come as no surprise that Pork Bun the alien is no threat but rather a cute new friend—you can even pet it!  Ultimately you choose how to proceed with regard to this potential colonization site, and the fate of Pork Bun.  Viewers receive a cool souvenir video of their experience afterwards.


The VR Arcade plays daily as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com/immersive for more.

Tribeca Film Festival Preview

The Tribeca Film Festival returns this week for its eighteenth edition.  Always inclusive, this year’s fest (running now through May 5) boasts films largely directed by women (40%), people of color (29%), and/or LGBTQIA folks (13%).  Here are some titles to look out for.

LGBT

Nick Borenstein in “Sweater”

            Queer-themed works this year include the documentary Seahorse, about a trans man who carries a baby to term; Gay Chorus Deep South, recounting the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ post-Trump tour; N.O.W. Digital Showcase, featuring the hilarious quasi-musical “Sweater,” by local filmmaker Nick Borenstein, and the intriguing sexual awakening tale Kiss of the Rabbit God; and the first Tribeca Pride Day (May 4), boasting talks with legendary ACT UP founder and playwright Larry Kramer, Neil Patrick Harris, trailblazing non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon (Billions, John Wick 3: Parabellum), Pose creator Steve Canals and costar Angelica Ross, and the premiere of the Wigstock documentary Wig.

MIDNIGHT & MORE

            The always reliable Midnights category includes Come to Daddy, a twisted family horror show starring Elijah Wood; the buzzy, balls-to-the-wall vampire flick Bliss; and You Don’t Nomi, a documentary about the phenomenon that is ShowgirlsCharlie Says reunites American Psycho writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) and director Mary Harron in a look at the troubled disciples of Charles Manson (Matt Smith).  There will also be a free, family friendly Star Wars: A New Hope screening on the morning of May the Fourth.

You Don’t Nomi

TELEVISION

            Oscar winner Rami Malek and Christian Slater appear live to give a Farewell to Mr. Robot; Pilot Season includes Lady Liberty, starring Shea Miller as a young queer comedian; Seth Rogen premieres his new comics adaptation The Boys; and Yeardley “Lisa” Smith leads a Simpsons thirtieth anniversary panel with Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Harry Shearer, and more. 

            TALKS

            Geeks OUT readers will be interested in a number of the Talks during Tribeca: Queen Latifah and director Dee Rees will discuss “gender and racial equality behind the camera”; Guillermo del Toro appears in conversation with Alec Baldwin; Questlove and filmmaker Boots Riley compare notes; and Michael J. Fox chats with pal Denis Leary.

            To learn more about Tribeca Film Festival, visit tribecafilm.com.  Watch this space for more coverage.