Exclusive Interview: Disclosure filmmaker Sam Feder “Trans people are the experts on their own history & we don’t need anyone talking about us or for us”

In the spirit of the landmark documentaries The Celluloid Closet and Ethnic Notions, Sam Feder’s ambitious, ground-breaking and nuanced Disclosure, which launches globally on Netflix on Friday June 19th, examines over a hundred years of trans screen representation. Covering an impressive range of frequently damaging trans portrayals and storylines, Disclosure takes in Oscar-winning movies like Boy Don’t Cry, The Crying Game and Dallas Buyers Club, TV series like Nip/Tuck and The L Word, as well as examining how trans guests were presented on influential chat shows like those hosted by Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey. There’s also an acknowledgement of the current wealth of more positive trans representation with Daniela Vega’s appearance on stage at the Oscars and the success of Pose, while questioning what that visibility means for trans people in their daily lives. A vitally important and powerful piece of representation in itself, Discloure’s cast of on screen contributors is entirely made up of trans trailblazers who reflect on their personal histories with the work they discuss. Feder’s previous features include the acclaimed documentaries Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger and Boy I Am.

Disclosure filmmaker Sam Feder.

Ahead of Disclosure’s global launch on Netflix The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with director Sam Feder on why he wanted to make the film, the importance of assembling an all trans cast of contributors, the five-part series about trans representation he plans to make and what the work of James Baldwin means to him.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Firstly, before we go on to Disclosure itself, we’re talking the day after J.K. Rowling published her transphobic essay and I don’t want to give her too much of our attention, but I think it’s important to ask you what your response to her is.

“You know, her arguments are just so basic and paper-thin. Jen Richards wrote on Twitter, ‘scratch a TERF, find a racist’. These bigoted arguments are so basic. It’s just laughable in terms of the root of what she’s trying to stir up. It’s sad that she’s taking up a space at a moment where all attention should be on black lives and she’s trying to resurrect conversations that are really long put to rest. That being said I’m not a fan, so I don’t feel it on a personal level like a lot of people do. I know so many people who are just hurt; they really saw her through her work as a hero and they’ve taken it personally. So I feel bad for friends who are experiencing that. But you know, she’s an idiot, and the honest answer is that it’s not at the forefront of my experience right now or my conversations. I’m not paying attention to it, she’s not important.”

Jen Richards in Disclosure. Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix.

Exactly, and I think a good answer to all that is your film.

“Thank you! Yes, and you know Chase Strangio tweeted something really great, saying that if you want to see the roots of some of these ridiculous arguments that she’s presenting watch Disclosure, and then you’ll see how people like her have created these arguments.”

Absolutely, listen to Chase! Let’s move to the film. I believe seeing Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine in 2014, which I remember well, with the title The Transgender Tipping Point, was one of the catalysts for you to make the film. Could you give us an insight into that?

“That was definitely one of the catalysts and there were many overlapping issues that were happening at the same time. There were two documentaries that changed my life, The Celluloid Closet and Ethnic Notions, and I always wanted to see that history for trans people, with the critique and the analysis and the nuance. Then you get to 2014 and Laverne is on the cover of Time magazine and trans visibility is increasing and mainstream society is talking about us more than ever. I wanted to give trans and non trans people more context to understand these changes in our culture, the history and how we got to this point of visibility and not lose sight of the fact that visibility in itself is not the goal, it’s only a means to an end. Having that moment of Laverne being on the cover felt like people were celebrating as if we had met our goal of equality, of liberation and our rights were going to be secured, which we know has not happened, and certainly having one person elevated in the media does not solve the problems of the global trans community. So I knew that there was a lot more to this story than what the public was seeing and I wanted to tell that story.”

Laverne Cox in Disclosure. Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix.

It’s something that’s addressed in the film, as there has been an increase in trans representation there’s also been an erosion of trans rights, and limits on services, and people like J.K. Rowling feeling emboldened to speak out against trans people, and trans murders have continued to be disproportionately high, is there a correlation there, has increased representation led to more vulnerability?

“There’s not a one to one relationship. I would never say that visibility equals more violence, I wouldn’t say that. Though the history of representation certainly fuels the violence, so there needs to be an understanding of what people have seen, because 80% of Americans say that they’ve never met a trans person and that their own experience of trans people is what they’ve seen on film and TV. So when there’s suddenly an increase of real trans people, you’ve seen these images over a lifetime, you have all these images in your memory of trans people not being real, or being villainised, or criminalised or the butt of a joke, so there’s clearly a correlation there, but there are other things at work. The legislative and social violence towards trans people definitely increased when marriage equality passed, that was not lost on us either. People needed a new punching bag and unfortunately trans children are often the target of that violence. Also with visibility people are naming it as such, so there’s just more reporting with visibility, but also increased visibility is an increased recognition, so it’s not a one to one relationship, but it’s definitely one of the factors in the increase of social and legislative backlash.”

Yance Ford in Disclosure. Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix.

One of the things that you cover with the film is that a lot of the clips you include come from films and shows that were made by cis people for a cis audience and I wondered how important it was it to you that your on screen contributors for the film, your talking heads, be trans. Also, I know that there was a commitment to use an all trans crew where possible, with trans people having a mentor on set where it wasn’t possible to find someone trans to fill a position.

“It was essential. Trans people are the experts on their own history and we really don’t need anyone talking about us or for us in terms of our history, and this is one part of our history that hasn’t been told before and trans people are the ones to tell it. The film is based in personal experiences in how trans people have seen themselves, or have not seen themselves, and what that has taught people to feel about themselves. So from the beginning I knew it would only be trans people that we interviewed, and we prioritised hiring trans crew because similarly trans people need to be behind the scenes telling these stories, because there’s a sensitivity that only comes from life experience. We’re at a time when there’s still a dearth of trans stories being told and trans people telling them, so it was essential to prioritise trans crew as well, but when we couldn’t hire a trans person we mentored a trans fellow, hence we had a really incredible trans fellowship on set.”

Angelica Ross in Disclosure. Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix.

Was it always your intention that your contributors would share personal stories along the way rather than it being a purely analytical or contextualising documentary.

“Absolutely, because we connect to personal stories.”

Interestingly, Jen Richards talks about everyone having their own personal histories of trans representation on screen depending on what they’ve seen and when they saw it. How would you describe your own personal screen history?

“You know, there’s not much quite honestly. I think it’s pretty similar to what we see in the film, that it was more of the sort of the tomboy characters that I gravitated towards. I didn’t identify with Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, but that story affected me deeply and scared me and definitely made me disassociate from a trans identity for a really long time. Another big one for me was The Crying Game, and the fact that it’s a beautiful film that I loved so much, and then you get to this scene where the protagonist realises his girlfriend has a penis and he vomits. You know, that was just burned into my brain for so long. Up until this day when I have a romantic interest I wonder if vomiting will ensue when my body is exposed, so those are some pretty fundamental moments for me.”

Marquis Vilson in Disclosure. Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix.

The film persuasively deals with the issues around cis men playing trans women, but something that isn’t explored that much in the film is acclaimed performances by cis women playing trans women like Olympia Dukakis in tales of the City or Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. What are your thoughts on those portrayals?

“There’s so much trans talent that I just don’t understand why trans women aren’t playing trans women first and foremost. And when you think of Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, there’s a scene where she wants her son to realise that she’s trans so she pulls over her car to pee. She stands to pee and her penis is revealed, so her son figures out that she’s trans and it’s just such a ridiculous trope. I am not a trans woman obviously, and I’m sure there are plenty who would not agree with me, but most trans women I know don’t stand to pee and also her penis was so huge in the film, which is just not medically accurate. You know, once you’re on hormones this is not accurate information. It’s so obvious that there was no trans person involved in this story, when things are so grossly inaccurate. So when we have trans talent who can do it just as beautifully there’s just no reason. We have the talent and we know the story will be better when trans people are involved.”

Christine Jorgensen. Disclosure. Courtesy of Netflix.

Were there films or TV shows that you would like to have addressed but didn’t have time to include?

“I love that question and I wish there was a simple answer. I had over six hundred television titles and four hundred film titles, so there were so many that we did not get to address and the ones we chose, we addressed because they came up through individual experiences and personal stories. So that was the driving force for how we told the history.”

And that combined 1000 titles, that was what you had to draw from in total, we don’t get to see that many in the film do we?

“Correct, I’m working on a five-part series so we can include all of the clips.”

Trace Lysette in Disclosure. Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix.

That sounds incredible. A couple of the contributors mentioned films or TV shows that at the time they weren’t necessarily offended by but in retrospect they now are, with Ace Venture: Pet Detective being one example. Was there anything that fits into that category for you?

“Probably The World According to Garp, but again from the perspective of not being a trans woman, so maybe that was why and my perspective might have been different as a child, but I remember watching that movie as a kid and loving it and it’s certainly not one of the worst. The World According to Garp didn’t end up making our final cut, but we did have it in at one point and it’s only the casting that’s really the problem. The writing is pretty good, so that might not even be a great example. So I think the answer is no, for better or worse, I’ve always been pretty a sensitive viewer.”

Mj Rodriquez in Disclosure. Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix.

Did you at any stage consider speaking to any of the filmmakers whose work you cover in the documentary or the actors who appear in their work, just to see how they might view it now in hindsight, especially when it’s a damaging depiction?

“That’s what I want to do in one of the episodes for the series.”

Well, I think the thing is here, that Disclosure is such a powerful piece of trans representation in itself, with all trans contributors, so I’m glad that you didn’t do that in this film and also you don’t blame anyone either. Obviously there’s the funny moment where Laverne Cox says “What’s up Alfred?” about Alfred Hitchcock.

“Yes! I’m glad that’s the closest we come to blaming because it was done with such love and humour. I’m glad you recognised that because it was really important to us to hold people accountable, but without perpetuating the violence, without perpetuating the pain and not to shame anybody. The story had to be told. Often people don’t know what they don’t know, and hopefully now they know.”

Alexandra Billings in Disclosure. Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix.

The film had its world premiere earlier this year at Sundance and has played digitally as part of other festivals during the health crisis, but the film launches on Netflix on Friday 19th, during Pride Month. What does it mean to you for the film to be getting that kind of platform?

“Having a global reach for the messages in Disclosure is crucial and I can’t imagine a better platform than Netflix which has a reach of over 183 million subscribers in 191 countries. One of the things that I love most about being trans is the intersection with every race and gender and economic class and nationality and ability and ethnicity and religion, and so on. You have people from every life possible, trans people are everywhere, and Netflix values that intersection and understands how essential it is to amplify trans voices and especially the voices of black trans people right now. So I’m thrilled to be on Netflix.”

Alexandra Grey in Disclosure. Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix.

Me too, I’m thrilled that it has that platform; it needs to be seen by as many people as possible. Lastly, what’s your favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, book, play, artwork, piece of music, or person – something or someone that’s had a major impact on you & really resonated with you throughout the years & why. Or it could be something current, or both.  

“I think as a teenager when I first came across James Baldwin and the way he addressed race, class and gender so seamlessly in all of his work it was profound to me, so I would have to say James Baldwin’s work.” 

By James Kleinmann

Disclosure launches globally on Netflix Friday June 19th 2020.

Thursday June 18th — Spirit Presents: A Celebration in Honor of Trans Pride, Black Lives Matter, and Disclosure’s premiere. RSVP Here

Friday June 19th — Watch the #TribecaTalksAtHome chat at 12pm EDT with Laverne Cox, Sam Feder, and Jen Richards on Tribeca’s Facebook Page.

Saturday June 20th — Disclosure Premiere Party: #AndYetHereWeAre! From 7pm. More details and RSVP at disclosurethemovie.com.

Wednesday June 24th — Join Frameline, OutFest, NewFest, and Inside Out, who have partnered to create NAQFA (North American Queer Festival Alliance) to usher in Pride with a Disclosure watch party and exclusive talent talkback. 

#DisclosureNetflix Instagram: @disclosuredoc & @samfeder_1Twitter: @Disclosure_Doc & @samfederfilm and Official Website: disclosurethemovie.com

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