Even though there's been exceptional breakthroughs in filmmaking for the queer and trans community, disrupting the gender binary is still an immense task.
“There’s more and more space opening up for queer stories,” Em Weinstein says. They’re a young film director with a pair of short films under their belt, one of which just snagged one of the top honors at LA’s Outfest, “now we just have to make sure that door stays open.”
Weinstein's work, while not exclusively queer, tends to focus on queer themes and stories. They see the way forward through a holistic approach; it’s not enough to hire a single diverse person to be in front of the camera. To combat tokenism, and be truly inclusive, Weinstein says that we need to get folks behind the camera, in front of it, and in charge of the story itself.
With trans directors there are always questions surrounding how and why someone is being shown on camera. Bodies, specifically, are often at the forefront of trans stories, whether trans people want them to be or not.
As a nonbinary film director, this work is more important than ever. “We feel out of place,” they say, explaining what it’s like to be the only person on set who identifies as trans, “because there is no place. Hiring people behind the camera to help craft the picture of who you’re representing in front of it gives your story a better chance of being honest...A more authentic and careful view...It’s about empathy.”
When asked how to make the industry more inclusive, their answer is the same. Hire trans people to work on trans stories. Inclusion, they state, has to go beyond actor, writer, director. Hire make up artists, producers, gafffers. “Really, if we’re making a film about trans people, or starring trans people, the person in charge of hiring should be trans,” they say, “someone who can put people where they need to be.”
With their Grand Jury Prize win at Outfest for In France, Michelle is a Man’s Name, Weinstein hopes to upset the status quo. Trans people are often highlighted in film to create trauma for a cisgender audience. Weinstein points out that trans people can just be characters. They can be heroes. Their gender struggle doesn’t need to be on display in order to create drama or in order to tell real stories. “It takes better films and better content,” they say. “It takes more films about us, by us.”
Gender is a social construct, invisible, much like air, until you realize you’ve been breathing it in your whole life.
This film was personal for Weinstein in a few ways. Outfest, Weinstein says, was like a homecoming. The film was shot in rural Oregon, an area Weinstein remembers fondly, having spent their summers there during their childhood. The film reflects a love of landscape, a deep appreciation for the northeast, something very different from the coastal elite vibe that people often connect with transness and filmmakers. The main actor, Ari Damasco, also happens to be Weinstein’s best friend. “I wanted to write a story for him,” they explain. “Not an autobiography of either of us, but a story of transness and family acceptance that neither of us had seen before.”
The good thing about a festival like Outfest is that because it is an inclusive, but niche, audience, the queer experience is never tokenized. It’s one of the few festivals that doesn’t feel like it limits the number of trans films it features each season. Many festivals are still run or helmed by primarily cisgender white men, and Weinstein admitted that it’s sometimes hard to make a movie not about a cis white guy and still have it appeal to cis white guys. To go to Outfest with a film like In France can feel like giving back to a community of queer, revolutionary creators.
To combat tokenism, and be truly inclusive we need to get folks behind the camera, in front of it, and in charge of the story itself.
“The silver lining about having festivals go digital is that it’s more accessible to a wider audience, and gives more exposure,” Weinstein says while talking about Outfest. “The pandemic is blowing up what a festival is, and turning it into something more approachable.”
Weinstein is primarily a theater director; in 2017, as a student at the Yale School of Drama, Weinstein directed the first workshop production of Slave Play by Jeremy O' Harris. Backed by this junction of transness and theater, I asked Weinstein if they felt they used the camera differently than a cisgender director.
“Everyone uses the camera differently,” Weinstein said, “with my background in theater, I focus on the actor and their stories. I don’t really have an impulse to manipulate the shots too much. It’s about emotional arcs and character.”
When Weinstein takes the camera, they take power away from gender codices.
With trans directors, they go on, there are always questions surrounding how and why someone is being shown on camera. Bodies, specifically, are often at the forefront of trans stories, whether trans people want them to be or not. Weinstein mentions that when they were filming the scenes within a strip club, some people wanted more nudity in order to portray a “realistic” experience. They shut down the idea fast, mentioning that it wasn’t about morality, it was about the story, about how gender dynamics play into what is and isn’t put on camera, and where the camera is at any point in time.
“I’m not interested in femme nudity,” Weinstein said firmly. “It doesn’t matter. If I had asked those queer strippers to go on camera topless it would have said the exact opposite of what I wanted to say.” This film is, at its heart, about masculinity.
Trans people's gender struggle doesn’t need to be on display in order to create drama or in order to tell real stories.
As the main character, played by Damasco, realizes when he returns to his hometown, gender is hard to unpack. It’s deeply ingrained in society, and so deeply believed in that it’s difficult to even define. Gender is a social construct, invisible, much like air, until you realize you’ve been breathing it in your whole life.
When Weinstein takes the camera, they take power away from gender codices.
“I hope, as a storyteller,” Weinstein explains “to sow seeds of doubt in the audience. To get them to question gender, and tend to the ability to look at gender as something we barely understand. That gender, and the gender binary, in particular, needs to be argued.”
I asked, maybe not as gentle as I could have, how Weinstein might respond to cisgender folks who want to tell trans stories.
“I think it comes from a misplaced desire to be a part of the conversation, more than anything else,” Weinstein says, “everyone is always worried about running out of stories, but in this case there’s so much room for collaboration. If you’re a great writer you don’t need to write a story you don’t know anything about.” A cisgender person writing about a trans experience is always going to be drawing from another person’s experience, not their own.
If I had asked those queer strippers to go on camera topless it would have said the exact opposite of what I wanted to say.
They take a deep breath.
“There’s so much room in the film in the industry for storytellers. It’s not about shutting people down; it’s about making sure that the people who have lived through that story get the chance to tell it.” It’s a delicate balance between ownership and collaboration. And now, with Weinstein’s win at Outfest and a full slate of festivals showing In France, Michelle is a Man’s Name, it’s more obvious than ever that trans storytelling is changing, and Weinstein is intent on holding the door open behind them.