Transliteracy and the New Wave of Gender-Diverse Cinema


Author: Akkadia Ford

Abstract

This article will explore the need for transliteracy in relation to reading independent gender–diverse screen texts, with examples from the Trans New Wave of Cinema and advocates a transliterate approach to reading transgender films, embedded within queer and transgender social structures and across media, to provide greater meaning and insight into the films. The article is a first publication of use of the term transliteracy in relation to reading gender–diverse trans films as an innovative theoretical approach.

Keywords: Transliteracy, Trans New Wave, Cinema, Gender-Diverse, Transgender Films.

 

Figure 1 :  New Wave of Trans Cinema - Mr. Angel (Dan Hunt, 2013) Reproduced Courtesy of Buck Angel Entertainment

Figure 1 : New Wave of Trans Cinema – Mr. Angel (Dan Hunt, 2013) ©Buck Angel Entertainment 2013. Reproduced Courtesy of Buck Angel Entertainment

 

Introduction

It is in the movement of literacy ‘across platforms’ (Thomas et. al., 2007; De Montfort University 2014) of crossing borders of knowledge (Anzaldua 1987) and practice, that transliteracy emerges. Useful and relevant to the study of gender–diverse cinema, this article presents transliteracy as an innovative research approach to reading transgender films.

Mr. Angel – New Wave of Trans Cinema

The independent texts within this article are all examples of the Trans New Wave of Cinema (TNW), a term that is applied to independent trans films written, directed, produced and exhibited since 2008. Transliteracy in this article is focused upon reading texts written, directed and produced by independent filmmakers outside the mainstream Studio system, as independence from the Studio System (Hitchman 2013, Part One) is a primary characteristic of all New Waves of cinema. The films are produced with lower budgets (Screen Australia 2012; Directors Guild of America 2011) and the texts have not been recognised by major Hollywood awards – which is a way in which a non–Studio film can become ‘mainstreamed’. It is acknowledged that many well–known examples of films with trans narratives and themes have been produced within the mainstream screen industry, including texts such as The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, USA, 1992); Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, China, 1993); Boy’s Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, USA, 1999); Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, USA, 2005) and recently Dallas Buyers Club (Jean–Marc Vallee, USA, 2013) and Predestination (The Spierig Brothers, Australia, 2014). Boy’s Don’t Cry and Dallas Buyers Club are both examples of independent films that have become  mainstreamed through Academy Award recognition and subsequent wider distribution and theatrical exhibition, however these films are beyond the scope of this article for exegesis.

The term Trans New Wave derives from “The New Wave of Trans Cinema”, which was originally coined by feminist pornographer, sex educator, author and activist Tristan Taormino in 2008, in a Village Voice (New York) article in which the term was first used to describe the surge of transmale and genderqueer (porn) films in the late Twentieth Century, much of which were DIY, grassroots, in response to the rise of trans people at the time. Taormino foregrounded Buck Angel within this ‘New Wave of Trans Cinema’ for securing mainstream distribution and wider recognition for his work, as being “the major exception to this rule” of fellow DIY pornographers whose work was not being widely seen/or distributed (Taormino 2008). Buck Angel continues to be the most widely known filmmaker of the Trans New Wave.

The term references the influential ‘New Queer Cinema’ (NQC), a term coined by film scholar B. Ruby Rich in 1992, which recognised the rise of talents such as Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, Sadie Benning, Gus Van Sant (My Private Idaho, USA, 1991), Gregg Araki (The Living End, USA, 1992) and Australian filmmaker Stephen Cummins — who had premiered his now iconic short masterpiece Resonance (Stephen Cummins and Simon Hunt, Australia,1991) at Sundance that year (1992). The 1992 Sundance Film Festival was an important moment in the history of independent gay and lesbian cinema. Rich served as a ‘Competition Selection Advisory Committee Member’ for the Festival and also was the Moderator and an invited panelist on the first LGBT filmmaking panel that was held during the Festival called “Barbed-Wire Kisses: Contemporary Lesbian and Gay Cinema” (Sundance Institute 2014). The significance of this panel is widely recognised as the beginning of queer cinema and is also discussed in Projecting the Body, the documentary about the life and work of Stephen Cummins by Director Walter McIntosh (Australia 2008).

New Queer Cinema was centred around a small number of now influential texts (including those named above), that were produced/screened at the beginning of the 90s, between 1990–1992. The term gradually expanded to include later films designated more generically as ‘queer’ such as Boy’s Don’t Cry (Kimberly Pierce 1999), which is classed as a New Queer Cinema film (Aaron 2004), although focused upon a trans narrative. New Queer Cinema was not initially a movement, but a term applied by film scholar Rich to an existing body of films that emerged around the same time that were written, directed and produced by gay and lesbian filmmakers. While the homosexual orientations of the filmmakers/film subjects are perhaps the defining feature, New Queer Cinema did not have a formal set of conventions. “The films, as Rich pointed out, had few aesthetic or narrative strategies in common, but what they seemed to share was an attitude” (Aaron 2006, p. 398, Italics added). Rich described the films as “irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive… they’re full of pleasure” (Rich 1992, p. 32) and according to film scholar Aaron “…what binds the group together… is best described as defiance” (2006, p. 398, Italics added). The use of the term “homo porno” (Rich 1992) was applied to the early gay male examples of these films, primarily Poison (Todd Haynes 1991), which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (IMDB 2014) and which involved “appropriation and pastiche, irony, as well as reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind” (White 2013, p. 17). It is the connection between subversive queer films such as Poison and ‘pornography’ that initially characterised ‘The New Wave of Trans Cinema’, through the early work of filmmaker Buck Angel (an award–winning adult entertainment star). Rich’s definitions of New Queer Cinema were simultaneously influential and criticised, including by Haynes, who questioned categorising films as ‘gay’:

People define gay cinema solely by content: if there are gay characters in it, it’s a gay film. If it fits into gay sensibility, we got it, it’s gay. It’s such a failure of the imagination, let alone the ability to look beyond  content….For me it’s the way…that films are machines that either reiterate and reciprocate society — or not” (White 2013, p.18).

Trans New Wave of Cinema

It is a similarly disparate set of ‘characteristics’ that emerge to distinguish trans filmmakers and films emerging since 2008 and that provides the theoretical rationale for grouping these film together as Trans New Wave within this article. The key characteristics identified throughout New Waves of cinema, of filmmaker independence and consequently films with low budget and DIY production strategies, ‘changes in film representations’ (Sellier 2008), ‘energy, irreverence, being unapologetic’ (Rich 1992), ‘defiance’ (Aaron 2006), films unafraid to deal with subversive and marginalised themes, and films with sexually dynamic narratives are all present within Trans New Wave films. These are films that question and destabilise cultural notions of heternormativity, in Haynes’ words, the films may be measured by the way in which they “either reiterate and reciprocate society — or not” (White 2013, p.18).

The Trans New Wave films are overtly linked through filmmakers and/or film narratives which are trans–identified in the broadest non–essentialist use of the term. These films are connected in time, space and place to important ‘changes in culture’ (Sellier 2008), both within the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer (GLBTIQ) communities, in the changing demographic and increasing presence of trans people and within the wider community, in “the increasing presence of trans people at the centre of popular culture” (Bernstein 2014).

The term Trans New Wave is applied within this article in the way outlined above, to independent texts, excluding films that are mainstream, film productions from within the Hollywood Studio system, filmmakers that are not independent and being careful to not include/identify films as Trans New Wave based solely upon the criteria of a film containing trans narratives, themes or characters, being mindful of Haynes’ criticism of ‘gay’ films noted previously and Parmer’s (1993) criticism of grouping disparate films together. The presence of ‘energy’, ‘defiance’ and narratives which question and challenge notions of gender and sexuality are all evident in the films selected.

Whilst New Queer Cinema filmmakers and films were overtly defined by sexuality (gay and lesbian, grouped collectively as ‘queer’), Trans New Wave filmmakers are defined by gender, the films being trans narratives. This, in turn, holds implications for sexuality — including the sexual dysphoria that may be experienced due to gender transition (a thematic explored within two of the texts within this article Trans Boys (Ali Russell and Monique Schafter 2012), in Xavier’s story and also in Sexing the Transman (Buck Angel 2011). Sexuality is central to many of the Trans New Wave texts, demonstrating that gender ‘is rich in real consequences’ (Connell 2011, p.4).

It will be argued that ‘irreverence’, ‘energy’, ‘defiance’, being ‘unapologetic’ and ‘defying cinematic conventions’, rather than being expressions of rebellion, or non-conformity for the sake of it, are by-products of the  affective and creative experiences of non heteronormative artists living on low incomes within a hegemonic, heteronormative society, from within which a queer artist (in this case, trans filmmakers) have no choice but to create a viable alternative, in order to be free. This, of necessity, requires a great deal of ‘energy’, stepping outside the mainstream ‘unapologetically’ – because the person is simply living their life (for which no explanation or apology is required). In ‘defying cinematic conventions’, which in part can be due to the low–or–no budget circumstances of the texts’ production, opens the possibility of the new emerging — at first on screen — but later, more widely, in society, as the films are seen and have the opportunity to become influential texts.

This last point will be returned to in discussion of the documentary Sexing the Transman and how this text has become a transactivist tool inspiring social–cultural changes. The film shares the characteristics described above, it is an independent, low–budget trans film. Director Buck Angel utilises the DIY filmmaking style (camera angles, lighting, sound quality) characteristic of low-budget porn films, to great effect. Using hand-held, digital video camera; filming with a small crew (Buck filmed and edited); with lighting low and audio sometimes uneven; the shot angles alternate between medium close–up and close–up, focusing upon faces, hands and crotch areas (action and reaction shots). These sequences are intercut between conventional documentary scenes, which utilise the traditional technique of interviewing subjects to camera. It is in this combination (and the timing of each component of the scenes), that has led to the film defying genres and being groundbreaking in terms of audience reception. Leung (2004) notes in reference to Third Cinema (which was “…part of the  anti-colonial independence struggles in the Third World in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Third Cinema was first and foremost an engaged and oppositional political cinema…” p. 160) that “The question of sexuality… is one of the most important allegorical vehicles for the representation of power and its abuses” (p. 159). This also appears as one of the most potent representational ‘vehicles’ in current use by trans filmmakers in Trans New Wave films.

The phrase Trans New Wave of Cinema is now beginning to be adopted and circulated in usage amongst some trans filmmakers, queer and trans film festivals as shorthand for the concept (‘The New Wave of Trans Cinema’) and to foreground the currency of the trans aspect of this genre of cinema. There is, however, as yet, no body of literature on the Trans New Wave. This article forms part of original research on this group of filmmakers, providing visibility within the scholarly literature. The urban location of the filmmakers and the political–social–cultural era in which trans people are living and working, have seemed to bring with it a similar world–view that New Queer Cinema filmmakers expressed, this time experienced by trans filmmakers. This echoes the generational shift that has been experienced within the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer (GLBTIQ) community in recent years. Ewan Duarte is an independent filmmaker who has situated his work within the Trans New Wave, with Change Over Time (Ewan Duarte 2013) the creative work for his 2013 MFA thesis at San Francisco State University.

Figure 2 : Trans New Wave of Cinema - Change Over Time (Ewan Duarte, USA, 2013) Reproduced Courtesy of Ewan Duarte.

Figure 2 : Trans New Wave of Cinema – Change Over Time (Ewan Duarte, USA, 2013) ©Ewan Duarte 2013. Reproduced Courtesy of Ewan Duarte.

 

In current usage, Trans New Wave has expanded to include a wide range of contemporary independent transgender films, across genres, themes and styles — from shorts, to documentaries, to animation, to experimental films, to music videos, to features, to films with explicit sexual content — the latter of which are also referenced as docoporn and ‘pornumentary’ (Steinbock 2013) to distinguish the films from hegemonic adult films. These are films with alternative cultural, social and political representations of gender and sexuality, which disrupt dominant (gender–normative) paradigms and counter the hegemony of heteronormativity. It is not just simply about ‘entertainment’. The Trans New Wave films are politically potent and deal with a range of social justice and human rights issues.

Cake Face (Cassandra Nguyen, Aus., 2009); Change Over Time (Ewan Duarte, USA, 2013); Chipper Chap and the Gang in The Escape from Dirty Sanchez (Vincent Carubia, USA, 2011); La Visita (Mauricio Lopez, Chile,  2010); Trans Boys (Ali Russell and Monique Schafter, Aus., 2012) are all examples of Trans New Wave filmmakers across a range of styles and genres.

With a scarcity of trans role models in media, newspapers, or contemporary culture, independent trans films become important sources of self-generated and self-defined role models. Buck Angel has been called a ‘role model’ by many transmen, as an individual who has not only survived a society that still ostracises and excludes transgender people, but who has risen to the gender-diverse challenges of living in the Twenty-First Century and demonstrated that you can be fully embodied as a trans person.

Development of community & identities

How does a film enable literacy into a community ? A text can show images of role-modelling and representation of transmasculinity; in these films cues are provided for how a contemporary transguy lives (how to pass; dress; communicate). The texts have become key to role-modelling and portrayal of affirming images and identities for gender-diverse people.

Figure 3 : The Transgender Journey - Spiral Transition (Ewan Duarte, USA, 2010) Reproduced Courtesy of Ewan Duarte

Figure 3 : The Transgender Journey – Spiral Transition (©Ewan Duarte, USA, 2010)
Reproduced Courtesy of Ewan Duarte

 

The films can also enable a complex journey to be understood. The need for transliteracy in reading these films is demonstrated though texts which utilise specific visual languages relating to movement and “…how transition as a geographic trope applies to transsexual narratives that is, transsexuality as a passage through space, a journey from one location to another” (Prosser 1998, p. 5).

Spiral Transition by filmmaker Ewan Duarte, is a vivid example of a Trans New Wave film which utilises the strong metaphorical connection between movement towards the centre, to symbolise the movement towards the new self emerging through the process of gender transitioning. This journey utilises the spiral, a potent glyph which contains both beginning and end reached through motion, choosing to move to the left or the right, with either way leading to the centre and enabling return. Significantly, all parts of the journey lead to and integrate the next. This also recognises and acknowledges the pre–existant man, or woman that emerges from the process (Prosser 1998, p.114), an autobiographical potentiality that may be written into trans films.

Rhythmic patterns of movement and sound and a use of experimental film styles and visual languages to represent trans desire, are also evident in short film I<Boys (Sarah Barnard 2012). The visual of a transman engaged in exercise (push-ups) and the rhythmic sound of the exercise movements are combined with a voice–over narration that articulates the passionate attraction of partner for the trans lover.

The films become reflexive marker points, enabling transliteracy into a journey to an otherwise unknown destination for those outside, as depicted in the trans road movie The Thing (Rhys Ernst 2012). This 15 minute narrative short film utilises the road movie genre and metaphor to locate marker points for what transitioning will be like. With an underlying ideology of personal autonomy to be whoever a person wants to be – the idea of the ‘self-made man’ (Rubin 2003). The road movie genre is particularly suited to metaphorically representing the transgender experience and journey of transitioning. In The Thing, the landscape (and outside the car) can be interpreted to represent hegemonic society, whilst the interior of the vehicle and the unknown destination may be considered as representing the trans(itional) experience. The open-ending to this film, of arrival at the enigmatic destination – ‘The Thing’ – invites spectator interpretation through the experiential lens of transgender lives, an example of the approach of transliteracy.

A film such as The Thing offers an open-ended answer to the question “…to what “home does the trajectory of transition lead the transitioning subject ?” (Prosser 1998, p.11).

During 2014, the director Rhys Ernst, was featured in a major exhibition at the Whitney Biennale in New York, which also attracted mainstream media attention in the New York Times. With an increase in trans images within culture, there is an increasing need to be literate in reading these images. The New York Times reviewer of Ernst’ show highlighted the cultural importance of this moment :

That a show by two transgender artists should be so prominently featured at the 2014 Biennial should come as a surprise to no one. It is just more evidence of the increasing presence of trans people at the center of popular culture (Bernstein 2014).

Self-reflexive filmmaking

Transgender autobiographies are key modes in self-defining and remembrance. The complex construction of trans identity, of gender and intersections with social background (such as ethnicity, or race); age, ability/disability and sexuality – which may or may not align with preconceived notions of gender, are represented in narrative, experimental and documentary films. A film such as Portrait of Turner (Irene Gustafson 2009), which was made within an academy setting (University of California, Santa Cruz, USA), uses scenes from mainstream films, re–enacted, repositioned and reshaped by Turner, demonstrating the ‘performativity of gender’ (Butler 1990, pp. 140-141). As Turner embodies each character in turn, he reveals and conceals his own identity. The film “…seeks to animate questions of realism and authenticity in relation to Turner’s particular identity (white, southern, middle class, performance artist, female to male transgender) but also in terms of contemporary nonfiction practice” (Gustafson 2009).

This self–reflexivity also includes texts which literalise dreams through uses of the screen space : of finding a new voice; speaking from the place you have always dreamt of being as demonstrated in Aliyah’s Ascent (Rad Young 2010), which follows Aliyah on her journey to fulfilling a long-held dream of becoming a singer.

Translating your journey to family

Film can also be a way of representing an interior journey, that biology is not destiny; that the body that family and friends have known, is not the body that you know. In short animation Dear Dad, Love Maria, (Vince Mascoli 2009), a young male–to–female transsexual Maria, writes a letter to her disapproving father on the eve of gender reassignment surgery, in the hope that it will help him to understand.

The role of family and friends in providing support and understanding is also highlighted in Trans Boys (Ali Russell and Monique Schafter 2012), a significant contemporary Australian film, which is a series of 3 x 5 minute short documentaries, produced to be screened either individually, or as a series in one 16 minute film.

Figure 4 : Aspects of Masculinity -Trans Boys (Ali Russell and Monique Schafter, Aus., 2012)  Reproduced Courtesy of Monique Schafter.

Figure 4 : Aspects of Masculinity -“Trans Boys” (Ali Russell and Monique Schafter, Aus., 2012) ©Monique Schafter 2012. Reproduced Courtesy of Monique Schafter.

 

The film follows three contemporary urban transguys : Xavier, Dex and Danny, on their individual journeys of becoming a man; defining a new sexuality; and into fatherhood. With life-affirming depictions, surrounded and supported by partners, friends and family, the film is important for enabling transliteracy into different stages of a transman’s life.

Transactivism and Acceptance within the community

The complex construction of trans identity and intersectionality of gender and sexuality within indigenous communities presents significant material for transactivist films which is rarely depicted. Burning For Acceptance (Carmel Young 2009) is a 23 minute documentary film which shows how – against a background of social disadvantage and misunderstanding – a trans community of Sistergirls develops in the remote community of the Tiwi Islands, providing safety and acceptance. The Sistergirls’ determination to support each other and to provide a space of hope and celebration within their community is an important insight. This documentary enables transliteracy into indigenous trans/health issues within Australia in an affective way. This may be compared to the difference in insights that are gained by reading statistics of indigenous health issues. Seeing the sistergirls together, strong in their culture, within community are powerful images of resilience. Despite the social, cultural and transactivist significance of this film, Burning For Acceptance received only one public screening, at Queer Fruits Film Festival (2009). This further demonstrates the disadvantage that independent filmmakers work against and that trans cinema is frequently sidelined, even within queer film festivals, for other films.

Latina transgender women are amongst the most marginalised groups in the community, frequently subjected to violence and murder (Silva, Ornat and Chimin Junior 2013; Silva and Ornat 2010; Silva 2007) in many countries. Having literacy into this background, Sisterhood (Mikajlo Rankovic 2011) becomes an even more extraordinary film. In this documentary, Latina transgender women are shown within the setting of a hair salon owned and operated by a transgender woman, who employs other trans women as hairdressers in their everyday occupations as hairdressers. The salon fits within the local neighbourhood in Brooklyn and has customers from all works of life. This is an incredibly uplifting depiction of acceptance within the community and enables us to see that the wider community can be literate into trans lives and the role that film holds in this literacy.

Redefining Genres

Perhaps the most famous of the Trans New Wave filmmakers is Buck Angel, who has repeatedly been called a ‘role model’ by other transguys (Buck Angel in discussion, 2014) and who is cited by Taormino (2008) as ‘the leading figure of the New Wave of Trans filmmakers’. The representation of trans people within mainstream cinema is far removed from the world of Buck Angel in Sexing the Transman (Buck Angel 2011) and from other contemporary trans people, who choose to live and love outside the gender binary of society.

Figure 5 : Redefining Genres - Sexing the Transman (Buck Angel, USA, 2011). ©Buck Angel Entertainment 2011 Reproduced Courtesy of Buck Angel Entertainment

Figure 5 : Redefining Genres – Sexing the Transman (Buck Angel, USA, 2011). ©Buck Angel Entertainment 2011 Reproduced Courtesy of Buck Angel Entertainment

 

Sexing the Transman, his most widely exhibited film to date, is a feature-length documentary (70 minutes) filmed with interview segments with transguys and partners, intercut with short, explicit scenes, shot in DIY ‘porn style’ as noted above. It is a leading example of films within the Trans New Wave. There are seventeen participants in the film (Buck Angel and sixteen interview/participants) (Angel 2014a), including famous queers Margret Cho and Lucas Silveira (Angel 2014b).

An aim of the film is to demystify transmale sexuality and bodies. Queer Fruits Film Festival was one of only two film festivals in Australia that screened the documentary on its first release (QFFF Archives 2012). Since then the film has gone on to receive screenings around Australia in 2014 and is a catalyst for transactivism and for enabling bodily transliteracy into gender diverse films. Through “intimate, in-depth conversations with transmen and those who love them…” (<http://sexingthetransman.com/about/>, viewed 23 June 2014) intercut with short ‘demonstrative’ scenes, transliteracy into a range of social, physical and emotional aspects of transmale sexuality and transitioning is illustrated.

Buck’s work exemplifies “the political strategy of countering stereotyped images with more diverse images of trans sexuality” (Steinbock 2014, p.157) and has been publically acknowledged and awarded (Angel 2014c). Despite the short explicit scenes, the film is not classed as ‘pornography’ or ‘adult film’, which in Australia are films classified as X 18+, a category containing only ‘consensual sexually explicit’ material (OFLC 2012, Part 2). Such films fall outside the ratings which any film festival is permitted to exhibit.

In contextualising Buck’s work and representations of trans bodies within the documentary, gender disruption becomes a key feature. The text destabilises any binary notions of gender and sexuality and ultimately resists the “…cultural impulse to work the body into a traditionally sexed position and to align genitalia (sex) with “true gender” ” (Sloop 2000, p.170).

In respect to the transactivist nature of Angel’s work, one of the things that emerged during fieldwork was the number of emails he receives from young people who are self–harming and suicidal because of not having access to funds for hormone therapy, or surgeries and no family support. This has fueled his transactivism and so Angel is working hard to get his activist/education work into the youth sector, while simultaneously mindful of quarantining his earlier adult film work away from youth. After our last meeting (February 2014, during the Brisbane leg of his Australian tour), research continued, including into the media around his visit, as Sexing the Transman is a major case study film from within my current research project. As a visiting transactivist and filmmaker Angel received much more mainstream media attention to his Australian visit than he generally gets in other countries (with USA emerging as a hostile country to his work).

Trans culture is moving so fast that Sexing the Transman has inspired a series of follow–up films and a new generation of trans filmmakers. The original film that was publicly screened at Queer Fruits Film Festival (and not the later adult versions) is the version referred to in this article. Sexing the Transman has screened at twenty-eight independent film festivals around the world to date (Angel 2014d; as of 9 March, 2014) and has not, as yet, received a theatrical (cinema) release or distribution deal, distribution being directly from the filmmaker, via Buck Angel Entertainment. Self–distribution is a strategy employed by many independent filmmakers, otherwise unable (or unwilling) to be distributed by a third–party and is also a strategy for circumventing classifications processes. In the case study of Angel’s film, self–distribution was the most viable option to enable his film to reach screens.

Sexing The Transman is distinguished through the converging points of the contribution to the emerging diverse representations of trans that are being produced with the Trans New Wave and for enabling transliteracy into a range of physical, sexual and affective experiences of gender–diverse people.

The Transliteracy that Emerges From These Films

Use of transliteracy as an innovative research approach in relation to reading gender–diverse films is driven through awareness that Trans New Wave filmmakers create screen texts of the transgender world(s) according to their own needs and transforming languages. There is a need for transliteracy in relation to reading these independent gender–diverse screen texts, embedded within queer and transgender social structures and across media, to provide greater meaning and insight into films. This is because the texts contain narratives sited within gender diverse communities, which have their own languages. Barton and Hamilton (2000) highlight the point that “There are different literacies associated with different domains of life” (p.10, italics in original). Films which are written, directed and produced by trans people are at the centre of cinematic knowledge  production on trans and hence, accord with Stryker (2006), highlighting the centrality of transgender experience : “Transgender studies considers the embodied experience of the speaking subject who claims constative knowledge of the referent topic, to be a proper — indeed essential — component of the analysis of transgender phenomena…” (p. 12). These independent, gender–diverse films serve as exemplars of “that form of  representation” alluded to by Hall (1990, pp. 236-237), that can constitute new kinds of subjects, from a place of “embodied experience” (Stryker 2006, p.12).

The need to utilise new forms of literacy to focus on independent texts is because gender–diverse communities are not generally represented by the mainstream and mainstream texts may not represent gender–diverse and transgender people in appropriate ways, or understand the diverse languages they use.

The successful reception of Sexing the Transman internationally demonstrated an educational need for this film and a responsive and appreciative audience for Buck’s work. It also demonstrates the transliteracy into gender–diverse lives that can emerge from reading a text in context to the cultural situation of production.

Summary

Reflecting upon the challenges of ‘translating’ the narratives and imagery in transgender films to a wider audience brought an awareness that discussion of independent films that readers have not viewed raises some issues in textual analysis. Use of existing genre conventions, thematic narratives and connecting the specifics of the visual languages within the Trans New Wave films to the cultural situations of production enables transliteracy into the texts. This is because formal textual analyses may still overlook (or, misinterpret) gender-diverse texts if separated from the ‘queer time and place’ (Halberstam 2005) of production.

Films are produced as public texts seeking an audience; whether this be through screening at a film festival, theatrical release, broadcast on television, or direct access via online video on demand (VOD) services, or social media. Publication of a film text provokes engagement with the subject, inviting reading and interpretation, requiring new uses of literacy. In some examples, texts may also transform the viewer. The audience is always present in the production of a text and is not a passive observer. These texts deserve literacy in reading as gender-diverse cinema is increasingly produced, providing socially and culturally embedded temporal spaces for self–representation and visibility of trans lives. The necessity for respect and recognition of gender–diverse communities and the significance of Trans New Wave films is of consequence in contemporary culture. The effects of misunderstanding, lack of tolerance and hatred directed towards trans people and the continued production of mainstream texts with transphobic and stereotypical trope–driven narratives such as Dallas Buyers Club (Ford TBA) and Predestination, underscore the importance of independent trans films and transliterate readings of the texts.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the independent Trans New Wave filmmakers, Buck Angel, Ewan Duarte, Ali Russell ad Monique Schafter, who have given support and granted permissions to reproduce film materials. An especial thank you to Associate Professor Elizabeth Stephens and to Dr. Erika Kerruish (Southern Cross University) Supervising my PhD, for generous feedback and support. Thank you to Professor Baden Offord (Curtin University) for encouragement and feedback on a draft of this article and earlier Supervision.

Thank you to the School of Arts & Social Sciences at Southern Cross University for funding support to attend and present the original paper at the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia (CSAA) Intermezzo Symposium : Cultural Studies and the New Uses of Literacy, University of New South Wales, 04-05/04/14 and to the Intermezzo organisers for a scholarship to attend.

Postscript

This article is dedicated to Mayang Prasetyo, who was murdered in Brisbane, Australia, in October 2014 and to the local trans community who spearheaded protests of the media outlets which reported this tragedy in  inappropriate and denigrating ways, revealing how endemic and damaging illiteracy into gender-diverse lives is within contemporary society.

Figures

1. Mr. Angel (Dan Hunt, 2013). Reproduced Courtesy of Buck Angel Entertainment.
2. Change Over Time (Ewan Duarte, USA, 2013). Reproduced Courtesy of Ewan Duarte.
3. Spiral Transition (Ewan Duarte, USA, 2010). Reproduced Courtesy of Ewan Duarte.
4. Aspects of Masculinity – Trans Boys (Ali Russell and Monique Schafter, Aus., 2012) Reproduced Courtesy of Monique Schafter.
5. Redefining Genres – Sexing the Transman (Buck Angel, USA, 2011). Reproduced Courtesy of Buck Angel Entertainment.

Copyright notice : all film stills have been reproduced in this article with kind permission the original copyright holders.

Filmography

Trans New Wave

Aliyah’s Ascent (Rad Young, Aus., 2010)

Burning For Acceptance (Carmel Young, Aus., 2009)

Cake Face (Cassandra Nguyen, Aus., 2009)

Dear Dad, Love Maria (Vince Mascoli, USA, 2009)

Change Over Time (Ewan Duarte, USA, 2013)

Chipper Chap and the Gang in The Escape from Dirty Sanchez (Vincent Carubia, USA, 2011)

I Heart Boys (Sarah Barnard, USA, 2012)

La Visita (Mauricio Lopez, Chile, 2010)

Portrait of Turner (Irene Gustafson, USA, 2009)

Projecting the Body (Walter McIntosh, Australia, 2008)

Mr. Angel (Dan Hunt, 2013)

My Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, USA, 1991)

Resonance (Stephen Cummins and Simon Hunt, Aus., 1991)

Sexing the Transman (Buck Angel, USA, 2011)

Spiral Transition (Ewan Duarte, USA, 2010)

Sisterhood (Mikajlo Rankovic, USA, 2011)

Strap ‘Em Down ! The World of Drag Kings (Ann P. Meredith, USA, 2002)

The Living End (Gregg Araki, USA, 1992)

Trans Boys (Ali Russell and Monique Schafter, Aus., 2012)

New Queer Cinema

Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, USA, 1999)

My Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant USA, 1991)

Poison (Todd Haynes 1991)

Projecting the Body (Walter McIntosh, Australia 2008) (note : this is a documentary about the life and work of Stephen Cummins and the film Resonance,
hence included under NQC)

The Living End (Gregg Araki, USA, 1992)

Resonance (Stephen Cummins and Simon Hunt, Australia, 1991)

Mainstream

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee, USA, 2013)

Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, China, 1993)

Predestination (The Spierig Brothers, Australia, 2014)

Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, USA, 2005)

 

References

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About the author

Akkadia Ford is a PhD Candidate (Cultural Studies, School of Arts & Social Sciences, Southern Cross University) and is a trained filmmaker, establishing and working as Festival Director of Queer Fruits Film Festival (2009-2012). Current areas of interest are focused upon transgender representation in films, queer film, gender disruption, film festivals, audiences and issues of spectatorship.

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