Final Reflection: “Shut Your Eyes and See” : The Complexity of Trans Identity in Phoria 

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.

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