This film is an intimate view into the complexity of transgender experiences. It contains black and white portraits of five AFAB (assigned female at birth) trans* people with dysphoria, re: chest.
Phoria started as a simple and straight forward idea about showcasing non-binary people and their bodies. It soon developed into a deep and intimate inquiry into identity, self, trans-ness, and the infinite and intricate complexities of transgender people and their experiences in life and existing within their bodies that they often times feel estranged to. Each person featured in the film brought their own energy and their own discomfort to the stage to be documented. In order for Phoria to be successful, I felt myself having to let go of control, to just stand in the present moment with them, to disrobe myself with them, to have conversations with them on a human to human level, and give up any notions I had about what it meant to be a director, or even, a filmmaker. Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography became an important text for me throughout the semester and I treated it as it were a religious text, flipping to random pages on random days when I was feeling overwhelmed, nervous, or was experiencing self-doubt with the project. I found myself flipping through it before each film shoot. One important quote kept recurring in my head throughout the semester. “No actors. (No directing of actors). No parts. (No learning of parts). No staging. But the use of working models, taken from life. BEING (models) instead of SEEMING(actors)” (Bresson 1). This quote became a constant reminder to me that for this project I was not a director directing actors, controlling every aspect of the scene, but I was an observer with a camera, a conversationalist inquiring into the nuances of someone’s life, and most importantly a friend to these people who were giving me a gift of their presence.
I learned some important lessons early on in the semester. Some of them were difficult lessons to learn about approaching people to be apart of the project and, ultimately, the main lesson that speaks through the film is the same lesson I had to learn: do not collapse trans identities into categories and stereotypes. Even for me being a trans identified person I needed to be instructed on the appropriate inclusive language to use with non-binary identified trans people in order to be respectful and have them feel comfortable enough to want to be apart of the project. One person I approached through social media who was an acquaintance of mine was turned off to the project because of specific things that I said that were problematic and they ended up not wanting to be apart of the project. Beit, on the other hand, who did end up being in the film, was willing to instruct me on some better language to use when approaching people, especially non-binary identified people, about this sensitive subject matter. Xe gave me the phrase, “AFAB (assigned female at birth) people with dysphoria, re: chest.” This phrasing is all-inclusive and does not collapse characteristics of bodies into maleness or femaleness. This was an extremely important lesson for me to learn, though, at first, I was upset at my lack of knowing how to navigate language and frustrated with myself that I had turned a potential candidate away from the project because of my insensitivity to the complexities of their identity. Asking people to be vulnerable is a difficult thing, especially when the person does not know you very well, or, at all. Needless to say, the process of the film was teaching me the exact lessons that I hope the film teaches audiences.
Upon showing the finished film to a fellow CU film student and trans identified individual, Oren Franklin, he noted the way that the film successfully showcases the intricacies and complexities of transgender identities and individuals rather than having, say, a media representation and narrative of trans identity, which collapses trans people back into the binary, labelling them as simply trans-man or trans-woman. Most of all media representations I’ve seen like to pay attention to and sensationalize that this person “used to be a woman” or “used to be a man” and is “now a woman” or is “now a man.” These representations also like to focus on people’s bodies and their surgeries, rather than their unique experiences of existing inside their bodies and living through their unique experiences. These narratives collapse identities back into the binary, back into the “normative” experience, back into compulsive heterosexuality, back into capitalist economies where bodies become reduced to objects and the souls existing within those bodies experience erasure and abjection from the image of their own bodies. Phoria does not tell that narrative, but instead, allows the person to tell their own narrative and to stand in their discomfort, and, eventually find their power and agency through that vulnerability and discomfort. It does not sensationalize and objectify their bodies (despite the filmic image as object), it gives them a voice to claim their subjectivity.
Throughout my research I discovered similar photography projects to mine that were featuring trans, intersex, and non-binary identified people and bodies. I found the Other Men project which features trans men of different walks of life: various ages, races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. It is an on-going project that continues to discover new subjects who identify with the trans-masculine experience. For inspiration, I turned to Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen, by Dr. Kortney Ryan Zieglar. Still Black is an important and unique documentary film featuring black and white video portraits of black transmen who talk about their life experiences, interests, and relationships. These two projects, like Phoria, are made by trans identified people and show the intricacies of trans identities rather than collapsing them back into normative narratives. In my research I sought to connect with all different types of media: film, photography, visual art, literature, poetry, and music. I think this was a vital aspect of conjuring an energetic framework I needed to successfully hold the contents of Phoria and do the film justice.
Specific films that we watched in class were also important tools for me, especially in the beginning of the project, to see various ways of approaching subjects and concepts. Stan Brakhage’s film, Wedlock House: An Intercourse was an inspiration for me for a variety of reasons. It shows the complexities of intimacy, how intimacy can both be amazingly beautiful and it can also feel like an entrapment because your sense of self is becoming intertwined with someone else. The way that the light and shadow constantly move and reveal fragments of bodies and faces, but it is fleeting and ephemeral and the viewer never quite gets a whole view. For me, this film captures the feeling of dysphoria, of being out-of-body, but also of intense vulnerability and nakedness. This film revealed to me a specific frequency of mood and tone that I wanted to capture in Phoria.
Another film we watched in class, Some Yoyo Stuff: An observation of the observations of Don Van Vliet, by Anton Corbijn gave me some ideas about experimental portraiture and capturing a unique personality. This film focus on Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, an American singer-songwriter and artist who sustained a “cult following” and was highly influential on a number of new wave, punk, post-punk, and experimental musicians throughout the 60’s and 70’s. This film pays homage to Vliet’s character by using a variety of techniques in sight and sound such as projecting images onto Vliet as a voiceover of him plays, saying profound and often bizarre things such as “the difference between art and music is that you can physically drown in paint.” This film gave me a push in the experimental direction, to try new things even if they seem or feel bizarre in order to capture a specific characteristic about somebody’s personality. A unique and eccentric artist like Vliet needs an eccentric film to capture his spirit.
Putty Hill, by Matt Porterfield, was another inspirational film for me in terms of rethinking how to approach creating a distinctive portrait. Putty Hill is a portrait of a place, as it captures essences of a variety of people circulating the death of a young man in the town. It breaks the fourth wall by way of the cameraman directly addressing characters in the film and asking them questions about Corey, the young man who died from, what the viewer can gather, a drug overdose from continued substance addiction. Each character talks about their relationship to Corey and how Corey’s death has impacted them in disparate ways. We see how his death has brought some people together, and has also strained other relationships, and/or brought people back to Putty Hill after being gone for a time. This film was important for me to engage with because of the breaking of the fourth wall and the way this creates intimacy and authenticity for the viewer in order to reveal subtleties within the portraiture/s. It stimulated thoughts and ideas about how to approach breaking the fourth wall in Phoria.
Photographers like Francesca Woodman, Diane Arbus, and Vivian Maier were also influential to my work, as well as theories of photography by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes.
Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, says that “Ultimately — or at the limit — in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes” (Barthes 78). This reminded me of a quote from Ulysses that says, “Shut your eyes and see” (Joyce 173). They are both getting at the fact that the external world around us is an illusion, that truth is subjective and that the meaning and purpose of experience comes from looking within, from shutting ones eyes and truly seeing oneself.
Phoria became a process of looking outward and looking inward, finding the truth in my own experience as I approached others about their experience. I think that I mined subjective truths out of others because I was actively mining it from my self throughout this process. Allowing myself to be vulnerable, thus, knowing how to approach others in their vulnerability. Because I engaged so actively as both filmmaker and participant, Phoria was able to develop in it’s own right without me having to shape and control every aspect of it. Through engaging courageously in vulnerability I was able to expose aspects of the people I photographed (Finn, Beit, Seth, and Colter), highlighting aspects of their personality and experience that they may have not have ever expressed or even known about themselves. This brings me back to Bresson when he says that “The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them” (Bresson 40). By gaining inspiration and influences from theorists, artists, poets, and filmmakers, and engaging whole-heartedly in my subject matter, I was able to actualize an important film that I will share with the world and that will continue to shape me from within.
Two weeks left and I’m still truckin’ -almost at picture lock and then I’ll be working on finalizing sound and mixing and mastering sound in Protools. I’ve been experimenting with mixing around the sections to see what flows the best and how the ending will feel- what audiences will be left to ponder. I find myself turning again to Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography for this final stage before the screening:
“Because you do not have to imitate, like painters, sculptors, novelists, the appearance of persons and objects (machines do that for you), your creation or invention confines itself to the ties you know between the various bits of reality caught. There is also the choice of the bits. Your flair decides.” -pg. 74
This is the stage of the film where my creativity and inventiveness comes in: the various stages of post-production and finalizing each element. I’m hoping that some of my personal “flair” comes through in this process and that I am able to fine tune and perfect to the point where the film begins to really take off on it’s own and become something greater than myself and greater than I could have imagined it being… We will see. For now, I got to keep truckin’
“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” – Borges
It’s a race against time… and pieces of the visual and audio of the film are starting to collide in powerful ways.
I’ve successfully put together an entire rough cut. The next step is to finish up the audio, mix and master audio, and work on titles. I’m thinking for the titles that I want to have everyone write their name in sharpie on a white paper and I will scan them in, work on them in after effects and then use the digital to film printer to print them to film. I’ve decide not to finish on film at this point because of the cost and the time restraint. Showing my film digitally will also give me more time to work on editing and titles. I’m hoping to eventually finish on film and get a married optical sound print when I can raise a bit of money and have more time to send it off to the lab. I’m happy with how the film is coming together and I’m hoping to get feedback on my rough cut and work towards a finished product in the next couple weeks.
A lot has been happening with the film. I’ve been brainstorming to come up with a title. The through line between the pieces seems to be discomfort and dysphoria. Another commonality is vulnerability and beauty. I want a title that will encapsulate both of these sentiments and also speak to the stylistic nature of the film. I’ve been considering the title phoria because it means a manifest deviation of an eye. This film is a lot about looking: spectacle and gaze. It is about non-binary bodies- seeing something you don’t expect to see. phoria to me is also the in-between dysphoria and euphoria- it is a word that encapsulates both these extremes. I’ve also been thinking a lot about how I want to create the titles. I’d like the titles to fit with the grainy 16mm film stock, so i want to shoot them onto film. I’m not sure if I want to create them digitally and then shoot them onto film or if I want to create something material and then shoot that. I’d like there to be a personal touch. I was thinking about having each person electronically write their name to introduce their section of the film. I’m not sure how to do that at this point. I’d need each person to scan and send me their handwritten name. This is a possibility. I’ve shot and edited 4 out of 5 sections. The next shoot will be on Thursday April 2nd with Seth. I’m hoping that I can quickly assemble his section and then create a seamless and thought provoking final edit. I’m still hoping to finish on film, though, I’m not sure if I will have the time or money to do a married optical sound track. There is still a lot to do. I need to make more prints and experiment with more alternative processing techniques. Right now I’m thinking that I’d like to do both mordençage and mono flex, but I’m not sure how these two processes would look together. I want to do small portions of alternative processing for each person’s section. I don’t want there to be too much going on visually, because there is so much going on in the audio already. Things are starting to come together and I’m excited to continue working in the coming weeks.
Over the past week or so I’ve been working on my first edit- just cutting things together, seeing how the material will take on a path / life of it’s own. I’ve been rereading In The Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch. He talks about how cutting is “that sudden disruption of reality” and too much cutting is like “an overactive tour guide.” I think this is especially important for this project. I want there to be a specific kind of gazing at the subjects of the film, one that is activated by the cuts, rather than disrupted by the cuts. I want to give the audience enough time to look upon the subject- to participate in the reality of the film, and cut just at the right point. Because I shot on film there is already a lot of in-camera editing. This is something that I would like to work with- to see the natural rhythm and progression of the roll of film and work with those. I want the progression to move from dys- bad; difficult, to one of empowerment and breaking through that dys-comfort.
So it’s 5:34am. I’ve been pulling a lot of all-nighters or almost all-nighters this month. I’ve made great progress on this project. I’ve shot and processed rolls for 3 out of 5 people and done a rough edit of the first three minutes of the film including audio. Here is the audio so far:
Here are some stills from the 2nd shoot with Finn. I’m getting the transfer of the 3rd shoot tomorrow morning of Colter and will post a few of those. I’ve got down the exposure for the space and the rolls seem to be coming out really nicely now. I’m going to cut pieces to contact print in the next couple weeks so I can do some mono flex and reticulation.
This weekend I’m going to be photographing Beit and my last person, Seth will be here on April 1st. There is a lot to do still, but like I said, a lot of progress being made each day. I’m excited for the finished product and to get more in depth into editing and alternative processes in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.