Over two decades after her award-winning documentary Gendernauts: A Journey Through Shifting Identities premiered at the 1999 Berlinale, filmmaker Monika Treut returns to the festival to premiere Genderation, which sees her reconnecting with the pioneering trans, gender-diverse, and sex positive subjects she encountered in San Francisco in the late 90s for that film. With many of the original participants having moved away from the city, there’s a poignant looking back to what San Francisco once was and what it meant to them at that time in their lives. Partly a nostalgic lament for the loss of the city’s vibrant artistic LGBTQ+ community, out-priced by the tech boom, the film expands to give us an insight into the lives of Treut’s Gendernauts now.
Among the subjects that we’re reintroduced to is the author of the memoir The Testosterone Files, the transmasculine Max Wolf Valerio who says that he views being trans as a form of “radical individualism” rather than trying to change society’s perception of gender. While Stafford says that when he meets people who aren’t part of the LGBTQ+ community he will only tell them that he is trans once they begin to appreciate and rely upon him, an approach he refers to as “guerrilla marketing for trans people”. Shot in the midst of the Trump presidency, Stafford talks about the administration’s “goal to erase trans people”, “hacking away at medical care, employment rights, and the rights to use a bathroom”. He recalls that at the time when Gendernauts was shot, he was surrounded by a “queer community” in San Fransisco that “was huge and tight and finely woven” but that the city is “all about the money now”, while his social life has migrated online to Facebook. Meanwhile academic, author, and performance artist Sandy Stone talks in detail about the unexpected virtual relationship she fostered with a man that became a longterm in-person one. As she introduces us to her nuclear family, that’s simultaneously alternative and all-American, she says that her existence within that close-knit and loving extended unit counters arguments which she’s encountered that trans people can’t experience such a family life.
Elsewhere in the film, gender theorist Susan Stryker discusses the stigma attached to being trans in the 90s, but notes that the queer community and “the gender scene” of that era in San Fransisco was “a really special place, where people were ripping up identities and culture” and that it “felt really exciting”. As she gives us a walking tour of the city as it is today, along with her partner of three decades, Styker points out what she amusingly refers to as the “tech bro moderne” style of painting San Francisco’s formerly characterfully colorful properties a drab and soulless shade of dark grey. As in the recent documentaries, Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker’s The Lady and the Dale, Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s No Ordinary Man, and Sam Feder’s Disclosure, Styker’s words are some of the most compelling and insightful in the film. In one section Stryker urgently talks about identity being “the ground where we struggle with each other” within the LGBTQ+ community “rather than struggling against the system that’s attacking us, those “horizontal hostilities” that leave us factionalised. While the film’s subjects are of course all twenty years older than when we last saw them in Gendernauts, Treut gives us a sense of the emerging generation of young trans and gender diverse individuals, as we briefly meet some of the attendees at a conference that Stryker is speaking at.
Another of the film’s most engaging subjects is former porn star and sex worker Annie Sprinkle, who at one point refers to San Fransisco as “the clitoris of the United States” (the tourist board needs to use that in a campaign). She’s an artist, advocate for sex worker rights and maker of “eco sexual” documentaries, like Water Makes Us Wet, with her wife Beth Stephens. Sprinkle believes that “the beauty of nature can be incredibly erotic” and that “the Earth is more trans than anything else”. With fewer spaces for the LGBTQ+ community in the city these days, Annie and Beth frequently open up their home as a cultural hub. Having survived breast cancer, we join Sprinkle as she goes on a bucket list whale watching trip, which proves to be a moving scene with some beautiful footage that put me in mind of Swankie’s speech in Nomadland, recounting her experience coming across swallows and pelicans while kayaking. The sequences in both these films capture the sense that such encounters with nature are so precious that they make life worth having lived. Genderation has several similarly poignant moments throughout as Treut’s subjects contemplate their lives, not only looking back and at the present, but also looking forwards as they prepare for their old age.
With subjects this fascinating and articulate, wisely Treut gives them an elegantly simple framework to talk within. Generally the filmmaker keeps herself off-screen, with the occasional, sparing use of voice-over, but her warmth and curiosity is evident from how comfortable and forthcoming her participants are with her. The contemplative cityscapes and landscapes threaded throughout the film create breathing space for this powerful and uplifting queer communion of intimate conversations to unfold, being witness to it feels like sitting in a quiet corner with all the most interesting guests at a party.
By James Kleinmann
Genderation premiered at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival.