The past year has seen an explosion of transgender stories on television, whether it's the blunt-soft edges of Amazon's "Transparent" or Caitlyn Jenner's somewhat ill-fated E! reality show.
Independent film now has joined in with its own takes. Sundance saw such movies as the minority-inflected "Kiki" and the Lena Dunham-produced tailor-shop tale "Suited." And at True/False this weekend, the subject is coming to the fore in a most compelling way, with four highly human characters.
The Missouri gathering, arguably the country's most prestigious documentary showcase (more on its proceedings shortly), on Friday premiered "The Pearl." Directors Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca spent several years with a group of trans women in rural Washington state as they go through significant gender changes after many years of torment, silence and shame.
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Focusing very intimately on its four characters, the movie's big hook is that which a scripted filmmaker could barely create: Two of the personalities, Krystal and Jodie, were brothers who, for years, were each gender-fluid unbeknownst to the other.
"Pearl" tracks the quartet's efforts to restart their public lives as women after years of being men, husbands and fathers. (One was married for 46 years and began to transition only after her wife died.)
In Krystal and Jodie's case, that also meant learning about each other. After the screening, they talked about how, growing up, they each would hide their female clothing in different places in the house, fearful the other would find it.
The moment was a metaphor of sorts for the trans community and its accompanying larger challenges of life in darkrooms (along with the peace that comes with illuminating it). Like many of these new works, the larger message in "Pearl" is one of acceptance, of both the social and internal kind. "There's a feeling of being whole I just hadn't experienced before," said one of the women, Amy, after a surgical procedure.
Yet the film also offers a different kind of close-up at trans identity. The camera is up tight in the women's lives — cooking at home, dancing in a bedroom on vacation — in a way most films rarely have the patience to do. And an operating-room scene with Amy reminds that, no matter how groundbreaking some of the commercial television efforts have been, there are still places they won't go.
"Pearl" employs the radical immersion style favored by a number of young modern documentarians on display here — "Weiner," "Thy Father's Chair" — which means it lays off not only on talking heads and background material, but also can be light on context and relevance.
But if the movie isn't always a fully polished piece of filmmaking, it offered a reminder, as many do, that the form can uniquely help new groups be understood. It's part of why a Q&A after the screening — held in a church, incidentally — stretched on for half an hour and became a kind of theater-wide group therapy session, the audience's eyes almost all opened simultaneously. At its best, documentaries allow you to know your neighbor, in Albert Maysles' famous coinage, and there are few contemporary groups more suited to that dictum than the transgender community.
"The only thing transgender people want to do is live their lives," Crystal said after the screening, when someone asked how non-trans people can become allies in their cause. "If you accept us, that's all we need." Sometimes a disadvantaged group needs a major political movement. And sometimes it just needs a well-appointed documentary.
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