Thursday 7th November 2019 saw the world premiere of Karen Bernstein’s feature documentary I’m Gonna Make You Love Me at the 10th DOC NYC in New York. The film paints a fascinating, deeply personal portrait of Brian Belovitch. Assigned male at birth, in the 1980s he went on to live as an Army wife-turned-glamorous party girl named named Tish, and later, Natalia Gervais. She ruled New York City’s downtown nightlife scene, was photographed with the likes of Grace Jones and Andy Warhol at Studio 54, and performed at clubs with her friend Michael Musto. In the late 80s, after more than a decade as a woman, Tish transitioned back to Brian. We meet Brian, now in his sixties, as the film artfully weaves archive footage from his personal archive, with talking head interviews and classic film clips to create a compelling, often movingly reflective account of his life.
Ahead of the film’s world premiere The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Brian Belovitch and I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’s director Karen Bernstein.
James Kleinmann: Karen, how did you first get to meet Brian and when did you decide you wanted to tell his story as a documentary?
Karen Bernstein: “We met back in 1993. Brian was invited by a mutual friend, a woman I was dating named Amy, to my birthday party which was in downtown Manhattan in July of 1993. That’s when I first met him and Amy hadn’t really told me that much about him or the story of Tish. Then maybe just a week or so later Amy asked me to accompany Brian to drive his car to his driver’s test, because he’d never had a licence as Brian, he’d always just had a licence as Tish or Natalia. So I agreed to this and we promptly got lost in Brooklyn. Of course nobody had GPS at that point and it became this incredible odyssey of getting lost and having Brian narrate this story of his life as Tish, Natalia and specifically about sex work. I became completely entranced, because although we’re of the same generation more or less, I think Brian’s a little older than me, we’d had such different lives. We had both lived out our lives as being queer, but in very different ways and I just instantly fell in love with Brian and I was completely intrigued by the story Natalia, of Tish.”
“At the time I had been working for a series at PBS called American Masters, which specialises in arts and culture biographies. It wasn’t exactly appropriate for that series because they tend look for more famous individuals, but I knew that I wanted to make a film about it some day and the rest is history. We’ve been very close friends ever since and my relationship with Amy kind of broke apart, but we all remained friends and I just kept in touch with Brian and he seemed to extend this trust to me which I was amazed by and really touched by. I just always had a very comfortable relationship with him. Both in a filmmaker sense and also as a friend. Brian, and now with his husband Jim, have always been the kind of people that you could just spend time with and feel almost immediately at home with, there’s never a lot of pretence.”
Brian, Karen mentioned the trust that you have for her and that was one thing I wanted to ask you about. First of all, what was your reaction to the idea of a film being made about your life and why did you feel you could trust Karen to make it in the right way?
Brian Belovitch: “I had already established a really great relationship with Karen anyway. I had a lot of trust in her ability as a filmmaker. She’s done an incredible amount of work, which has always been really just terrific, she’s supremely talented in that way, so I had that trust and confidence that she would do a great job. I think also the trust that we developed becoming friends, back in that car…! I remember that day very clearly, for the driving test, I think it was kind of foggy and raining and we were kind of going around the block and then around the block again and we were just yapping away. I think it was a lot easier given that we had already established that trusting relationship. Although I have been very anxious about the whole process all along the way. Even though I have a lot of faith in Karen and in the amazing crew and in the people we worked with, it’s still anxiety-provoking for me too. I was at the DOC NYC party last night and someone said to me ‘boy, you must be really feeling a lot of different things putting yourself out there that way’ and so yeah, there’s that part of it too.”
Brian, we see some great archive footage of Tish in the 80s in the film. Did you intentionally keep a lot of videos and photos, and in a sense did you feel like you were archiving or was it just what you happened to have around still to offer to Karen for the documentary?
Brian Belovitch: “It’s funny you should ask that because I did do that, but it ended up being for the wrong reason. When I was Tish I was extremely sought after, photographed incessantly, everyone wanted to photograph me which was great for my ego and I have amassed a huge archive of photography and video. There’s always been a part of me that’s like ‘wow, someday this will make for a really great project about Tish’ and then when I was living as trans I always thought ‘well, someday I’ll be notable, or people might appreciate me having this’. So it kind of worked out well that way, but I never anticipated that this would be the outcome of my hoarding of those things.”
Karen Bernstein: “Hoarding is the operative word!”
Brian Belovitch: “Yes! I have a huge archive of letters and video and postcards and contracts. It’s like I was collecting the stuff of Marilyn Monroe, or some famous icon like that!”
Karen Bernstein: “Usually on these documentary films you have to hire an archivist or an archival researcher or you become your own archival researcher, it depends on what the budget is like. On this film, Nevie Owens my fellow producer and I would always say we saved so much money by having Brian as part of the team because he has a whole archive. He knew about the archive too, like he would send us clips and say ‘oh, look what I found, a clip on YouTube of me and Grace Jones at Studio 54’. We’d be like ‘uh, well that’s saved us some time!’ So it was really quite wonderful, really splendid on so many levels in that I never had to do the kind of digging that I would’ve had to do on say a film about Richard Linklater. There weren’t the months spent on trying to hunt everything down.”
Brian, you mentioned being photographed a lot as Tish, could you tell us a bit more about you memories of New York in the 80s and performing and give us a flavour of life as Tish.
Brian Belovitch: “One of the first people that I ever modelled for has gone on to become a very famous photographer, Steven Klein, and I modelled for him when he was a RISD student. I remember I was just a kid doing that photo-shoot with him and thinking ‘wow, this is really great that someone wants me to do this’ and I remember feeling so insecure and so ugly and so awkward during the whole process but once I saw the images I felt ‘wow, this guy made me look really beautiful’ and that maybe there was something to this and so it encouraged me to step outside of my shell a little bit.”
“I was doing the things that a lot of trans women today just sort of do, without maybe thinking too much about it, but for me back then it was not something that trans people did very easily, I think.”
You mean in terms of how visible you were as a trans woman and performing?
Brian Belovitch: “Yeah, I was trying to carve out a career as a performer and as a model. I modelled for Antonio Lopez in the 80s, he was a huge fashion illustrator and artist, but I wasn’t really out as trans, it was sort of like on the down-low, because if people knew it would’ve probably have elicited a different kind of response back then.”
Karen Bernstein: “It was also against the backdrop New York in the 1980s. Certainly for me in the early 1990s New York was a very different place then to what it is today. What Tish was doing, and later as Brian, was a form of almost performance art or street art that you don’t – and probably I will get slammed for this – but you don’t see that as often in New York anymore. I think in many ways the people who love this documentary also love it because there’s a sentimental sense of New York as a place, it’s no longer there. And I don’t think there are too many cities in this country that have that sense of being able to create your own identity and do it on kind of a meagre salary, if any salary at all, and live cheaply in Brooklyn. Brian and I both lived at various times in parts of Manhattan which are completely different now, I mean they bear no resemblance to the way it was in the 1980s.”
I love that bygone New York aspect of the film too, in the archive footage trying to work out where it was filmed or where the photos were taken and how different it looks now. Brian, could you talk a bit about what the reaction was to you telling people that you were going to re-transition, as you call it in the film, at the time and also how people react today when you talk to them about it.
Brian Belovitch: “Well, back then James people really freaked out. Luckily I was in an environment of people and friends that were very supportive and loving. My good friends and people that knew me, they were more accepting, but even those people I’m sure were taken aback. Michael Musto talks about being gobsmacked by it in the film, he was like ‘what?!’ People thought that I had really lost my mind. And there wasn’t a whole lot of support for making a decision like that back then either. In 1987 or so I started to re-transition and there wasn’t a whole lot known about that subject and so I just kind of made my way. I did the best I could and I did have support of people, but there was also some backlash and there was backlash from some of my trans women friends who I’d been friends with for years which I’ve spoken about publicly and I wrote about it in my book too. That was very hurtful for me at the time because it felt like I was being kicked out of the tribe, being banished, like I’d committed some horrible adultery and was walking around with a scarlet A on my back. It was kind of that dramatic. But over time and with all the progress and information and the Internet and the changing of the times and trans people becoming more visible and society becoming more knowledgeable about the trans experience it has become easier. In fact Karen sent me out to San Francisco to the National Transgender Health Summit and I did a presentation there. It was with a completely younger generation of the trans community, therapists, psychologists and students and the response was really overwhelming. They were so incredibly interested and wanted to know about my process and they really wanted to understand how it was that I had come to some of the decisions that I had made in my life. So it was very supportive and I have a lot of support today around this issue as well. It’s very different today. It still needs some improvement, but we’re getting there.”
Karen Bernstein: “The whole notion of gender fluidity is something that wouldn’t have even been an option certainly when Brian became Tish back in the 70s. The idea of binary was so instilled and it wasn’t until the early 90s that people even talked about that as an option. I remember it was starting to be talked about a little bit more then. And what was considered to be fluid was like being bisexual, I guess, it was kind of a misnomer, you know.”
Brian Belovitch: “Yes, exactly, I think Karen has a good point that this fixed idea about gender has really transformed along with the progress that we’ve made around some of the choices that people are making about their own gender identity. I love that where we’re moving towards is a world where gender is understood to be fluid and it’s not fixed and that gender is a destination, but for some people like myself its also a journey and it’s non-binary and I feel like I’m so lucky because I inhabit the best characteristics of both genders you know.”
Karen “You do!”
Brian Belovitch: “And in my life, with my lived experience in both worlds, I feel like I’ve got a leg up on most people in that sense. I am a self-proclaimed expert on gender just from my experience in another person’s high heels, another person’s shoes, it has given me so much more than the average person could even imagine, the perspective I guess is what I’m trying to say.”
Karen Bernstein: “My son and I recently had the opportunity to hang out with Jim and Brian for a day last summer in New York, and Brian as you were getting back on the ferry at Governor’s Island I was behind you sort of climbing on this ladder and I saw you swish and I thought ‘Oh my God, there’s Tish!’ It was this wonderful moment of realising ‘there she is, I see her’. I don’t think you meant to do it at all, but you definitely did a Tish swish!”
I thought the film conveyed that really well Brian when you were talking about as a young gay man you felt you were having a hard time and that it might be easier as a woman and then you experienced misogyny and the difficulties of being a trans woman. There are very few people who have had that experience.
Brian Belovitch: “Yeah, I’ve also experienced the sexual harassment, the whole #MeToo stuff that has come to light within the last few years. I experienced that as a trans woman. I mean men experience that too of course, but women more so I think when it comes to sexual harassment.”
Karen, was there any concern as you set out to make the film that some people could use Brian’s story to say ‘see, it was a mistake to transition’?
Karen Bernstein: “No, it wasn’t at all. As we had just finished the rough cut, as a filmmaker you like to start to show it out very gingerly to certain other filmmakers and people just to get a read on it, and strangely enough it was only at that point that we started to get a reaction like that. For the most part everyone was very supportive of the story and they liked the film and they had some very constructive comments, but then we also started to hear from a few specific people things like ‘had you ever considered interviewing other trans people, people who had made the transition and are completely happy in it and will not go back?’ I had to think about that and I think it was particularly hard for Nevie Owens our co-producer and editor, because she has a good many friends who are either raising trans kids or are transgender themselves. I think she thought about it a little more than I did, and we had to have a really long talk about it and I did consider whether we should bring somebody else in and finally I just said ‘no, this is one person’s story’. It’s one person, two different lives perhaps, maybe more depending on how you want to count it, but I am not making a polemic here, I’m not making a political film. Although it always feels like one should give equal measure to both sides of a story, I don’t feel like this is that kind of film and it’s not the kind of film that I wanted to make. So we dropped it. So it hasn’t been a giant issue, but it certainly is something that has poked it’s head up and I suspect probably will again.”
Brian Belovitch: “On that point, I had lunch the other day with my friend that I met at the transgender health summit who is the chair of transgender studies at Victoria University in Canada and they have this trans archive that covers the world. First of all, he was saying that what he loves most about my book, he hasn’t seen the film yet, was that it was not political and that it was not a polemic and that it was just so refreshing to have a story as complicated as mine not be political. And I was like ‘wow, that’s like a blessing from the Pope’. I felt so happy that he remarked about the story in that way and he actually invited me to come in April to do a talk at the college there which I’m probably going to take him up on. People want to goad us and make this a political statement, but I’ve really avoided that. I’m the last person that’s ever going to tell anyone what I think they should do, I’m not going to get into that.”
Karen, I know you admire Jonathan Caouette’s brilliant film, Tarnation, could you talk about the influence of that on I’m Gonna Make You Love Me? And also the beautiful way that you use classic film clips in the documentary to illustrate the story.
Karen Bernstein: “One always tries to find ways of telling stories that match the person, or at least in my case I like to try to find a style which lends more panache to the biography itself. As interesting as Brian is, if it was just talking head, clip, talking head, clip throughout, it’s very hard to make that kind of film. I’ve seen it done before, but I think it’s a terrifically hard thing to do just as simply as that. We did think that one of the things that people are going to want to know about in Brian is the confusion in his own mind, when you conjure up memories and this really is a sort of memory play, it’s a memory piece in many ways. There are so many conflicting images that come with that and that’s part of the reason that I love Tarnation, Joathan Caouette’s film, because he’s drawing from pieces of archival film, he’s drawing from photos, he’s drawing from graphics. What I felt was fascinating about that was that it was representational of the sort of influences and the erratic nature of what goes through our minds. In any one given moment there isn’t a singular thought, it’s always complicated with a lot of the things and memories, the lint trap of daily life. I wanted to express that visually and just provide a little insight into what I felt may have been going on in Brian’s mind or in Tish’s mind as the case maybe, even though I never met Tish. And the remarkable thing is I didn’t really talk to Brian about this, that would’ve become really complicated if I’d started to get his input on it, and so this really was a filmmaker’s decision. That’s why Nevie and I called it ‘flights of fancy’ and the amazing thing was that when I finally went to Brian kind of in a confessional way and said ‘well, I’m thinking of using clips from these movies’ and I remember Brian’s reaction which made me so happy, he was like ‘absolutely, I love that movie!’ I’d chosen Sophia Loren because I felt that if I were Tish that’s probably who I would be basing my body image on and I chose various other movie clips and he remembered them all, you know the whole Bette Davis clip, he said ‘yes! I remember seeing that movie with my mother.’ So it was actually reflecting reality without me intending it to.”
Brian Belovitch: “In my mind I was Sophia Loren! Definitely”
Karen Bernstein: “Her or Jane Russell, right?”
We always like to ask the people we interview if they have a favourite LGBTQ film that resonates with them or has meant something to them over the years and why.
Brian Belovitch: “One of my favourite films of all time is Imitation of Life, by Douglas Sirk. It’s starring Lana Turner, and Sandra Dee plays her daughter and she’s a single mom trying to be an actress raising this little kid and she meets an African American woman on the beach in Coney Island who’s homeless and she takes the woman in and the woman has a daughter the same age as Sandra Dee and she’s very light skinned so passes as white.”
Karen Bernstein:“It’s fascinating Brian, wow, that you would pick this.”
Brain – “It’s one of my favourite films because I always felt like I was something other. The otherness was really what I resonated with as a little kid and I would watch it over and over again and cry and cry and cry every single time and it’s a heart-breaking melodramatic epic in scope. It’s wonderful, I love it so much. So that would be my first choice. It’s a fabulous film, oh my God I love it.”
Karen Bernstein: “Well, I would have to tip my hat to my old friend Lisa Cholodenko. I think that High Art is probably the film that I love the most, released in 1998 I think. It’s just a very well made film and an indie film and very well written, but it was also the first LGBTQ film that I saw that didn’t make a big point of being LGBTQ. It was just people who were in relationships and that wasn’t the primary part of the plot, it wasn’t like Personal Best where everything hinges on this relationship or so many other films where they made a big point of that. It was just people of my ilk, some of whom happen to be lesbian, but telling a very smart creative story above and beyond that.”
Brian Belovitch: “One of my favourite LGBTQ movies is Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie en Rose, I love that. About the little boy that wants to be a girl. Wonderful, that’s one of my favourites if I had to pick a queer film, I’d pick that. I just love so many it’s hard to name a favourite but those two stick out.”
I’m Gonna Make You Love Me will have its world premiere at America’s largest documentary festival DOC NYC in New York this Thursday 7th November at 7.20pm at Cinepolis Chelsea, with further screenings on Monday 11th Novemebr at 9.40pm at Cinepolis Chelsea and Thursday 14th November at 3pm at IFC Center. For more information and tickets head to the official DOC NYC website. Brian Belovitch’s autobiography, Trans Figured: My Journey from Boy to Girl to Woman to Man, was published in 2018 by Skyhorse, ISBN 978-1-5107-2964-3.