This year I am directing a short documentary about a transgender man from my hometown of Tiverton, Devon. His name is Kay Jane Browning and he was once the annoying younger sister of an old friend, Gavin. Last year I witnessed an article about Kay detailing his recent appearance on ITV’s Jeremy Kyle Show. I watched the episode and marveled at the striking contrast in Kay’s current appearance from that embedded in my memory, and over brimmed with pride as I watched him endear himself to the audience and host alike. We reconnected via social media and the idea of a documentary was discussed. Kay offered himself unreservedly to the project giving me absolute exclusivity. To make the film successful, two major issues needed to be addressed. Before we get to the ethics, politics and representation of Kay and the trans community, there is the issue of genre mode and style. Having zero experience of either, there were a number of theoretical avenues to explore in order to carry the project to fruition.
Firstly I had to purge exactly what I was intending to say and if it had any pertinence. Was this to be a film highlighting what it was like to be transgender? Maybe it could explore a more philosophical avenue? I could have made a film that consisted of interviews with Kay and b-roll footage, but felt that I wanted to tell the story without compromising on visual style and cinematic impact. Maria Pramiggiore and Tom Wallis write effectively on the contextualising of motivations for documentary filmmakers. They write, “The goals of avant-garde filmmakers, like those of documentary filmmakers, vary widely, but two principal concerns dominate. The first is to explore the artistic and technological capabilities of the medium, usually by rejecting the conventional use to which film has been put: telling stories”. (Pramiggiore, Wallis 2011, p.276) Upon further exploration it was becoming clearer as to how this might be possible. Renowned documentary scholar Bill Nichols organises approaches to documentary storytelling into six generic modes. One of these is ‘The Poetic Mode’ and he writes, “The poetic mode of documentary moves away from the “objective” reality of a given situation or people to grasp at an inner “truth” that can only be grasped by poetical manipulation” He continues: “Codes emphasize visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, descriptive passages, and formal organization favours mood, tone and texture.” (Nichols 2001, p.162) Although this would be my preferred style, it seems that, aside from a creative and/or aesthetic desire, there would have to be a legitimate reason for this application.
During my research I realised that Kay has a passion for creative arts. Poetry, literature, hip-hop and dance (often combinations of all) were the areas in which he thrived. It was my suspicion, and later confirmed, that Kay’s relationship with art was not wholly natural and instead grew out of the circumstances of his early realisation and discovery of his gender complexity. Growing up in rural Devon in the 1990’s was not conducive to transgender equality and art provided an avenue of expression otherwise suppressed. Because of this, Kay has had a performative outlook on life as a direct result of being unable to live his life true to his gender. Kay’s ability to perform is a survival skill stemmed from both pretending to be a girl and proving himself as a man. With this in mind, it seemed both applicable and necessary to explore Kay’s world through a poetic context. Kay will narrate us through three different eras of his life using the forms of expression that are most natural to him with heavy use of visual metaphors and constructed situations (Masculine imagery, choreographed performances, urban buildings amongst green fields). The power of a metaphorical approach is outlined by Bill Nichols who states, “Documentary film as an organized sequence of sounds and images constructs metaphors that assign or infer, affirm or contest values that surround social practices about which we as a society remain divided” He continues, “The selection and arrangement of sounds and images are sensuous and real; they provide an immediate form of audible and visual experience, but they also become, through their organization into a larger whole, a metaphorical representation of what something in the historical world is like” (Nichols, 2001, p.74) This approach along with the emphasis on performance lends itself to the synthesised nature of the subject. For example, his physical appearance and voice have dramatically altered from that which nature gave him. Further to this, Kay’s narration via spoken word poetry, rap and dance are all choreographed and rehearsed. If documentaries serve to offer a truth, it could be argued that the only real ‘truth’ in the film, and perhaps Kay’s life, is that that cannot be witnessed – his gender. Therefore, it is rational that the way in which the truth is explored in this film is a direct manifestation of the way in which it’s subject explored it, thus offering it’s own truth.
Representation and correct use of terminology for Kay is paramount in this film. In their book Understanding Film Theory, theorists Christine Etherington–Wright and Ruth Doughty outline a the terminology: “Transgender: The term serves to define people who do not conform to the gender they were born with. It is problematic because trans people do not fit into the traditional neat categories of male or female and the term ‘transgender’ is a similar label: a third category which is rejected as oversimplifying the complex nature of the condition” (Etherington-Wright, Doughty 2011, p.191) Although Kay identifies as a man, he is considering the both child birth and complete gender reassignment. These paradoxical desires create further complications of categorisation – something explained in more detail by cultural professor Marjorie Garber: “ The third is that which questions binary thinking (…) the ‘third term’ is not a term. Much less is it a sex, certainly not an instantiated ‘blurred’ sex as signified by a term like ‘androgyne’ or ‘hermaphrodite,’ although these words have culturally specific significance at certain historical moments. The ‘third’ is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a space of possibility” (Garber 1993, p.11) In this film, gender is to Kay what genre is to the film. The lines are blurred.
Exploration of ‘Queer Theory’ conventions was also important to appreciate audience and how the film could be categorised or understood. According to Benshoff and Griffin’s Queer Cinema: The film Reader, ‘Queer Theory’ is not a label of sexuality referencing the negative connotations in the definition of the word ‘queer’, but instead a term that expresses and encourages inclusion and challenges or deconstructs the preconceptions of gender. They write, “The term was meant to gather together multiple marginalized groups into a shared political struggle, as well as fling back at mainstream heterosexist culture an epithet that had been used to oppress people for decades” (Benshoff, Griffin 2005, p.5). This raises questions about how Kay is visually depicted. My stylistic preference is to withhold the audience from fully seeing Kay in his current physical form. Although my reasons are for impact and to reference the gradient of his arrival as a man in real life, this could undermine what is, in fact, supposed to be a celebration of the bravery involved in transcending gender. An example of this style in action that springs to mind is The Elephant Man (Lynch, 1980). This is an alarming comparison and something that I hope to avoid for any reason other than restrictive access to the subject to garner a reaction.
In conclusion, gaining a deeper theoretical understanding of the flexibility and lucid nature of poetic storytelling has allowed me to explore avenues that would otherwise be considered out of context or unconventional. Although on surface level it appears that genre and/or mode conventions may be relaxed or less restrictive, what actually materialises is a much more profound journey of discovery towards your understanding of the subject and the possibilities of how to tell their stories whilst somehow trying to maintain a personal viewpoint or philosophical attitude. I feel that after discovering the theoretical approaches to both the poetic documentary mode and queer theory, the two are perfectly suited to one another when considering the fluid and non specific place on the spectrum of definition.
Benshoff, H. M. and Griffin, S. (eds) (2005) Queer Cinema: The Film Reader, New York: Routledge.
Etherington-Wright, C. and Doughty, R. (2011). Understanding Film Theory. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.
Garber, M. (1993) Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, London: Penguin.
Nichols, B (2001). Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Pramaggiore, M, and Wallis, T. (2005) Film: A Critical Introduction. London: Laurence King. Print.