T Cooper’s debut documentary feature, Man Made, follows the lives of four transgender men as they prepare compete at Trans FitCon the world’s only all-trans bodybuilding competition in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. The competition is open to anyone who self-identifies as transgender male.
Firstly we meet Dominic Chilko (who placed third at last year’s FitCon). The 26 year-old is also an aspiring singer and rapper and talks about his skills seeming to become invisible after as he transitioned. People were impressed by a woman who could rap, he tells us, but not so much by a man.
Dominic has decided to have top surgery and we follow him to his doctor’s office for a consultation and later we’re taken into the operating room with him to observe some of the procedure itself. This isn’t done to sensationalise, but rather to make clear how significant it is for Dominic as he contemplates the life changing nature of his decision. The film explores the emotional impact of his surgery and in a powerful, intimate scene, with his chest still covered in bandages Dominic sees a photo of himself immediately following surgery. Delighted by what he sees, it’s a beautiful, moving moment captured by T, who himself comes on camera to say how touched he was to witness Dominic’s reaction. We meet Dominic’s supportive partner Thea and follow him as decides to look for his birth mother, observing his heartwarming reunion with her.
Next we meet 40 year-old Mason Cunningham from Cleveland, Ohio. It’s his first year training for FitCon and he’s one of the few trans men to compete in mainstream bodybuilding. He opens up about the confidence he has gained from the sport, especially before he began taking testosterone. As well as FitCon, he’s preparing to take part in an Ohio state competition, where nobody knows that he is trans. He’s understandably reluctant to come out to the organisers, having been barred by another local comp when they found out he was trans. We get an insight into Mason’s strict bodybuilding diet needed to maintain 4% body fat, which means he’s not always that much fun to be around for his wife Anne, who talks about the stress of him being “hangry”.
Thirdly we meet Rese Weaver, 32 from Atlanta, Georgia, who took part in but didn’t place in last year’s competition. Rejected by his mother and his church when he came out as trans, Rese is homeless when we first meet him in the film. He talks about the lack of assistance for trans homeless people, saying that he can’t stay in one of the city’s shelters “because they don’t know whether to put me on the male side or the female side, so you’re just out here” and he reveals that he’s told “here’s a granola bar, here’s an orange and we wish you the best of luck.”
Rese has an adorable four year old son De’Montae who is living with Rese’s mother when we first meet him and has taken an interest in Rese’s bodybuilding, we see them do press ups together. Rese met his girlfriend Tia on trans Facebook group and each talk about appreciating having a trans partner, because they can empathise with the other’s experiences. Rese voices concerns about the tragic number of trans people being murdered every year in the US, his fears for himself and his family and opens up and about losing his friend Crystal, who was shot and killed in Baltimore.
Lastly we meet 34 year-old Kennie Story from Conway, Arizona who talks about the appeal of bodybuilding for him: “I felt like I belonged, which is something I haven’t felt in a long time”. He took place in last year’s event and says that the Trans FitCon environment was the first place where he used the name Kennie. His friends fear what the reaction to his changing physical appearance will be in their small town, but celebrate with him at his coming out “it’s a boy T party” where he takes his first shot of testosterone. As Kennie observes that “in a sense everyone is losing a part of their identity” as he embraces his own, we meet his partner of four years DJ, who identifies as lesbian and talks about being concerned that as his physical appearance begins to change she’ll no longer find him attractive.
Always sensitively handled, but never sentimental, Man Made allows us time to get to know these four men up close and personal, and vitally, inside as well as out. All the men open up about the highs and the lows of their lives, and its a privilege to spend time in their presence and witness their stories unfolding. T Cooper, a trans man himself, clearly had their utmost trust and it’s resulted in a special film. In another director’s hands the film might have fetishised or sensationalised its subjects and their experiences, but that’s never the case here.
The final part of the film focuses on the Trans FitCon competition itself and we get to meet the other eight contestants. Although we do care how well the film’s subjects do, because we care about them as people, ultimately the cliché we’re told to make us feel better when we’ve lost has never been truer, it really is the taking part that counts. Preparing and competing has clearly given all the contestants confidence, something to focus on in their lives and a sense of belonging and achievement. There’s a lot of love and support on display for their fellow contestants during the competition and a strong sense of solidarity strengthened by the competitors attending Atlanta’s trans pride march on the same day as FitCon. Man Made is a beautiful, heartwarming doc, that champions the strength of the human spirit, and its well worth seeking out.
Man Made is released Thursday 7th November 2019 worldwide on VOD platforms including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Vimeo. For more information on the film head to the Journeyman Pictures’ Man Made page here and the film’s official website here.